Sunday, 8 August 2010

Tom was murdered in Afghanistan, along with nine other humanitarian workers.

Tom Little, seen with Libby Little in this 2001 picture, was killed in an ambush in Afghanistan.

I had a relaxing lunch today in Colombo, and when I came back to my hotel room, I was horrified to get the news that my good friend Tom Little and nine other medical workers were gunned down in cold blood, probably last Friday, in Afghanistan.

During 1993-96 when I lived in Kabul, Tom. Libby and daughters lived down the road. Often I would pop round for their weekly pancake evening where we shared food, laughter and much needed company.
Tom taught me much about Afghanistan and I will forever be indebited for that.

A map from the BBC showing where the killings took place.

Tom is dead. The mighty Totara (tree) has fallen. I am empty.

I feel so angry that a group calling themselves soldiers, have brutally murdered Tom Little, and nine others people who had carried out medical work in the remote  Parun Valley. Tom and his team brought sight back to people who had been blind all their lives, enabled people to walk who had been crippled by land mines, and helped thousands of others with major health problems. There are thousands of Afghans today who owe their sight and lives to Tom Little and his teams.

Tonight on the BBC TV, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the former Foreign Minister of Afghanistan, said he had trained with the medical team's leader, Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who had lived and worked in the country since the 1970s.

Abdullah Abdullah said the team had been reaching out to the most remote areas "These were dedicated people. Tom Little used to work in Afghanistan with his heart - he dedicated half of his life to service the people of Afghanistan.

"To hear that he was killed... in such a brutal manner - I couldn't believe it."

He labelled the attackers "enemies of the Afghan people", and said he hoped the incident would not deter aid groups from their work.

Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said they were missionaries and claimed that bibles translated into Dari had been found.

But Dr Abdullah dismissed the Taliban's claims as "ridiculous".

In a statement, Mrs Hillary Clinton described the killings as a "despicable act of wanton violence" against people who were in Afghanistan "to help people in need".

"We condemn in the strongest possible terms this senseless act," she said. "We also condemn the Taliban's transparent attempt to justify the unjustifiable by making false accusations about their activities in Afghanistan," said Mrs Clinton.

I know that Tom Little would never harm a fly, so why have they killed 10 humanitarian workers ? Now Libby and her three daughters are without their  husband and father, and the family and friends of 10 slain people are suffering because of this senseless act.

Tom and Libby have spent over 30 years in Afghanistan, rearing three daughters and surviving both the Soviet invasion and bloody civil war of the 1990s that destroyed much of Kabul. That was the time when I got close to Tom, Libby and their daughters. (Tom on the right in the photo opposite)

Yes, Tom was a Christian, but from knowing the man well, he would never attempt to convert anyone to Christianity. Just being in Tom's presence was enough to know this man was real and committed to humanity.

Houses at Woma in the Parun Valley where Tom Little and his team spent two weeks provding eye and health clinics before being murdered when returning to Kabul. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The Parun valley is one of the remotest in Afghanistan, and in 1996 it took me three days to walk in with members of the Afghan Red Crescent. It is perched high in the Hindu Kush in Nuristan. Nowadays there is a road that goes a long way into this remote corner of Afghanistan.

Tom was the team leader and an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who has been working in Afghanistan for about 30 years and spoke fluent Dari, one of the two main Afghan languages, Frans said. Little, along with employees from other Christian organizations, were expelled by the Taliban government in August 2001 after the arrest of eight Christian aid workers - two Americans and six Germans - for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.

He returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001 by U.S.-backed forces. Known in Kabul as "Mr. Tom," Little supervised a network of IAM eye hospitals and clinics around the country largely funded through private donations.

"He was a remarkable man, and very committed to helping the people of Afghanistan," said David Evans of the Loudonville Community Church, New York, who accompanied Little on a 5,231-mile road (8,419-kilometer) trip to deliver the medical team's Land Rover vehicles from England to Kabul in 2004.

Dirk Frans, director of the International Assistance Mission, at the agency's Kabul office on August 7, 2010. Relevant offers

Ten members of the Christian medical team - six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton - were gunned down in a gruesome slaughter that the Taliban said they carried out, alleging the volunteers were spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The gunmen spared an Afghan driver, who recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged for his life.

Team members - doctors, nurses and logistics personnel - were attacked as they were returning to Kabul after their two-week mission in the remote Parun valley of Nuristan province about 160 miles (260 kilometers) north of Kabul. They had decided to veer northward into Badakhshan province because they thought that would be the safest route back to Kabul, said Dirk Frans, director of the International Assistance Mission, which organized the team.

