By Rolene Marks
When the call comes in, they are prepared. Often dispatched to the furthest corners of the world, wherever disaster strikes, this team of Orthodox Jewish men who all volunteer their time to do the sacred task of returning the remains of those who have died, are ready for this most solemn duty.
This is ZAKA.
The name ZAKA is derived from the Hebrew: זק”א, abbreviation for Zihuy Korbanot Ason, Hebrew: זיהוי קורבנות אסון, literally: “Disaster Victim Identification”. The full name is “ZAKA – Identification, Extraction and Rescue – True Kindness” (Hebrew: זק”א – איתור חילוץ והצלה – חסד של אמת). The Jerusalem-based organisation operates with a specially trained team of volunteer paramedics and search and rescue professionals who are on call 24/7, ready to respond in the fastest possible time to major international mass casualty incidents, wherever they may occur.
ZAKA‘s extraordinary assistance at major international terror attacks such as those in Mombasa, Istanbul and Taba as well as numerous natural disasters like the 2004 tsunami and Hurricane Katrina have resulted in official recognition from the United Nations. In 2005, the UN officially recognized ZAKA as an international volunteer humanitarian organization, one of only three from Israel that enjoy this status.
This official recognition enables ZAKA to offer emergency assistance even before the official delegation has left Israel, or the host country has formally asked for help. ZAKA assists countries that have no formal diplomatic ties with the Jewish State. When a plane crashed in Namibia in 2014, ZAKA helped with recovery efforts and trained the local forensic police – this despite no formal ties between the two countries.
ZAKA also trains emergency response teams in local communities worldwide, including South Africa and this was evident recently in Ethiopia.
On March 10, 2019 just six minutes after take-off from the capital Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Airline flight ET302 crashed, killing all 157 crew and passengers from 35 different countries.
When the team of highly trained volunteers in South Africa got the call, they mobilized immediately. The close proximity to Ethiopia meant they were able to assist their colleagues from Israel in doing the unimaginable – finding and identifying human remains. ZAKA will go to the ends of the earth – literally- to help recover the remains of Israelis and bring them home for burial. They also assist in the recovery of victims from other countries, bringing relief to anxious families.
In Judaism, death just like is sacred. For the volunteers of ZAKA, there is no more holy task than returning the remains of loved ones to their devastated families to ensure that they are buried with dignity.
For the families of the late Shimon Reem and Avraham Matzliah, the Israelis who were on board the tragic flight, the wait has been excruciating. The endless waiting for news adds to their trauma. Every second counts and each detail will carry a critical clue about what happened to their loved ones. The importance of cooperation with officials is crucial – families deserve answers and the opportunity to begin the painful process of grieving. Jewish religious law dictates that when a person dies, they need to be buried as soon as possible.
These highly trained ZAKA teams who are equipped not only with the necessary skills to do this often grisly task but also with empathy for the families and the souls of the departed. Members of ZAKA South Africa, who were on site, spoke movingly about how the teams gathered at the crash site and along with the local Chabad Rabbi, intoned prayers for the dead.
The situation on the ground in Ethiopia has been particularly complicated. Delays in access to the crash site have created tremendous frustration with those responsible for recovery who is working against the clock.
The ability of ZAKA to navigate tragedy – as a disaster, the trauma to the families affected and the delicate political nuances – are part of what has gained them international attention – and support.
The extraordinary efforts of this humble team have also garnered the support of Christians around the world who have started their own organization called Christian Friends of ZAKA.
In a quiet and modest way, this exceptional global network of volunteers with their heart situated in Jerusalem, prove time and time again that whatever the situation and whenever the call comes in, they are prepared for anything that tomorrow may bring.