[Newsmaker] Korean troops bid adieu to Afghanistan

By Shin Hyon-hee
  • Published : Jun 24, 2014 - 21:14
  • Updated : Jun 24, 2014 - 21:29
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan ― Full of vigor yet penniless, Faisal Safi appeared doomed to live a life without a future when he joined a Korean vocational training center in his home province of Parwan in 2010 at age 20.

One year of electrician training there “completely changed” his life, he said, enabling him to not only support his family but also open up opportunities. Now at 24, the soft-spoken man nurtures pupils at the academy located in the largest U.S. military base Afghanistan.

“I really listened to their teaching lessons and I learned so many things,” Safi said.

“My advice to other students is that they have to have perseverance and study hard to achieve something for the future.”

The facility is one of the lasting legacies left by Korea’s Provincial Reconstruction Team that officially marked the end of its four-year mission in Afghanistan on Monday.

Since its 2010 inception in Charikar, it has set up schools and training centers for police and youth, hospitals, bridges and farms, while advising municipal government officials on a regular basis until the base was handed over to the Afghan government two years later. 
Members of a South Korean contingent in Afghanistan pack their belongings on June 18 as they prepare to withdraw ending their four-year reconstruction mission. (Yonhap)

The PRT activities perked up after the crew relocated to the Bagram Airfield, with a focus on health, education, rural development and governance, and security.

“We can see the seed of hope budding out in the Afghan soil,” Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Kyung-soo said.

“Suffering from economic hardships, Safi could have given up his study at that time, but he did not. Instead, he overcame the difficulty and graduated the training center with honors, even becoming a superb instructor at the training center and now teaches other Afghan students.”

The Korean hospital has provided medical care to more than 150,000 Afghans over the past five years, visited by some 250 patients every day.

Last fall, the hospital saved the life of a 12-year-old girl named Fatimah.

She would not been able to live for more than six months without proper treatment for a malignant tumor on her left leg. But now, thanks to the dedicated treatment and care of Korean PRT members, she is starting to recover, officials say.

Meanwhile, nearly 440 students have graduated from the vocational school, which opened in early 2010 and has five departments for electrical, computer, automotive, welding and plumbing, and construction skills.

Despite the completion of the reconstruction task, Seoul plans to maintain the hospital and training center for another few years to come, with dozens of doctors, nurses and workers of the Korea International Cooperation Agency, a state-run grant aid body.

“There is nothing like it in the country,” said Karen Decker, senior civilian representative to the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command-East, referring to the training center.

Urging other regions to follow suit, she suggested Parwan Province Gov. Abdul Basir Salangi invite other provincial governors and educators, give them a tour together and encourage them to learn and copy.

“And the young men who have graduated from this course, they’re different people. In the time they spent here, they have pride in themselves; they’ve learned the skill; they become leaders in their communities because of the opportunities they’ve got by training here,” Decker said.

“If we could replicate that across the country, it would be tremendous because what Afghanistan needs now is to make up the knowledge gap that 30 years of war has left them with.”

Safi has already become a model case for latecomers. Aticullah, 23, travels every day from the capital Kabul to take electrician classes in Bagram, hoping to become a teacher there one day.

After graduating high school, he failed to land a job, just like many of his peers in his community. As the oldest son of a 12-member family, he felt lucky that he met the Koreans and seized education opportunities.

“I think handling electricity and wires is an excellent skill. I’ve wanted to be an engineer after studying its technical aspects, while hoping that in the future there will be a chance to teach what I’ve learned to others,” Aticullah told visiting Korean reporters.

“My family would have faced difficulties if I had decided to go to college. But with this, I could easily find a job and after a while I will be able to study further such as by going to classes at night.”

By Shin Hyon-hee, Korea Herald Correspondent