Sally Becker, the Jewish charity worker dubbed the “Angel of Mostar”, has formed the world’s first mobile, battle-ready unit focused entirely on saving children in the world’s conflict zones.
Ms Becker, who earned her nickname after saving the lives of hundreds of children on all sides of the Balkans war in the 1990s, created the eight-person team in response to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Mosul, where an estimated 350,000 children are trapped as US-backed Iraqi forces try to take the city back from the terrorist organisation Daesh.
Speaking from the outskirts of Mosul, in earshot of explosions as black smoke billowed behind her, she said: “The unit’s mission is to provide critical, frontline paediatric medical relief. Nothing like this existed before.
“Around 6,000 people have been injured in Mosul since October, and half of them are children. Many have lost their limbs because they didn’t get appropriate medical care in time.
“If a child is in need of urgent medical help, we go. If a family is trying to leave the city with a disabled child, we go. It’s about 18km from Mosul to the nearest field hospital. A woman cannot cross the city alone with her children, so we go.
“This is an incredibly skilled team, all trained in advanced field medicine and highly experienced at operating in areas of conflict,” she said.
Ms Becker, who is originally from Sussex and was a flag bearer with Mohammed Ali and then-UN chief Ban Ki-moon at the 2012 London Olympics, added: “The plan is to help the children until the battle for Mosul has ended and then to deploy to other war zones around the world.”
Eastern Mosul was recaptured from Daesh in January after a US-backed offensive was launched in October.
Little more than two months into efforts to retake the western part of the city, the humanitarian crisis has worsened. Routes into west Mosul have been blocked for months, and food, water and basic supplies are running out.
Around half of the 750,000 people in west Mosul are children. They face being killed by artillery and explosions or snipers if they attempt to flee.
Daesh snipers now target children regularly, and reports have emerged that the terror group has kidnapped almost 200 children to use as human shields.
Ms Becker has also teamed up with Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem, which has offered to help some of the children in need of specialist paediatric care.
Professor Eitan Kerem, who heads the paediatric hospital at Hadassah, said: “Unfortunately, as Israelis, we are unable to be part of Sally’s team on ground, but we are committed to providing our expertise and experience for these children.
“Hadassah is looking forward to receiving children from Mosul and we’re proud to collaborate with Sally on her important humanitarian mission.”
Ms Becker’s unit comprises two volunteer doctors, a nurse and elite former special forces personnel from the UK, US, Italy and Iraq.
She has also set up a medical unit at the checkpoint, a few kilometers from the front line, and has been holding clinics among the burned-out buildings.
“We had to wear armour at times due to our proximity to the fighting, which makes everything harder, especially in the heat,” Ms Becker said.
“As fast as the doctor treated one child, another was thrust into his arms. After examining them and dispensing medicines to those he can help, he kisses each child before handing them back to their mums.
“These women have spent two years living under Daesh, unable to see a doctor when their kids got sick. So having this kind and gentle man telling them that their child will be fine is incredibly reassuring for them.”
Funding for the mission has come entirely from donations to Ms Becker’s tiny UK-based charity, Road to Peace. A $40,000 donation from a US lawyer recently bought her unit the use of two armoured vehicles and an ambulance for one month.
“They provide a great deal of protection. We recently crossed the Qayyarah Bridge, which just a few days ago was attacked with VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices), suicide bombers and small arms,” she said.
“We treat children at the checkpoint and evacuate sick or vulnerable kids from the front line using the armoured vehicles. We also have access to a helicopter. The problem is cost, but it can make the difference between life and death.”
She added: “This is basically what I was doing in Mostar all those years ago, but instead of being alone as I was then, I now have experienced drivers, armoured vehicles, satnav, two-way radios and a medical team at my side.”
Ms Becker, who grew up with stories of the Holocaust, watched as the horror of the Balkans conflict unfolded on her television screen and felt “utterly compelled to help”.
She said her life changed after entering the basement of a hospital in East Mostar in 1993 to find “Dante’s hell” in the makeshift children’s ward.
Since her time in the Balkans, her campaigning on behalf of children and other victims of war has been relentless.
Since 2014, she has worked extensively with children of Iraq’s Yazidi population, which Daesh has sought to exterminate.
“Whether they’re Yazidi, Christian Muslim or Jewish is irrelevant to me. They are kids in need of help,” she said.