Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Is he not the greatest living humanitarian ? Howard Harper

The last thing he would want is publicity, but former New Zealander Howard Harper, is at last getting some publicity for being one of the most committed humanitarians I have ever known. From Kabul with Love is an utterly unique book – it follows the adventures of New Zealander Howard Harper, as he embarks as a medical worker into Pakistan and Afghanistan.


The story is told through letters sent between Howard and Monika Harper, and Howard’s father, Auckland Pharmacist, Stan Harper.

Howard sets off as a young man in the 1950s first of all to Pakistan, and then to study medicine in England. In England he meets and marries a young nurse, Monika, before heading back to Pakistan – driving overland from England with a caravan in tow. Their adventures eventually take them to Afghanistan in the 1960s to work with the blind and provide relief aid.

What is remarkable about this book is the honesty of the letters. They reveal the human face of life in extremely challenging environments and of those at home in 1950s and 60s New Zealand.

Publication of this book coincides with Howard Harper being awarded the prestigious 2010 Augusta Award from Auckland Grammar School. Past winners have included many well-known New Zealanders, including Sir Ed Hillary.

For Castle Books, the other thing that has made this project unique is that it has been a truly international effort. Howard and Monika currently live in the UK. The compiler of the book, Howard and Monika’s daughter, Dr Faith Goldberg, lives in Israel. Meanwhile, the book is being published here in New Zealand and is printing in both NZ and the UK.

With an article about Howard appearing in The Listener this week, and other coverage surrounding his award, we’re looking forward to more people finding out about about this remarkable New Zealander and reading From Kabul with Love.


Parwan, an hour's drive from Kabul where Howard, Monika and children would have spent some family outings. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Here is the article which is running cover story this week (October 23 to 29 October 2010) in the New Zealand Listener. 

Why would a New Zealander want to have an Afghani passport? Clare de Lore profiles a remarkable eye surgeon who has dedicated his life to helping people


in one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

When Howard Harper filled out papers for his Afghani citizenship, the locals were astounded. Some laughed, others shook their heads. Whereas most Afghans he knew dreamed of leaving, the New Zealand eye surgeon and humanitarian was fighting to stay in the country he calls home.

The year was 2002. After decades of living and working in Afghanistan and surrounding countries, Harper had been offered a medal for his services to Afghanistan. During an audience with the Father of the Nation – previously the King – Harper pressed his case for citizenship and the passport he now proudly carries.

“I told the King, ‘I don’t want a medal, I want an Afghani passport,’” says Harper. “Because otherwise it is difficult to get in and out, and I don’t know when I might next be slung out. I did not want to be dependent on one person’s goodwill.

“After a long to-do, my name was published in the paper and finally there was an announcement in the newspaper and on the radio that Dr Harper had been given the passport and citizenship. I can vote, buy property, and I try to faithfully fulfil the obligations of a citizen.” He is one of only two foreigners granted this status.

Harper is one of New Zealand’s least-known but most impressive sons. Immaculately dressed at all times, this tall, silver-haired, modest son of Te Kuiti and Auckland displays all the grit, integrity and selflessness so admired in our better-known heroes.

During his time in central Asia, he’s seen the Russians invade and then retreat, the rise, demise and resurgence of the Taleban and the arrival of the American-led forces; he has funded and built eye hospitals, seen one of them destroyed and rebuilt it, built two schools, trained dozens of eye doctors and restored sight to many thousands of people.

Along the way, he married Monika, a Polish nurse who shares his passion for the poor. They’ve raised three daughters, in often primitive conditions. He has witnessed cruelty and kindness in equal measure and remains steadfast in his faith in God and human nature. He is loved by, and loves, the Afghan people.

Harper is currently in the UK where he has been, successfully to date, undergoing treatment for cancer. At nearly 80, he knows time is running out to complete his life’s work – his reaction is to simply work harder and faster. His sights are firmly set, health willing, on a return to Kabul.

His life has taken him a long way from Te Kuiti, where he was born in 1930 to Blyth and Esther Harper, his father a pharmacist and mother a teacher. The family moved to Auckland when Harper was a young boy, his father ­relocating his business to Karangahape Rd.

A bright but restless Harper left Auckland Grammar School after just two years’ secondary education. He found work in a large joinery factory where he “learnt quite a lot about bare-knuckle fighting with the other boys working there”. A building apprenticeship followed, and to this day Harper uses the experience acquired there alongside his surgical skills. After that came a stint in retail, including at two Auckland menswear stores. All the while, the young Harper was reading voraciously.



Dad gave me a book about a man called George Hunter, a Scotsman who lived all his adult life in China. That was fascinating for me. He spent his life helping people, especially in the Xinjiang province, and that inspired me.”

