Bringing medical aid to the most dangerous place in the world: Refugee Relief International is working to set up basic health care in Afghanistan

The Ottawa Citizen
Saturday, October 27, 2001
Page: B7
Section: Saturday Observer
Byline: Levon Sevunts
Dateline: DUSHANBE, Tajikistan
Source: Citizen Special

DUSHANBE, Tajikistan — When Forrest Smith left Afghanistan in 1988 after travelling with a band of Afghani mujahedeen behind Soviet lines, he made a promise to himself to never come back.

“But here I am,” Dr. Smith said yesterday, sitting in the lobby of Hotel Tajikistan in Dushanbe, waiting for a plane to take him to Fayzabad, in the rebel-controlled northeast of Afghanistan.

Dr. Smith, 62, a retired U.S. Special Forces surgeon, clad in traditional Afghani dress, the trademark Afghani beret and a black vest with a multitude of pockets and pouches holding everything from water filters to toilet paper — the special forces “escape and evasion” gear — drew curious glances in the crowded lobby.

Dr. Smith said he and six of his colleagues hope to get into Afghanistan to help organize a rudimentary health-care system.

He works with Refugee Relief International, a small non-governmental organization trying to bring health services where no other NGO would go.

“We bring medical aid as close as possible to where it’s needed,” Dr. Smith said.

For Dr. Smith, who has a private medical practice in Pleasanton, California, near San Francisco, that has meant travelling to some of the most inhospitable and dangerous places on the planet.

He has been to Central America, been in the Burmese jungle seven times helping the Karen minority, which fights the military dictatorship in Burma, and he was in Rwanda in 1994.

Now he thinks all that experience could serve the people of Afghanistan.

Organized about 25 years ago, the RRI developed the concept of a “barefoot medic program” in Burma, Dr. Smith said.

“It involves training some of the most bright and educated locals in basic medical procedures,” Dr. Smith said. “We supply them with a medical kit and conduct regular classes.

“I think that program would be ideal for Afghanistan.”

Dr. Smith said that most of the RRI’s volunteers are Special Forces veterans like himself.

“We are probably unusual for an NGO because we understand the military situation on the ground,” Dr. Smith said.

But understanding what is happening on the ground in Afghanistan doesn’t add much to his optimism about the prospects of the U.S. war on terrorism.

“If my own country has a strategy, I can’t see it,” Dr. Smith said. “I’m afraid our president has bowed to public pressure to do something without a clear plan.”

Dr. Smith said it would be foolish to think that U.S. Special Forces could win a guerrilla war in Afghanistan.

“They don’t know these people,” he said, referring to the Afghans. “When I saw these people in the 1980s, I knew that the Soviets were just wasting their time and their blood.”

Short of massive occupation that even the United States cannot afford, there is no way of winning such a low-intensity war, Dr. Smith said.

But Dr. Smith, whose son is a cadet at a military college in Virginia, wants the war to be over soon.

“I would rather not see my son go through that.”

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