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Afghanistan: Childbirth Proved More Dangerous Than Flying

By Mustafa Sarwar The late Colonel Lailuna (Courtesy Photo) The difficulties of childbirth in Afghanistan have caused the country's Air Corps to lose its only two female pilots. One of the pilots, Colonel Lailuma, died recently from complications during the birth of her daughter. The other is Lailuma's mourning sister, Latifa. She says she'll stop flying because she thinks a commanding officer's negligence led to her sister's death.

KABUL, August 2, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Latifa is the only woman pilot in the Afghan National Army's Air Corps. But she has vowed she will never fly again for that volunteer force. Latifa blames a senior commander for the death of her 36-year-old sister and fellow aviator, Lailuma.

For Lailuma's relatives, there is bitter irony in the fact that she did not die in combat -- as they had feared. Instead, she died on July 17 from complications during childbirth at Kabul's Rabia Balkhi Maternity Hospital.

Early Signs Of Trouble

Family members say the commander of the Afghan Air Corps, Major General Mohammad Dawran, should have paid closer attention to signs of trouble during Lailuma's pregnancy.

"I wanted the commander-in-chief of the Air Corps to send my sister abroad for treatment. Didn't she deserve to be sent abroad for treatment?" one of Lailuma's other sisters, who asked not to be named, tearfully explained to RFE/RL. "The commander goes to foreign countries for his eye problem -- and even for a simple headache -- every month and year. Did my sister not deserve it? I called on Dawran to come and transfer his pilot abroad for treatment."

RFE/RL contacted Dawran to discuss the allegations by Lailuma's family. He refused to comment on any aspect of the story.

With a 16 percent mortality rate, childbirth can be dangerous in Afghanistan (RFE/RL file photo)

Maroof Saame, a doctor at the Kabul maternity hospital, told RFE/RL that Lailuma could have been saved if her complications had been brought to the attention of medical staff sooner.

Saame says Lailuma died of excessive bleeding and high blood pressure. He says her rare blood type made it impossible -- at a moment's notice -- to get the blood transfusions she required.

"Unfortunately, the patient [Lailuma] had Rh-negative blood. And Rh-negative blood is not often available in [Afghan] blood banks. This type of blood can rarely be found [here]," Saame says. "Her relatives were extremely affectionate to her and tried their best to help, but we were unable to find [a sufficient amount of] Rh-negative blood for her. Only one bag of blood was available for her operation, and her relatives only managed to get another bag of blood [late that night]."

Afghanistan's Most Dangerous Job

Lailuma's death is an example of what the United Nations' Children's Fund (UNICEF) calls "one the world's most neglected health problems" -- maternal mortality in Afghanistan.

Recent UNICEF studies suggest that 1.6 percent of all women who give birth in Afghanistan die during childbirth. That means 1,600 pregnant women die for every 100,000 live births.

And the Afghan Public Health Ministry says maternal mortality in some parts of the country is as high as 6 percent.

Kabul-based officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) say poor roads and insecurity in provincial regions make it difficult for many Afghan women to be transported quickly to medical facilities in an emergency. A lack of modern medical equipment -- even in the capital -- also contributes to the problem.

But WHO officials say the biggest contributing factors to Afghanistan's high maternal death rate are cultural taboos that make many Afghan men reluctant allow routine medical examinations for their womenfolk.

Career Pilot

Lailuma was born in the Shirin Tajab district of Afghanistan's northeastern Faryab Province. By the age of 20, during the final years of communist rule in Afghanistan, she had finished her education at Afghanistan's military university and begun piloting helicopters. When the fundamentalist Taliban came to power, she was grounded and spent her days at home -- only venturing outside shrouded in a burqa.

She began flying again after the ouster of the Taliban regime -- raising her total number of flight hours to more than 960.

General Abdul Wahab Wardak was one of Lailuma's commanders in the Air Corps. He describes Lailuma as a heroine whose name will be remembered in Afghan history.

"Lailuma's death was a grave loss to our air force," Wardak says. "Lailuma was a knowledgeable and intelligent pilot of the Afghan National Army Air Corps. The Afghan Air Corps is very proud of her and will never forget her."

Lailuma's brother, Wahidullah, says she always wanted her pioneering role in women's aviation in Afghanistan to be recognized by authorities in Kabul.

He says President Hamid Karzai praised women who trained to work as pilots in neighboring Pakistan. But Wahidullah says Karzai never recognized the female pilots in his own country.

Mohammad Qasim -- Lailuma's brother-in-law -- agrees.

"Lailuma wanted to meet Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, in person at least once," Qasim says. "But unfortunately she couldn't do that. Nobody paid any attention to her in Mr. Karzai's government. They should have sent her abroad for treatment."

Lailuma's daughter, born just minutes before her mother's death, survived. But family members say they are saddened that Lailuma never had a chance to hold her baby daughter -- or even to see her face.

(Contributors to this story include Radio Free Afghanistan reporters Hamida Osman and Fawzia Ehsan in Kabul and RFE/RL's Ron Synovitz in Prague.)

Saving Afghanistan's Heritage

Saving Afghanistan's Heritage

A UNESCO team working to stabilize Herat minarets in 2003 (UNESCO)

THE MINARETS OF HERAT: In Afghanistan's leafy western city of Herat, a two-lane road slices between the city's five remaining 15th-century minarets. Every truck, car, bus, motorcycle, and horse-drawn carriage that passes by sends vibrations coursing through the delicate structures.
In particular, the Fifth Minaret -- all 55 meters of it -- seems ready to collapse into a dusty heap of bricks and colored tiles at any moment. A large crack near its base makes drivers speed up just a little as they pass by....(more)

Click on the image to view an audio slideshow of this story by RFE/RL correspondent Grant Podelco.


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