Among the party of Afghans and foreigners returning from holding an eye camp for communities in Nuristan and murdered on their way back in Badakhshan were several known to many in AAN. We grieve with their families and friends. Read an obituary by our Senior Analyst Kate Clark (with updates at the end of the text).
The team was made up of twelve people(1), all prepared to trek through uncompromising terrain – including up and down a 5000-meter pass – to treat people from the poorest and most remote areas. People would walk long distances, sometimes carrying the old and sick on their backs, to see the doctors – getting glasses, treatment and minor surgery and many considered blind, literally, getting their sight back. While not forgetting that in total ten people were murdered, this blog focuses on the two oldest members of the team, the leader, sixty-one year old Tom Little who first arrived in Afghanistan in 1976 and Dan Terry, who arrived in 1971 and was almost sixty four. They were both veterans of the Afghan aid scene, brought their children up there, spoke fluent Dari, travelled widely and had friends everywhere, touching the lives of countless people.
Most people threatened with imprisonment in a Taleban jail would be upset, frightened and calling every contact they had to avoid their fate. In 2000, when Dan Terry was hauled off to jail after overstaying his visa – he’d forgotten the time while working out in the wilds of Lal wa Sar Jangal in Hazarajat – he went off good-naturedly, seeing it as a rare chance to have the time to learn Pashto. He was released from prison after a couple of weeks and then re-arrested after the authorities decided he had not served enough days. He arrived back to the prison to cheers from his fellow inmates who were now newly-found friends. He finally emerged with tales of beatings and the hardness of the lives of those he had come into contact with.
Dan was big-hearted, ebullient, full of enthusiasm and kindness. His long-term friend and colleague, Tom Little, stoic and never, ever flustered, was a man of fewer words, who would nonetheless reveal a laconic humour with the occasional well-placed comment or story of the absurdities of life in Afghanistan: the Taleban commanders who wanted dukhtar-kash (lady-killer) sunglasses from him, the armed men who demanded immediate treatment for their eye problems in the middle of nowhere – Tom’s habit was to always carry some saline solution which soothes, but does no harm).
Both men – like their organisation, the International Assistance Mission, (IAM)(2) stayed in Afghanistan through the worst of times, the 1978 coup, Soviet invasion, the bitter civil war for Kabul, the Taleban regime and the current times – which have proved so deadly. During one of the battles for West Kabul, Tom went to the Noor Eye Hospital which he had helped set up, personally carrying expensive equipment out under fire – equipment which he feared would be looted by whoever won the battle. During the final years of the Emirate, Dan organised food to cross the frontlines to Dara-e Suf in Hazarajat to feed hungry IDPs driven from their homes by war and Taleban massacres and village burnings. Both men were inspirational, deeply committed to Afghanistan and to their work, serving, as they saw it, the country’s poor. So it is doubly cruel that their murders should be followed by slander.
When news of the murders broke, both Hizb-e Islami and the Taleban spokesman, Zabi Mujahed, claimed they had killed the ten members of the IAM team. Mujahed claimed that the team had been trying to convert Afghans to Christianity and had had Persian-language bibles on them. It is perfectly possible that the Taleban or Hezb-e Islami killed the team – although if so, why wait until the news was public to make the claim? – or that robbers used the name of jihad to justify murder. However, the charge that this group was preaching Christianity is baseless. It is also dangerous: In Afghanistan, to say someone is proselytising is often misused to justify murder. And such is the fear of being tainted as an apostate that several Afghans I spoke to who knew the men well and respected them were wary to defend their good names publically – although others may yet be brave enough to do that. The Taleban accusation was carried across much of the media, often with barely a question or challenge. And yet how very far from the truth that charge was.
Dan Terry and Tom Little were men of faith and made no secret of that. They worked for a Christian organisation which is registered as such with the Afghan government and has a strict non-preaching policy. IAM had signed the “Principles of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes”, i.e. ‘that aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint”. Anyone who had any dealings with these two men could rebut the charge that they had been proselytising in Nuristan. Other foreigners have occasionally used aid work as cover for clandestinely trying to win souls – most famously Shelter Now International in 2001 (now defunct in its original form); they not only got themselves arrested, but got other Christian organisations expelled as well, including IAM. Such behaviour brought short shrift from this pair; such proselytising, they said, was duplicitous, disrespectful and dangerous.
Dan and Tom survived war, coups and invasions, but in the end were lined up and shot along with their colleagues – Afghans along with the internationals, women with the men, their bodies robbed and left on the ground. The malicious accusation from the Taleban should not be allowed to malign the memory of these two extraordinary individuals.
AAN will be following the investigation into the killings and posting further blogs on it.
(1) One man left early and travelled out of Nuristan by a different route. Another survived the shootings.
(2) Dan stopped working with IAM in 2006, but he continued to work with other organisations in Afghanistan.
Here a few of the better obituaries and backgrounders:
Michael Semple,‘Killing of aid workers part of unravelling of Afghan society’, Irish Times, 9 August 2010, sheds light on the state of the insurgency in the area of the murder.
Joshua Partlow,‘Living by faith, dying in Afghanistan’, Washington Post, 9 August 2010, with the story of the only survivor.
Our frequent contributor Christoph Reuter, ‘Daniela B. wollte nur Afghanistan verstehen’, Stern.de, 9 August 2010, tells the story of the German linguist killed with the group who was on their way to contribute to an IAM project to save the Wakhi language. (An English version will follow on this site soon.)
Another of our frequent contributors, freelancer Willi Germund, writes in Berliner Zeitung (9 August, in German):
‘There were times once when the Taleban met represenatives of other religions with deep respect. But this approach fell victim to the fanaticism of war – one of the tragic results of this conflict. Another one is the completely misleading idea of some Western strategists to integrate development and reconstrution aid into a military concept. It is a shame that, by this, aid workers are pressed into a pattern of black-and-white and foe-and-friend by the conflict parties. […] We have to wait for the questioning of the only survivor. In Afghanistan one experiences very often that there are complicated stories behind seemingly irrational violent deeds.’