Harper persuaded a friend to accompany him on what was to become the trip of a lifetime. “I felt called to go to central Asia. At this point there were few openings, as the Russians had occupied most of central Asia, and the Chinese had taken over Xinjiang. The only open part was Afghanistan and northern Pakistan.”

In 1953, the two young Kiwis left Auckland on the Wanganella for Sydney, changed to a P&O liner headed for Bombay, and eventually made it to Karachi.

They headed to a language school in Muree, a hill station near Islamabad and set about learning Urdu. (Harper and his wife were later to learn Persian, Pashto, Russian and some Mongolian.)

An old Farsi man was persuaded to part with his trusty Sunbeam motorbike, giving the Kiwis the freedom to explore. “We headed up toward Gilgit on the north-western frontier and had a wonderful time sleeping in the old dak bunga­lows, like the old British India resting places. One night we ended up in Balakot. The next day we came across an old tribesman leading his horse, both of them lame. He pleaded with me to help him and his horse. I could do nothing for either of them.

“Then, across the river, the next thing that stirred me was a large hospital. I went in and found it full of leprosy patients, many of them with terrible deformities. There was a man trying to run the place and he told me it was an old British Empire Leprosy Relief Association hospital, abandoned by the British for several years. No one had come to help them since, apart from a small amount of money from the Government for food. There was no treatment, and I determined then that I would come back and help.”
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At 23, Harper headed to England, where he knew he had a better chance of being able to train as a doctor than he had of making the cut for New Zealand’s only medical school at the University of Otago. He says his decision to leave Auckland Grammar early was a mistake, as he lost valuable time coming up to speed to meet admission standards.

Kabuk, in winter 1996, home to the Harper family for so many years. Photo: Bob McKerrow

In addition to his medical studies in London, he studied Urdu at the School of Oriental and African Studies, as well as Islamic law. “I was always the odd one out during my student days, slightly older, and I had something the other students did not: a clear and detailed ambition.”

It was at this time he also found Monika – the love of his life and his closest medical partner. When Monika was six and her sister four, they lost their mother during World War II. They were on the run from the advancing Russians, packed tightly into a train, when Monika’s mother suffered a panic attack and was thrown off onto a platform. The little girls never saw her again and fended for themselves for a while, with some kindness from strangers, until reunited with their father after the war. Monika determined to help children throughout her life. She was in London, improving her English so she could work among the poor, when she and Harper met. Monika had already gained specialist nursing qualifications at London’s famed Moorfields Eye Hospital and persuaded Harper to specialise in eye surgery.

The following years were to be an adventure in some of the least explored parts of the world. Harper and his bride set off from England for Afghanistan in a second-hand diesel Land-Rover towing an old caravan.

“We moved slowly through the rich European panorama until we finally ran out of roads in eastern Greece. As we entered the unmade roads of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan, we discovered Monika was pregnant with Naomi. I thought this was too much to ask of her, to bump along dusty miles with poor food and restless sleep, but she stuck it out.” Not so the caravan, which literally fell apart on the rocky trails. It was abandoned just before Christmas 1962, last seen in the desert outside Baghdad with camels gazing curiously into it.

Naomi was born soon after in New Zealand and was just six weeks old when Harper took up a position at Taxila Hospital in Iran with Norval Christy, a Harvard Medical School graduate who had set up a clinic to treat anyone needing help.

“We would start operating at three in the morning. It was too hot in the daytime – the temperature would be well over 100°F. There would sometimes be more than a hundred people who turned up, and that dictated our day. We stopped for breakfast at nine, having done 100 operations, and then saw about 400 more before lunch and a nap. It was hard work but also a joy to see a patient who has been blind for years suddenly see loved ones again.”

Cataracts affect more than half the people 50 and over living in central Asia. Harper says no one knows why they are so prevalent, but cataract operations have always dominated his work.

“We would do the operation, and then after two or three days we would send them away with thick spectacles so they could see again. Each operation took just five minutes, but that was before lenses – we were just removing cataracts. Later, inserting a lens, it took about 15 minutes.” At the end of his first full year working with Christy, Harper had notched up more than 1000 cataract operations, as well as other types of eye surgery.

The Noor Eye Hospital at Darulaman in Kabul was one of Harper’s biggest and earliest projects. Built in 1966, it was badly damaged in the 1990s and Harper has since rebuilt it. In 1973, while working at his shiny new hospital, Harper was accused of “anti-State activities”. There were to be major repercussions, and not just for Harper.


Kuchi nomads in Afghanistan in the Central Highlands.


