'The Angel of Mostar' - An Interview With Humanitarian Sally Becker
A powerful keynote speaker, Sally Becker has spent 25 years helping innocent victims of war. She became known as 'The Angel of Mostar' after she evacuated injured children and their families from the besieged city in Bosnia in 1993, and she has been helping injured children and rallying support for those in crisis ever since.
In 2017, Sally returned from Mosul in Northern Iraq, after risking her life to bring injured children and their families to safety. When asked about her mission she said it was the most shocking she has ever experienced.
We asked Sally about the conflict in Mosul, as well as what's next for her in her ongoing mission to help innocent victims of war.
Hi Sally. You've just returned from Mosul. Can you tell us about the situation there?
In 2014 I heard news of the genocide of Yazidis and other religious minorities in Iraq. Thousands of people were killed by ISIS militants or died on Sinjar mountain while trying to escape. Many women and children were captured and enslaved and hundreds of thousands were driven from their homes. I was asked to help some of the children who were unable to get medical treatment in Iraq.
What was it like during the battle for Mosul and going into the Old City as the fighting intensified when you realised that the injured there could not get out?
We were going into areas which had just been liberated, where people hadn’t seen a doctor for more than two years. We were literally treating sick kids from the back of our ambulance. Some could be helped with antibiotics and paracetamol but if they were seriously ill we took them to the nearest hospital.
As the Iraqi army pushed further into the city, we drove to the mustering point, less than half a mile from the front line where men, women, and children would arrive exhausted, unable to go on. We began by driving them back and forth to an area where they would be safe.
"Of all the conflicts I was involved in, Mosul was the most shocking."
But as the fighting intensified inside the Old City, the injured could not get out so the only way to help them was to go in and get them.
Every day from morning till night, we drove through the narrow streets searching for the injured and taking them to a makeshift clinic where they could be stabilised before being taken to hospital.
In the final weeks of the battle to retake Mosul we managed to rescue about 260 people from the war zone, including many injured children and our paediatrician treated around 100 children each day.
How did this mission compare with others? Did you expect it to be so dangerous?
Of all the conflicts I was involved in, Mosul was the most shocking. I have been in Mostar’s old city where many buildings were destroyed and Grozny after the Russians flattened [Freedom] Square. But the destruction in Mosul was even worse.
Can you share some of the stories of the civilians you rescued?
East Mostar, Bosnia 1993:
I was taken to the basement of a hospital in the besieged city of Mostar where six badly injured children were in desperate need of help. Amongst them was 10-year-old Selma who was injured by a rocket propelled grenade when she and her younger brother sneaked into the back yard to play. The doctors only had enough anaesthetic for one of the children so they had to choose between Selma and her younger brother who had lost part of his foot in the explosion. Selma insisted they use it for him so they had to remove her arm without anaesthetic. I was able to evacuate the children to safety and Selma and her family were flown to the United States. In 2009 I got an email which read ‘Hi Sally-It’s Selma”. She was getting married and I was invited to her wedding.
In 1994 I flew by helicopter to a besieged area in Central Bosnia called Nova Bila. There were 28 injured children and their mother's waiting to be evacuated. One of them was a 12 year old girl called Maria. She was severely injured in an explosion which killed her father. As the helicopter prepared for take off Maria's mother, a Catholic, lit a candle and said a prayer. I never forgot the sight of the children's faces in the candle light and later I painted the scene from memory. Twenty years later I was contacted by Maria. She had seen the painting online and recognised her mother, who had recently died.
How did the corporate speaking begin?
I first began speaking to audiences in 1993 when I was trying to raise funds to help innocent victims of war.
Which event has been your favorite and why?
I was organising a humanitarian aid convoy to Bosnia. Amongst the 270 volunteers were men and women from the fire and rescue services, doctors, nurses, former soldiers, office workers and truck drivers. The day before leaving Britain, I had to deliver a briefing on the forthcoming mission. I began by giving them some background to the conflict and what the mission would entail. That particular talk was probably the most challenging because, while I needed to keep them focused on what we were hoping to achieve, I also had to stress that we would be travelling through a very dangerous area where their lives would be at risk.
If you could speak at any event, past or future, what would it be?
I would like to take part in an International Conference for Peace.
What are your most frequently requested speaking topics?
I use my experiences to help motivate people by showing that with initiative and determination virtually anything is possible.
As most of my work is focused on helping women and children, I have many stories to tell. For example in 1998 I was helping to evacuate a group of sick and injured children and their mothers across the mountains in Kosovo when we were ambushed by Serb paramilitaries. The rest of the group managed to escape into the forest but I stayed to help a woman and two children who were caught in the crossfire. We were eventually captured and I was sent to prison.
Schools and Colleges:
When I talk to young people I tend to focus on some of the children I have helped. For example I talk about a mission to rescue Selma, an amazing 10-year-old girl who was severely injured during the conflict in Bosnia and how 17 years later I attended her wedding in New York.
What do you do to ensure your presentation has a lasting impact?
I try to adapt my presentation according to the audience, whether it be Corporate, Womens’ Organisations, Religous groups or Colleges and Schools. I have a large selection of photographs to illustrate each mission and although war is the backdrop to my presentation, there is always an element of humour in my stories and I try to end with something positive, such as carrying the Olympic flag with Mohammed Ali.
Tell us, what's next for you?
I will continue trying to help sick and injured children fleeing from areas of conflict.
Thank you, Sally. We wish you luck with all your incredible work.