Devastated Christian aid group pledges to continue work in Afghanistan

By Joshua Partlow
Monday, August 9, 2010; A01

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.

"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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