Devastated Christian aid group pledges to continue work in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, as the U.S. military launched an operation in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S. The war continues today.
By Joshua Partlow
Monday, August 9, 2010

KABUL -- During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, the Christian aid group International Assistance Mission was forced to stop working anywhere outside the capital.

Under the mujaheddin government that followed, the group's medical teams had to negotiate with separate warring factions for safe passage across rocket-strafed Kabul just to travel from their homes to the eye clinic. The Taliban, when it came to power, prohibited the organization's female staff members from working in the same office as men.

Last week, with the massacre of 10 members of an eye care team in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan, the group suffered its greatest tragedy. But its 44-year history in Afghanistan, as an openly Christian charity in a deeply conservative Muslim country, is one of enduring near-impossible circumstances.

"It's devastating for everybody," executive director Dirk Frans said of the killings. "Still, I don't think it's actually going to stop our work. We've been here all those years, and, God willing, we'll continue."

On Sunday, the bodies of the 10 slain aid workers -- six Americans, one German, one Briton and two Afghans -- were recovered and flown by Afghan helicopter from Badakhshan province to a military compound in Kabul. Along with them came the lone survivor of the attack, an Afghan driver for the team named Saifullah, who was taken to the Interior Ministry for questioning.

Among the dead were the team's leader, Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who had worked for decades in Afghanistan, and Karen Woo, a British surgeon who left her practice last year to volunteer in the war zone.

The Taliban asserted responsibility for the attack, accusing the medical volunteers of being foreign spies and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity, accusations the group denies. Police in Badakhshan province have not ruled out that thieves unaffiliated with the Taliban could be responsible, as the victims' belongings were ransacked after they were killed.

"We are heartbroken by the loss of these heroic, generous people," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in a statement. "We condemn in the strongest possible terms this senseless act. We also condemn the Taliban's transparent attempt to justify the unjustifiable by making false accusations about their activities in Afghanistan."

To reach the remote Parun Valley of Nurestan province, the 12-member medical team had driven from Kabul in three Land Rovers and then left the vehicles to hike for days with pack mules through a towering mountain pass. Snow and rain on the return trip proved grueling -- one member had to be carried on horseback, Frans said -- but they had made it to the border with Badakhshan when they lost phone contact with their Kabul office Thursday.

'Not here to proselytize'

Frans said it was inconceivable that the medical team was handing out Bibles written in Dari, as the Taliban claimed. Nor was the trip reckless, he said, as the group plotted the safest route -- to an area it had visited six previous times since 1996 -- and had written permission from Nurestan's health directorate.

The team knew the trip was dangerous, but Little and another member had decades of experience in the country. "It's only because of them that we let a team go to a place like that," Frans said.

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