We follow up our reporting on the murder of ten aid workers on Thursday with two contributions from guest authors, Michael Semple and Christoph Reuter (1). They shed more light on three of the victims, Dan Terry, Daniela Beyer and Karen Woo; Michael additionally analyses the status of the insurgency in the area the killings happened and sheds light on social deformations that result from the decade-old conflict in Afghanistan.
Systems Breaking Down
It is preposterous to think of anyone killing Dan Terry. Dan Terry spent a lifetime of service in Afghanistan, living among its people through every dramatic stage of the country’s modern history. He found and spread joy in the most unpromising circumstances. Dan was true to the Dylan Thomas invocation “Live large man and dream small.” He lived undaunted through famine, civil war, brutal regimes, prison and the humdrum of office politics. Dan dodged most bullets which were coming his way.
In material terms he lived a pretty austere existence – there is no room for luxury in the stipends the Methodist missions provide to humanitarian workers overseas. And yet Dan never had the whiff of the martyr about him. He always retained his boyish sense of adventure and discovery, enhanced by a sense of humour and tempered by a deep humility. There are dozens of Dan Terry tales to explain how he was the kind of engaging person who could be remembered fondly in a village fifty years after he had visited. Taking refuge in a peasant’s hovel when caught in the mountains in a blizzard, Dan’s first thought was to take the pail to fill from the river. Grazed by a stray bullet while cycling through Kabul in the mad fighting of the 1990s, Dan turned up in relatively tranquil Mazar still pedalling his bike. Briefly imprisoned by the Taleban for a minor visa infringement (too happily busy to renew on time), Dan was soon voted the most popular prisoner and he emerged from jail full of tales of new friendships. I remember Dan Terry in Dara-ye Suf, scrambling hundreds of metres down a cramped mine shaft. By the time he reached the candle-lit coalface he was ready with advice on detection of gases and avoiding emphysema, for the benefit of the startled miners peering through the gloom.
So I was pleased when Dan’s picture appeared on the cover of my book on reconciliation in Afghanistan. He can be seen handing out welfare payments for civilian casualties of an allied airstrike, as part of a local initiative to get a ceasefire and launch some community development. In that foray into Taleban-controlled territory Dan discovered that his young Taleban escorts were all opium addicts, so before long Dan was struggling to launch a detoxification service for the area.
And yet on Thursday a group of armed men in an inaccessible corner of Badakhshan dragged Dan and nine colleagues from their jeeps and summarily executed them. The team was on its way back to Kabul from performing an eye camp. For over half a century such camps, in remote parts of Afghanistan, have been the trademark of the International Assistance Mission, which Dan’s father helped to found. The Afghan Interior Ministry’s preliminary assessment was that it is a case of robbery with violence. Local sheep thieves spotted the team’s parked vehicles and ambushed them on return. But sheep thieves are not known for execution style killings. With scanty information we are left to fathom the real significance of the killing of Dan Terry, veteran ophthalmologist Tom Little and their companions.
These killings are different from the IEDs and abductions around Kandahar or Kabul. They are part of the violence of mountainous Afghanistan rather than plains Afghanistan and took place well outside the Taleban command chain. The area where the killings took place is about as far from the Taleban’s Kandahar heartland as you can get within Afghanistan. The insurgency in Badakhshan and Nuristan is closely integrated with neighbouring Chitral in Pakistan. Many of the fighters have been inspired by mullahs trained in Chitral and the eastern part of Pakistan’s border areas. Although the eastern insurgency nominally acknowledges the Taleban’s Kandahari leadership, in reality its local roots are completely different from those of Mullah Omar’s movement and its commanders can operate autonomously without the need for orders from the Kandaharis. The Taliban leadership simply does not have the degree of control over what happens on the ground in remote places like Kiran wa Munjan to orchestrate events there.
Quite apart from the insurgency, here is a history of sporadic acts of zealotry and violence justified as attacks on infidels, taking place in some of Afghanistan’s most remote places. Outsiders have no brothers or cousins to act as a deterrent against violence. Killers of outsiders, even if they are really bandits, can claim moral authority and enhance their reputation as purveyors of violence. Political groups with limited control on the ground can claim responsibility for such extreme acts of violence as a way of trying to project themselves beyond their real limits of influence. But even in Afghanistan, in times of stability, such acts of extreme violence and zealotry are normally the domain of outlaws and those who are shunned by civilized society. In their time in power the most bigoted of Taleban commanders were capable of showing hospitality to western guests.
Of course statements were quickly attributed to the Taleban, claiming that they executed the medical team for proselytisation. A senior Taleb from Badakhshan told me that their spokesman was lying. In any case, any claim that they were proselytising is simply concocted. Dan was a believing Christian working in Muslim communities with a spirit of mutual respect. Such veterans do not thrust their beliefs down anyone’s throat and enforce strict guidelines against proselytising. However when in need of a pretext for violence against foreigners in Afghanistan, the choice is basically between falsely accusing people of proselytising or spying.