Another member of the team, British surgeon Karen Woo (left), regularly blogged about her work and life in Afghanistan, calling herself Explorer Kitten.She was to be married next week.

The bullet-riddled bodies - including three women - were found Friday near three four-wheeled drive vehicles in a wooded area just off the main road that snakes through a narrow valley in the Kuran Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan, provincial police chief Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz told The Associated Press.

Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the AP that they killed the foreigners because they were "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity." In a Pashto language statement acquired by the AP, the Taliban also said the team was carrying Dari language bibles and "spying gadgets."

Frans said the International Assistance Mission, or IAM, one of the longest serving non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan, is registered as a nonprofit Christian organization but does not proselytize.

Frans said the team had driven to Nuristan, left their vehicles and hiked for nearly a half day with pack horses over mountainous terrain to reach the Parun valley where they traveled from village to village on foot offering medical care for about two weeks.

"This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966," the charity said in a statement. "We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year."

Among the dead was team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who has been working in Afghanistan for about 30 years and spoke fluent Dari, one of the two main Afghan languages, Frans said. Little, along with employees from other Christian organizations, were expelled by the Taliban government in August 2001 after the arrest of eight Christian aid workers - two Americans and six Germans - for allegedly trying to convert Afghans to Christianity.

He returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001 by U.S.-backed forces. Known in Kabul as "Mr. Tom," Little supervised a network of IAM eye hospitals and clinics around the country largely funded through private donations.

"He was a remarkable man, and very committed to helping the people of Afghanistan," said David Evans of the Loudonville Community Church, New York, who accompanied Little on a 5,231-mile road (8,419-kilometer) trip to deliver the medical team's Land Rover vehicles from England to Kabul in 2004.

"They raised their three girls there. He was part and parcel of that culture," Evans said.

Little had been making such trips to Afghan villages for decades, offering vision care and surgical services in regions where medical services of any type are scarce.

The work has long been fraught with risk, but Evans said Little was a natural for the job. He spoke the language, knew the local customs, and had the patience and diplomatic skills to handle sticky situations.

Another relief organization, Bridge Afghanistan, said on its website that the group included one of its members, Dr. Karen Woo, who gave up a job in a private clinic in London to do humanitarian work in Afghanistan. A message posted last March on the Bridge Afghanistan website said she was "flat broke and living in a war zone but enjoying helping people in great need."

In a fundraising blog posted last month, Woo said the mission to Nuristan would require hiking with pack horses through mountains rising to 16,000 feet (5,000 meters) to reach the Parun valley, a harsh, isolated area about 9,500 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level where an estimated 50,000 people eke out a primitive existence as shepherds and subsistence farmers.

"The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those that need it most," she wrote.

"The area ... we will reach is one of great harshness but of great beauty also. I hope that we will be able to provide medical care for a large number of people."

Names of the other foreigners were not released until the bodies could be brought to Kabul for identification, Frans said.

Frans told the AP that he was skeptical the Taliban were responsible. He said the team had studied security conditions carefully before continuing with the mission.

"We are a humanitarian organization. We had no security people. We had no armed guards. We had no weapons," he said.

Authorities in Nuristan heard that foreigners were in the area and sent police to investigate, according to Nuristan Gov. Jamaluddin Bader. The police provided security for the final three or four days of the mission and escorted them across the boundary into Badakhshan, he said. The escorts left after the team told them that they felt safe in Badakhshan, he added.

Frans said he last talked to Little, over a scratchy satellite phone connection, on Wednesday evening. On Friday, the Afghan driver who survived the attack called to report the killings. A fourth Afghan member of the team was not killed because he took a different route home because he had family in Jalalabad, Frans said.

The surviving driver, Saifullah, told authorities that team members stopped for lunch Thursday afternoon in the Sharron valley and were accosted by gunmen when they returned to their vehicles, according to Kemtuz, the Badakhshan police chief. The volunteers were forced to sit on the ground. The gunmen looted the vehicles, then fatally shot them, Kemtuz said.

The Afghan driver who survived "told me he was shouting and reciting the holy Quran and saying 'I am Muslim. Don't kill me,'" Kemtuz said. The gunmen let the driver go free the next day. A shepherd witnessed the carnage and reported the killings to the local district chief, who then brought the bodies to his home, Kemtuz said.

Aid workers have been often targeted by insurgents.

In 2007, 23 South Korean aid workers from a church group were taken hostage in southern Afghanistan. Two were killed and the rest were later released. In August 2008, four International Rescue Committee workers, including three women, were gunned down in Logar province in eastern Afghanistan.

