REUTERS, 23 July 2002

Mass Circumcision in Kabul

Tue Jul 23, 8:29 AM ET

By David Fox

KABUL (Reuters) - Turkish troops leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan won friends among hundreds of Afghan families Tuesday after army doctors carried out a mass circumcision of boys who had missed the important Muslim ceremony for one reason or another.

Army doctors from the prestigiousGulhame Military Medical academy in Turkey circumcised more than 90 boys Tuesday and plan to perform the operation on up to 200 others over the next two days.

"Being circumcised is an important rite of passage for any Muslim male," said a Turkish officer overseeing the event who asked not to be identified.

"It is accepted even by non-Muslims for health and hygiene reasons, but for us it is part of our faith," he said.

Most Afghan boys are circumcised between the age of two and five by religious elders who say a prayer before removing the foreskin with a knife -- without anaesthetic.

If the boys are lucky, they will be plunged into an icy stream before the ritual in order to numb any pain.

But the Turkish operation -- while yielding to tradition -- was a strictly medical procedure with a local anaesthetic being applied before the foreskin was removed with a sort of soldering- iron gun that cuts through the flesh and seals the wound behind it at the same time.

Before the operation, the boys were given a huge party with special Turkish cakes and treats. A band played children's' songs as religious elders walked among the boys, muttering prayers and patting them on their heads.

"These boys have missed being circumcised because perhaps there was trouble in their homes or their parents were too poor to afford it," the Turkish officer said.

"Wherever we travel, we like to help the community by doing these sort of things -- even at the rural areas at home."

The boys being circumcised Tuesday -- aged between two and 11 -- were a mixture of ashen-faced fear and confused apprehension as they awaited their turn with the team of eight surgeons and their assistants.

Divided into groups of eight, it took just one nervous wail to get everyone else crying, but once the local anaesthetic took effect they calmed down and generally looked on at the goings-on between their legs with keen interest.

Once the operation was complete, the boys were given a traditional white tunic, dressed in a large nappy and sent on their way -- clutching a bag of presents from a Turkish charity that raised money for the ceremony.

Each bag contained a leather football, a pair of boots and a full soccer strip -- in the colors of the Turkish national team that surprised the world by finishing third in the World Cup won by Brazil last month.

"It takes about five to eight minutes to do each person," an army doctor told Reuters. "If you want, I would be happy to do you and your colleagues."

(File prepared 25 July 2002)