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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.

"We're not here to proselytize, hand out Bibles or whatever. That's not the way we witness," he said. "Our witness is in doing this work under extreme conditions, for people who otherwise have no chance for getting anything."

The group's 50 foreign volunteers and 500 Afghan staff members operate in seven Afghan provinces, with a program budget of $3.6 million in 2009, according to the annual report. The group runs a mental health education program in Herat, adult-education classes in Kandahar, an English school in Mazar-e Sharif and small hydroelectric projects in rural areas without electricity.

But eye care has long been central to its work. The group runs the National Organization for Ophthalmic Rehabilitation eye care project, which treated about 180,000 patients in 2009. Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in Afghanistan's presidential election last year, trained under the program as an ophthalmologist in Kabul. He met Little in 1983.

"They were Christian -- but were part of their activities to convert people into Christianity? No, nothing as such," Abdullah said. "It's reaching out to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people that could be blind in the future and prevent that blindness. With one cataract in Afghanistan, you're considered in the villages as being blind."

This focus on health care has allowed the International Assistance Mission to operate even under a Taliban government that was hostile to any Christian group, said Hans Ronnlund, an adviser to Frans who has worked with the group for 20 years in Afghanistan.

Before last week's massacre, four foreign workers for the aid group had been killed: a couple shot in a robbery, a woman shot while sitting by a Kabul lake and a victim of a mysterious car crash, aid group officials said. The killings in Badakhshan were the first time any of the group's Afghan staff members had been killed.

"Sometimes what happens with foreign agencies is they let the Afghans do the dirty work and the expatriates stay safely at home. Well, IAM cannot be accused of that," Frans said.

Survivor's story

Investigators and aid group officials hope the lone survivor of the attack, Saifullah, can shed light on what happened and who might be responsible. (The 12th member of the team, an Afghan, had earlier left the group to make his own way home).

According to an Afghan reporter who interviewed the driver by satellite phone Saturday and provided his notes to The Washington Post, Saifullah said the group was attacked by about 10 gunmen. Their bearded faces were covered, they carried Kalashnikov rifles and they said very little, communicating with hand gestures, he told the reporter. They lined up the frightened team and began to execute members of the group, who screamed and cried for mercy, he said.

When it was his turn, Saifullah said that he fell to his knees, shouted "God is great" and recited a verse from the Koran -- "There is no God but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God" -- and pleaded to be spared.

"I am a Muslim, I have small kids, I'm very poor, please do not kill me," Saifullah said he told the gunmen.

Saifullah said the gunmen then led him through a forest for about an hour to a place he described as a "jungle." He said he was beaten and forced to stay with the men overnight. He could not place all the men as Afghans -- some seemed to speak in code and others in Urdu or a language he did not understand. Other foreigners, including Arabs, Chechens, Uzbeks and Pakistanis, sometimes fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan.

By sunrise the next morning, he said, he was free to go.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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