Prague, 16 March 2005 (RFE/RL) -- It was the 14th time that Afghan villager Melawa has given birth. But her latest delivery was unlike anything any mother has experienced. On 12 March , Melawa gave birth to a healthy girl in the back of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter while flying over a combat zone along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Staff Sergeant Rick Scavetta is a public-affairs officer with the U.S. forces in Afghanistan who has been following the story.
"This has caused great excitement throughout the whole coalition here. Everyone has been hearing about the story and the great work that the medics did. It is probably one of the first times, if ever, that a baby has been born in the back of a helicopter while in flight in a combat zone. We've talked with a lot of aviators and a lot of folks with the medical-evacuation community -- people who have flown the medical-evacuation helicopters for decades -- and they've never heard of something like this," Scavetta said.
At the age of 40, Melawa already has seen two of her young children die. So her husband Peer Mullah didn't hesitate when a local midwife told him there was a complication beyond her abilities.
Traditional tribal values in much of southern and southeastern Afghanistan forbid women from being seen by foreign men -- even certified medical doctors.
Just last month, the UN Development Program revealed that an Afghan woman dies, on average, every 30 minutes as a result of a pregnancy complication.
A village elder of his ethnic Pashtun community in Paktika Province, Peer Mullah knew that both his wife and baby probably would die without a doctor.
The nearest hospital would require a trek by donkey across Pakistan's border to Wana -- a town in South Waziristan that, until recently, had been a stronghold for Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters.
Instead of trying to go there, Peer Mullah took his wife to U.S. medics at a strategic "fire base" guarding the pass across the border -- a forward operations base near the Afghan town of Shkin.
Scavetta explains that to help the couple, it was necessary to call in a Black Hawk medical-evacuation helicopter from another forward operations base in southeastern Afghanistan -- the Salerno firebase near Khost.
"The elder brought his wife to the medics [at Shkin]. They recognized that there was a concern for the woman and the baby's life. And they requested an evacuation by helicopter to bring them to [the military field hospital at] Bagram airfield. The mother is 40 years old. She had been in labor for 18 hours. And when they got onto the aircraft, the little girl couldn't wait to arrive. [Medical technician] Kyle Storbakken and [a doctor] Lieutenant Colonel David Barber delivered the baby while they were in flight from Shkin to the city of Khost," Scavetta said.
Gullab Mangal is the governor of Paktika Province. He tells RFE/RL that the birth is the sort of story that boosts the image of U.S. troops in the minds of Afghans who live in the combat zones along the border.
"This kind of humanitarian aid by coalition forces, no doubt, has a positive effect on relations with the Afghan people and it has beneficial results. When the civilian people have problems, the coalition soldiers are helping them -- particularly in cases of patients who need medical treatment. And especially by transporting them to a hospital. This help proves that the coalition forces are not just conducting combat operations to eliminate terrorists. They are also helping Afghans in other aspects of life," Mangal said.
However, traditional tribal values in much of southern and southeastern Afghanistan forbid women from being seen by foreign men -- even certified medical doctors. Scavetta admits that the Black Hawk crew was concerned about how some Afghans might receive the news of such a birth. He stresses that the husband remained by Melawa's side at all times during the delivery and their voyage on to Bagram airfield.
"The soldiers on the helicopter were all men. But there was also Peer Mullah. Her husband was on the helicopter with them. He explained to the wife that her best chance for survival was to have these soldiers help them. It's very close quarters in the back of a helicopter. There's not a lot of room. The doctors who were involved were obviously professionals and used the support of her husband to help her do this. It was a joyous occasion. And [the pilot] actually radioed to some other helicopters that were flying with them, 'Hey! We've got another passenger on board,'" Scavetta said.
Upon arrival at Bagram, Melawa was treated by female attendants who helped her through postnatal care. After two days, the couple and their newborn daughter were flown back to their village.
One question that remains a mystery to the Black Hawk crew is the name of the baby. Peer Mullah and Melawa told the medical staff at Bagram that they would not decide on a name for the girl until after their return home.
(RFE/RL's Sultan Sarwar contributed to this report.)