The ground is peppered with pellets of goat dung and the stench of manure fills the air as an Indian vet with a UN peacekeeping force tends to sick animals in south Lebanon.
Lieutenant Colonel Satvir Singh, who goes to work in full uniform, is a veterinary surgeon serving under the UN flag who makes house calls in remote impoverished villages.
AdvertisementHis presence is a godsend in a country where, according to official estimates, 32 percent of the four million population are farmers and where only 31 of the 142 registered vets are employed by the government.
It is even more vital in parts of the troubled south where there are no vets.
"Part of our job is to reach out to the people and to contribute to peace. We call it the 'healing touch'," said Major Rakesh Kundlas, press officer of India's Third Parachute Infantry Battalion, which joined the UN force in 1998.
With his blue beret firmly in place and wearing spotless black boots, Singh keeps a busy schedule, moving with an assistant from one village to another near the volatile border with Israel.
"My area of operations includes 12 villages. Helta is the most impoverished one," Singh told AFP during a visit to Shannouh goat farm in a valley tucked in the foothills of the snow-crested Mount Hermon.
After a bumpy eight-kilometer (five-mile) ride on a dirt track, he finally reached the farm run by Haytham Abdel el-Aal, his brothers, sisters, their spouses and their children.
The family numbers 31, and 55 people in all live off the farm, one of the largest in the area. The farm's survival, in a region scarred by decades of violence, depends on the health of its animals: 1,400 goats and 100 sheep.
"During the July 2006 war (between Israel and the militant Hezbollah), 165 goats were killed and we lost another 115 goats" in a recent snowstorm, said Haytham, the 35-year-old head of the family.
"I have never received a penny of compensation from the government or anyone else, so the Indian doctors are a blessing for us," he said.
Singh and his assistant carry boxes of medicine donated by the Indian government to treat sick animals.
The officer donned rubber gloves and put on his stethoscope, as Haytham and his brothers dragged out a white goat nicknamed Eska Bayda and a black one called Eska Kahla.
Eska Bayda's infection, developed after giving birth, was treated with hydrogen peroxide, iodine and an injection of antibiotics. But Eska Kahla was suffering from respiratory problems.
"The goat must be isolated," Singh warned Haytham through an interpreter, "otherwise the problem will spread." He gave the farmer a box of antiobotics with instructions on how to administer them.
Next came a bleating four-day-old grey-blue kid, its eyelids sealed shut with infection. It was carried like a baby to the vet, who showed Haytham how to use eyedrops three times a day.
"This is a very satisfying job. I am extremely happy when I can cure an animal. You know, unlike people, they cannot speak, so they agonise and cannot say where it hurts," he said.
Haytham and his brothers wanted to bring other sick animals but Singh had to rush on to a cow with a wound that needed stitching.
"We work 24/7. A call might come in at any time of day or night so we gather our equipment and are off with an interpreter making house calls," he said.
Animals needing surgery are taken to the base hospital.
"God's blessings be on them. I am really grateful to the Indian government. They have come from so far away to help us," said Haytham as he shook hands with Major Kundlas.
He promised to slaughter a kid when it was fattened up to hold a party for the Indian officer, who declined politely, saying: "Thanks, but I am vegetarian."
The Indian battalion also runs an out-patient clinic for Helta's 500 to 600 residents, providing general medical and dental care.
"Many of the people suffer hypertension and dental hygiene is not very good in the village," said Lieutenant Colonel Anupam Tuteja.
A nurse and a female doctor -- the only two women in the 800-member Indian battalion -- are among the team, who also tend to five other villages in the area.
The clinic is well-stocked with medicine, which is given free of charge -- a boon as Helta and neighbouring towns have no pharmacy.
"May God protect them," said Isa Chibli as he sat down to have his blood pressure tested.
For the commanding officer, Colonel Gurbir Pal Singh, the biggest challenge in south Lebanon is "to ensure that the area is incident free" in line with a UN resolution which put an end to the devastating 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war.
The commander and his men have only been in south Lebanon since January, but the Indian battalions have served in the region for the past decade and built strong ties with locals.
"The interaction has been very good. The people are friendly and there are many cultural similarities between us. Both our people believe in tradition and strong family values," the officer said.