Lending the Afghans a hand
JAN 30 — We arrived in Yadkawlang in the evening after travelling for several hours. Yadkawlang is a small village in Bamiyan province.
The Malaysian troops (MALCON ISAF 2) were due to conduct a blood donation drive and also to fit a water filtering system at the village well. When we arrived at the location, which was a school, another group from MALCON ISAF 2 was already there and had set up tents for the day’s event. They had arrived several days earlier and had been staying at the Yadkawlang base.
A group of villagers had already gathered and the commander was informed that the local mullah, Ali Muhammadi, had also arrived. One of the mullah’s men rushed inside the school block to call him.
When the mullah came out, the commander greeted him and they proceeded to brief the crowd that had gathered. The main reason the mullah was involved is to convince the villagers that what the Malaysians came here to do is for the benefit of the village.
The local Afghans are actually very apprehensive about foreigners and I can only guess that it must be due to the decades of oppression they have faced from the foreigners that have invaded their country; from the British to the Russians and now the Americans.
So it was important that MALCON ISAF 2 implement the proper strategy if they wanted to penetrate and help the local community.
But Malaysia didn’t really have much of a problem, as I have mentioned before. Being Muslim is a big advantage for MALCON ISAF 2. According to the locals, seeing the troops enter the mosque and pray alongside them makes a lot of difference when it comes to trust and acceptance. And seeing that female doctors were amongst the Malaysian troops, many women also showed up with their children.
With the assurance given by Mullah Ali and also the fact that we were Muslims, the blood donation drive went very well. People were turning up throughout the day to donate blood. Speaking to several of them, I found that they seem to realise that by donating blood, they were actually helping to save fellow Afghans who needed blood in the hospitals.
While the blood donation drive was going on, several of the troops started on the water filtering system at the well. The group, led by Major Dr Mohamad Arshil Moideen, had already done tests on the water in the well several weeks ago and the tests had shown that the water contained high levels of e-coli bacteria, which can cause various intestinal diseases and also infant meningitis.
The system devised by Major Arshil and the rest is actually quite simple and easy to do, yet is effective in purifying the water. All that was needed were rocks and sand — both easily available in the Afghan environment. A large group had gathered around the soldiers and as they assembled the filter, Major Arshil briefed the crowd, through the interpreter Farid Ahmadi, on how the system actually worked.
The crowd, of which Mullah Ali was also a part of, listened intently with some even nodding their heads. After about half an hour, the filter was done and the mullah was invited to have a taste of the water that had gone through it. He did and immediately nodded his head in approval of the new taste of the water! When they saw him nod, everyone decided that they had to taste it too.
At the end of the day, Major Arshil came up to me and we had a chat. Apparently, it is very hard to convince the villagers to use a filter. They might use it in the beginning but will eventually forget to maintain it and then not use it altogether. They may be aware of the e-coli bacteria but to them, if they aren’t dying from the water, then it must be safe to consume.
“What they don’t realise is that the mortality rate for children under five years old in their area is extremely high, and it is directly related to their water supply,” he explains.
After the blood donation drive and installation of the water filtering system at the Yadkawlang school, we decided to spend the night at the Yadkawlang base together with the second group. We still had other villages to visit and for safety reasons, the commander didn’t want to travel at night. I agreed.
The weather was cold and I contemplated whether to shower or not. The base camp was rudimentary. The rooms were wooden shacks and the toilet was a box in the ground. The only decent building was the kitchen and mess hall. But of course it was adequate.
Indoors, it was warm. The only problem was that you had to walk outside in the cold to get from the rooms to the bathroom, mess hall and toilet. None of the buildings were connected. Decision made… will shower the next day.
Once the day was over and all the soldiers were at camp and relaxed, it was obvious that they enjoyed their work and also each other’s company. Even I was pulled into the tight camaraderie that existed. They cooked together, ate together and played together. It reminded me of my boarding school days. Except in boarding school, there were more pranks going on!
I hung out with one of my security detail, Corp. Mohd Saiful Karim, as he and several others were enjoying a game of cards. They were playing “speed” and asked if I wanted to join in. I beat Capt. Dr Juhanis Safira Johari in record time and told them I was withdrawing since none of them stood a chance against me. They just scoffed at me.
“I joined the army because I love adventure!” said Capt. Juhanis.
“So are you having an adventure right now?” I asked.
“Of course! I also come from a military family so it’s in my blood. And since the Malaysian Armed Forces conduct a lot of medical missions, being a doctor, I get deployed a lot.”
“Have you been on any other missions?”
“Yes, I was in Minoso, Western Sahara, last year.”
“What is it like being a woman and serving in the Malaysian Armed Forces?”
“Honestly, there are many challenges, especially in Malaysia where gender equality is still an issue. It’s always tough when men have to take orders from a woman. But you know, I have no problems accepting the challenge!”
Then I walked outside where some of the men were sitting around having teh tarik and smoking cigarettes. Major Arshil was amongst them and I sat next to him. He is 33 years old, the same age as me, and he was also a product of a fully-residential school system when he was younger, just like me. So I felt like I could identify with him. He was also the one I spoke to the most, from the time before I arrived in Bamiyan and when I arrived.
“I don’t smoke back home. But I do here. It’s the stress!” he laughs.
“You don’t have to explain, bro. I’m not judging!” I laughed too.
“I’m glad you’re here Zan. It’s very rare that the Malaysian media and the Malaysian public ever get to see what the Malaysian Armed Forces are doing.”
“I’m glad too.”
“You know, I’ve encountered Malaysians who think that we’re being very unIslamic and unMalaysian because we’re here in Afghanistan. They think we’re fighting and killing fellow Muslims. But we’re not.
“As you can see, we’re not even a combat contingent and this is not a combat mission. We may be here as a part of NATO and the US military. But this is the only way for us to come in here. Like it or not, we need to work with the system in order for us to help our fellow Muslims.”
I nodded in agreement before we all retired for the night.
Stay tuned next week for Part 9 of Zan Azlee’s “Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite.” View videos of his adventures here.