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Indian UN vet treats animal victims of Lebanon war

VETERINARY SURGEON: Amal al-Nimr flips a goat on its back in her muddy farmyard in south Lebanon to show the Indian vet how the shrapnel wound in its leg is healing.

Lieutenant-Colonel Parasanali Bapu, the only veterinary surgeon serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), applies iodine to the stricken goat, another casualty of Israel's recent war with Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

When Nimr complains her animals have grown skinny since the conflict, Bapu supplies deworming medicine.

"Because of the stress of the war, the worm load in the stomach increases. Whatever the animals eat, the worms also eat," the vet explains.

Even before the war, Bapu's free treatment and medicine were in huge demand among the poor farmers and shepherds in these remote southern pastures, near Lebanon's border with Israel and Syria's Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"We have seen a lot of death and destruction," he says, estimating that about 60 percent of the animal population was wiped out during the 34-day conflict that ended on Aug. 14.

"People didn't know the war would go on so long. They left their animals and nobody was able to look after them," he says, striding through farmyards in a smartly ironed uniform, oblivious to the manure splashing onto his polished boots.

"Some died in the rubble, some fell prey to wild animals, some died due to starvation. Those that survived were emaciated. Suddenly after the war they started diarrhoea and all the gastro-intestinal diseases," the 43-year-old vet adds.

Nimr, a voluble woman in a red tracksuit and rubber boots, says she lost 170 sheep and goats and eight cows in the war, a good chunk of the livelihood of her extended family of 10.

"We were running from the shelling," says Nimr, 38, her eyes flashing. "They were really hard days."

She snorts with derision when asked if she has received any compensation from the government or Hezbollah.

Unable to afford the fees of private Lebanese vets, she is delighted with Bapu's work. "We rely on him all the time," she says. "Everyone says good things about him."

That kind of testimonial heartens the 670-strong Indian battalion, which sees humanitarian work as vital to win local support for UNIFIL in a potentially hostile environment.

Major Saurabh Pandey, spokesman for the contingent, believes locals value the role of the Indian troops, who stayed during the war despite intense bombing and shelling.

During lulls, the Indians delivered food and water to villagers, arranged evacuations and provided medical care. "This way we have been able to touch their hearts," Pandey says at the battalion's headquarters near the village of Ibl al-Saqi.

It may be too early to judge how mainly Shi'ite Muslim southerners view the expanded UNIFIL force mandated to help the newly deployed Lebanese army police a weapons-free zone.

But at least in the Indian-patrolled area, the shared wartime experience has brought new signs of warmth, Pandey says.

"It was not very obvious before the conflict in certain places, but afterwards you go to any place and people are smiling and waving. Kids turn up and say, 'Indian, Indian' or 'UN, UN', and they shake hands. It's a very welcome change."

Back on his rounds, Bapu checks a young cow recovering from an operation six weeks ago during which he removed a six-inch shard of metal from its skull. "It's not healed completely, but it is picking up ... It was very weak at that time," he says.

In a murky barn nearby, Bapu and a burly farm boy named Khaled Rajab struggle to keep a frisky cow still long enough to jab it with antibiotics for an infected uterus.

"They're not keeping it clean, so the infection continues," Bapu says, blaming poor hygiene for many such ailments.

The Israeli-Hezbollah truce has largely held. The Indians, who operate near the flashpoint Shebaa Farms area on the Golan Heights, say they have seen no sign of any guerrilla presence. Hezbollah have just "mingled with the masses", Pandey says.

The guns may be silent, but hundreds of thousands of cluster bomblets sprayed over south Lebanon in at least 770 Israeli strikes still pose a deadly danger to humans and animals.

Cluster bomb blasts have killed more than 20 people and wounded scores of others since the war. Bapu says many people have brought him sheep and goats wounded as they graze.

The vet, who returns to Bangalore after a 12-month tour next month, has trained villagers to give injections and medicine to their animals, skills he hopes they will retain when he is gone.

"After the war, help was pouring in for people to rebuild their houses but no help came for the animals," he says.

"The greatest satisfaction is I was there with medicines, running around able to save them.".

KHIAM, Lebanon, (Reuters)


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
Sri Lanka

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