Perhaps the best way to understand the politics of the killing of the eye camp team is that it is the product of the social breakdown caused by two competing systems failing to control Afghanistan. The internationally backed government has failed to deliver security, has limited projection beyond administrative centres and long ago compromised on the idea of enforcing law and order. The Taleban movement boasts a shadow administration and tries to brand itself as an enforcer of tough justice. The Taleban grip on territory is not firm enough for its administration to fill the gap left by a struggling government. But the movement’s willingness to use extreme violence, even against the civilian population, prevents the emergence of the kind of tribal-village republics that Afghans dream of as an alternative to government. And so Afghanistan lurches towards a new variation on the theme of the civil conflict of the nineties. Conflict entrepreneurs adopt the mantle of government or opposition, to prey upon the civilian population or economic activity. Whether driven by zealotry or profit, fighters can engage in the ultimate anti-social activity of massacring health workers, free from the restraint of social norms or fear of the law. Surely any moral Afghan with a sense of history must by now be concluding, as it did Mulla Omar in 1994, that social break down has proceeded far enough.
In another context Yeats wrote “Too long a sacrifice, Can make a stone of the heart. O when may it suffice?” A Kandahari friend told me how he discussed the idea of sacrifice with Taleban commanders operating against NATO. They readily agreed that enough blood has been spilt and all need a way out. But the fighters themselves feel powerless, and fated, as the default option, to continue with the conflict which destroys their country rather than defeating NATO. If Dan Terry and friends’ death could jolt a few moral people into finding that way out, it would give some meaning to this sacrifice.
This is a more detailed version of his obituary that appeared in yesterday’s Irish Times.
The Only German Was a Linguist
Terry and ophthalmologist Tom Little were the “veterans” of a team consisting of altogether 12 members that on July 22 started in Faizabad heading south. It was in many ways a diverse group: Americans and British, medical doctors, organizers, Afghan translators and drivers. The only German in the team was not a medical doctor – but a linguist: Daniela Beyer, born 1975 in Chemnitz. After graduating from school, she studied linguistics at Leipzig University, English and Russian, and, on top of that, she finalized studies for teaching ‘German as a foreign language’.
For four years she was registered at University of Gloucestershire in southern England. She was working as a freelance translator and came to Afghanistan in 2007 where she worked for the International Assistance Mission. She fell in love with the country. About half a year she dedicated herself to studying Dari – one of the two official languages of Afghanistan – in Kabul. Amir Mohammed, back then her teacher, still remembers the silent German with the blue eyes: ‘As a student, she was excellent, very committed, and learning fast. She always told me “I want to talk with the people, I want to know what they feel and think, I want to understand them!” She wanted to know everything about culture, customs, the history of Afghanistan. At the same time she was rather shy, often she even spent the breaks inside the classroom to continue studying instead of chatting and having tea with the others.’
For a year, she went to Faizabad and joined the Language Research Program of IAM in the north eastern province of Badakhshan. Her project aimed at developing a written form of the language for the isolated mountain regions, so people could learn to read and write in their mother tongue,” a former colleague of her says. Apart from her fluency in Dari, Daniela had a good command of Wakhi and Munji, two local languages in North Eastern Afghanistan belonging to the so-called Pamir Tajik group of languages (quite distinct from Tajik/Farsi/Dari), and she was currently studying other languages as well.
A year ago, she resigned at IAM in order to set up a new NGO calledSamar in cooperation with others. This organization was primarily to deal with the research and rescue of other local languages. Daniela always remained in contact with her former IAM colleagues. When Karen Woo, British medical doctor who was mainly engaged in the treatment of women, was preparing for the eye camp, she needed a female translator. Daniela was the perfect choice. She agreed to come with them – on her last journey.
Woo, 36 year-old surgeon from Herefordshire in England who had to do fundraising for financing her trip to Afghanistan this time had visited the country several times before. Together with BBC reporter Firuz Rahimi, she had founded the NGO Charity Bridge Afghanistan. She was as committed to her job as she was enjoying life, a women who in her blog wrote about her likings of ‘sexy dresses and high heels’ as well as about her medical assistance to women.
In the same blog she wrote down her thoughts when two friends of a colleague died in the plane crash of an age-old Pamir Air airplane between Kunduz and Kabul in June 2010:
‘Nothing in life is for sure, nothing that you see today will always be here tomorrow,’ she wrote. ‘All of these people come to Afghanistan of their own volition, they come knowing that they may pay with their lives, the black humour is rife, a good way to keep the apprehension low, to keep calm and carry on. Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national.’
Or, as she maybe foresaw: Yes, it might be about oneself.
This text appeared in German on today’s Stern magazine website.
(1) Michael Semple, himself with Afghanistan experience since 1989, was EU Deputy Special Representative in Kabul up to 2007 and is currently a fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Harvard Kennedy School.
Christoph Reuter is a correspondent for German magazine ‘Stern’ based in Kabul and regularly contributes to the AAN guest blog.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020