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Afghanistan: U.S., Romanians Trying To Get Health Care To The Poor

By Ron Synovitz

Medical experts from the U.S.-led antiterrorism coalition treat hundreds of impoverished Afghan civilians every week. But mobile medical teams that deliver medical aid to Afghan women have to be sensitive to the cultural traditions of the country's male-dominated society. RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz traveled with one of the medical teams in southern Afghanistan and filed this report.

Kandahar, 11 March 2004 (RFE/RL) -- When a team of U.S. and Romanian medics arrived at the bombed-out remains of a Soviet-era military housing complex in southern Afghanistan, it took only a few minutes before they were surrounded by a horde of sick Afghans.

Two buildings in the complex were targeted by U.S. laser-guided bombs in late 2001 when they served as barracks for the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Now, not a single window remains in the building, and the cold nights of winter have had a disastrous impact on the health of the returning refugees and internally displaced Afghans who now shelter there.

The red cross on one of the arriving U.S. medic vehicles is a signal to the 500 impoverished Afghans who have adopted the bombed-out buildings near Kandahar airfield as their home. The offer of free medicine and examinations by qualified doctors brought out dozens of burqa-clad mothers and their children.

Local Afghan militia fighters sent the mothers to wait inside one of the bombed buildings so they wouldn't interact with the U.S. and Romanian security escorts. Then they corralled the sick children into a waiting line while the chief medical officer, U.S. Army Captain Brad Frey, examined them on a table outside.

The uncle of one baby held the crying infant while Captain Frey dispensed medicine into her mouth with a plastic syringe. Frey spoke to the child through a translator speaking Pashto: "Hey! That's not bad at all, is that?" The baby's uncle nodded as the interpreter translated Frey's instructions on how to administer more medicine in the coming days. He left clutching a bottle of the medicine and a plastic syringe.

A medic nearby, U.S. Corporal Trenton Peterson, reached into two large metal boxes to take medical supplies for the next patient. "This is [medicine] for the [medical civil affairs program]," he said. "We've got all the basic stuff here -- pain relievers, antibiotics, cold [medicine], bandage-changing [materials] -- and we also have some dental kits [with toothbrushes and toothpaste] to give to the kids."

One patient was an 8-year-old girl suffering from an upper respiratory infection. Her uncle, Shah Mahmud of Ghazni, told RFE/RL that the work of the medical team is a blessing for those living in the Soviet-era complex. "This is a very good thing. We are very happy and can only be thankful that the coalition forces, the Americans, are coming here and giving us free medicine," he said. "We are very frail and poor people. We are in need of a lot of these kinds of things. This is very important to us. It is a very good thing. Yes, it is very good."

Captain Anka Roman normally works as a personnel officer for troops in Romania's 280th Infantry Battalion, which is garrisoned beside U.S. troops at Kandahar airfield. It is her gender and her English-language skills that make her critical to the success of humanitarian efforts like this.

The local militia commander at the bombed-out buildings only reluctantly allowed a male interpreter to help the Romanian women communicate with the sick Afghan women. And the Afghan women seemed intimidated by a uniformed militia fighter who brandished a rubber hose and struck the children with it if they strayed from the waiting line.

Roman says the lack of a female Afghan interpreter makes it difficult for the team to talk openly and honestly with Afghan women. "We use [another] interpreter [to translate from Pashto to English]. I translate from English to Romanian and from Romanian to English. The primary problem for us is the Pashto language," she said. "It is a little bit difficult because we have to use a male as an interpreter. The women want to speak with us more, but they can't do this because they are shy or they have some problem with communication [when there is a man beside us]."

Roman said the health problems she sees beneath the burqas of the Afghan women are typical of poor people anywhere, but also are complicated by their all-encompassing garments. "They have some problems like weakness of the muscles, general pain, and problems with worms. That's a real problem here. And also, they have problems with skin infections," she said. "The main problem is with clothing, because if they have something covering their face, it is very difficult for the women to show their faces to us."

Members of the civil affairs mission said they are deeply disturbed by the treatment of women by the allied Afghan militia forces. But they say it is necessary to respect those tribal traditions in order to deliver their humanitarian aid.

Some say they hope conditions will improve for women when the security tasks now conducted by the local militia forces are taken over by an Afghan National Army -- a multiethnic Afghan force which will answer to the authority of the central government in Kabul.

Copyright (c) 2004. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.

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