In October 2008, Gayle Williams, who had dual British and South African citizenship, was killed by two gunmen on a motorcycle as she walked to work in the capital of Kabul. In late 2009, a French aid worker was kidnapped at gunpoint in the Afghan capital. Dany Egreteau, a 32-year-old worker for Solidarite Laique, or Secular Solidarity, who was seen in an emotional hostage video, was later released after a month in captivity.


Anjana said...

Bob, I share your pain, however I understand your pain and the pain of the families of these brave people is much greater. May God give strength to all those who are grieving to carry the torch that Tom and his team proudly carried till the end of their challenging journey.

I wish human life and dignity is valued and respected some more by human beings, especially when their own principles teach them not to kill an innocent person. I wonder how are they going to face God/Allah/Bhagwan when their time comes.

Vikas Goyal said...

Dear Bob, Today arrived in Kabul. Many people briefed me and I saw that in news. I could not miss a single word about Tom. With tears in my eyes, I have great respect for his work.

....and When 17 aid wokers were killed in Sri Lanka, I was there. We have an incredible job and I really appreicate the way you wrote - that's what we can do apart from our normal duty - Let world know how it is being an aid worker.

Vikas Goyal

PATERIKA HENGREAVES, Poet Laureate said...

Hi Bob

I have the most severe headache from reading this painful post. Why the slaughter of people who are doing good-work, saving lives and doing such great humanitarian work. This dreadful act begs for universal condemnation with more than an iron fist from the powers that be...Wild beasts need to be tamed, by any means in the book, once and for all.

Bob I feel your pain from the loss of your friends who shared your passion of saving lives and giving help to people in distress in any season and in any kind of weather; now cut-down by savages; but the good work must go and Good will win in the end because Good is much stronger than evil-santanic forces; for I do believe in this promise from the Omnipotent One.

Take care

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Vikas

I am pleased to learn you are Kabul for it is a place that has so much meaning and memories for me. I feel your tears and pain, for often not knowing is harder than knowing. If you are able to attend a memorial service of sign in a condolences book, that would be wonderful.

Thanks for your comments.

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Paterika

A painful post describes it well. Unfortunately there is no easy way to describe what has happenede, and what is still happening in Afghanistan. The evil we see is a reflection not only on the Afghan people, but a reflection on the world at large. For over 1000 years Afghanistan has been penalised by its geographic location, as conquerors and invaded have killed,plundered, colonised and raped her assets.


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
My condolences and thoughts to you, those whem knew these fine people, and their families. Your comment to Paterika is so true.
Kia kaha.

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Robb

It is so traumatic for the loved ones and close friends of murdered people, as the wrestle with the question, why !

I try to ask why, and find thge answers in the history of this war-torn land.


Donald said...

Dear Bob

My sympathies to you and yours.

I'm at a loss for words, but this does not stop my feelings... tears are easy, but it is hard to contemplate further the suffering and grief that this craziness has propagated. It has to be huge, given the positive effect these people have had on the lives of so many, over such a long time span.

We must do our best to ease the suffering using as many avenues as are open to us.

Take care


Jamie said...

Hey Bob,

This is far too sad a story for all of us, let alone those with personal links to the families. Kia kaha man.

There is a desperate imbalance in the way a stroke of evil, perhaps one mans madness, can account for such a great person who has done so much good for so many people over such a long time.

The world is mad


冰微 said...


Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Jamie

Sad news indeed. I live in hope that the perpetrators will face justice, rough justice.

I got an email last night from Jason Elliot, whose written books on Persia and Afghanistan. He writes a fitting tribute to Tom.

Kia Ora mate.

Sad days. I heard about Tom and others just after I did an interview for the BBC. Couldn't believe it.

I remember Libby's pancakes too, and I remember Tom as an incredibly brave and dedicated man - one of a tiny number who stuck it out during the darkest days in Kabul. As you well know, that took a special sort of person.

His character did the talking and he had no interest in prosletysing. He was one of the humblest and bravest men I ever met. I am sure too that after all those years of having cheated death, he went to his Maker with a tranquil heart. I hope he was able to give some comfort to the others with him. He toa taumata rau.

A pity we could not have sent a hundred thousand men like Tom to Afghanistan instead of soldiers.

Let's catch up soon,


Stef said...

Thank you for your blog post. My grandparents went to church with the Little family in Delmar, NY. They were shocked and saddened to hear this horrible news. We send our deepest condolences to Dr. Little's wife and children.

Stefanie Hostetter

Bob McKerrow said...

Dear Stef

What a tragedy. The Little's were amazing people who did so much for Afghan people, and friends and family too.

Janis said...

This can't really have effect, I think like this.

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