“Over the years they realised we would not participate in bribery and corruption – we did not live up to the ideals of the country. The King’s Government of the time had a particularly difficult Prime Minister and he ordered us to leave the country. So we did, and just as we were leaving, we looked up and there was a plane lumbering along overhead. We found out this was taking the King to see an eye doctor I knew in London, a retinal specialist. The King had been playing ball with his grandson and been hit in the eye and it had haemorrhaged. Normally he would have come to me, but I was being slung out so he had to lumber along in an old Russian plane to see the doctor in London. He never got back to Afghanistan as King. There was a rebellion by his cousin Daoud, who took over the ­country as dictator.”

Within months Harper slipped back into Afghanistan, working with some Americans at a small university in Jellalabad. Most of the people he was working among were Muslim – a relationship that worked well, despite cultural and religious differences. Women and children were seen first, a practice unheard of in Afghanistan, but it paid off. He was respected within the community.


“At the time [the 60s and 70s] people were scared stiff of going out at night, but I said I never felt more safe in any country than travelling in Afghanistan at night. People asked me how that could be, and it was that everyone knew when I was travelling and where I was going. They have an amazing bush telegraph in which people pass information to one another alone the lines of ‘this Harper, he is going here and there’, and when you got to your final destination, there would be a crowd waiting to greet you.”

He thought he’d escaped Daoud’s attention but after about a year was discovered and thrown out again. He and his family went to Iran, where he worked as professor of ophthalmology at the Mashhad University medical school before moving to the UK in 1977. They spent 15 or so years there so their three daughters (Naomi, Joy and Faith) could attend secondary schools and experience Western culture.

Monika Harper has nothing but praise for the New Zealand Correspondence School, which saw the girls through their early schooling in central Asia. They would sometimes be set tasks, such as an essay about a day at the beach – none of the girls had seen a beach, so they would write instead about a night in the desert.

Monika says her husband always saw the UK move as temporary and continued his work in central Asia. “We would go to various regions of Pakistan during those years in England. Howard built a clinic in Gilgit, which is still operating today. He had six weeks’ annual holiday – we worked for four weeks and took a break in the other two.”

Harper took up a post as consultant ophthalmologist at the Kent and Sussex Hospital in Tunbridge Wells, established the first cataract day-surgery clinic there, and wrote texts in English and Urdu on ophthalmology still in use today.

Harper’s big break – the chance of a permanent return to central Asia – came when he saw, on television, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu and his wife being shot. It was Christmas Day 1989.

“After that, I knew it was all over for the communists in central Asia. I knew if you could shoot a dictator like that and get away with it, the whole system would come down. I immediately formed what is Vision International [his registered charity]. I knew medical services would drop once they pushed the Russians out, and in many places there were none.”

He negotiated agreements – effectively permission to stay and work – in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. More were to follow covering Mongolia and Tashkent. Each agreement was worth about $1 million to the country concerned if Harper was allowed to get on with his fund-­raising, building and training.

After leaving the UK’s National Health Service in 1995, Harper was given surplus NHS equipment, which he transported to Mongolia through Russia. In the end, it was more trouble than it was worth, he says, laughing.

“Going via Russia was like being in a den of thieves. The truck, with all this wonderful equipment, would be stopped and effectively arrested. They would claim it was overloaded, and then unload things and just steal what they wanted. By the time this happened three or four times, the load was certainly lighter. I made a big fuss, wrote letters about this and so they had a record of who I was. Next time I arrived at the border, they took me away and I ended up in prison for the night. Eventually, I gave up going through Russia.”

In more recent times, Harper says, there have always been ways of getting in and out of Afghanistan and getting around the country, and he has come to accept the risks of doing so.


Abdul is an Afghani friend of the Harpers. He agreed to comment on their work but his name has been changed to protect his identity.
“Howard’s deep love and passion for the Afghan people has led him to fluency in the language, and a deep understanding of the mindset and culture. He is trusted and Afghans have opened their lives to him. Despite his Western appearance, his attitude was always different from other foreigners in that he felt at home with Afghans and shared freely with us.”

Abdul says the Harpers took on a mammoth task in providing services to the sight-impaired.

“Their work has affected thousands of people over the decades. Howard’s name and face are familiar to many Afghans living in even the rural areas of the country as he has serviced them with his mobile eye clinics despite great hardship and danger.”


All the while, Howard and Monika lived in circumstances most New Zealanders would find intolerable. This is Harper’s own description of their house in Kabul: “A simple two-storey brick and mortar house, in one of the better districts of Kabul, close to the Parliament. We have no running water, but a pump and a polluted shallow well for water. We have to boil and filter our drinking water, as attacks of dysentery are common.


“There are scorpions of all shapes and sizes, and it is important not to run outside in bare feet! We have electricity sometimes every third day, so we don’t have a refrigerator but a small electric generator for light in the evening. Apart from a few drawbacks, we find it a good place to live.”

The couple have been sensible about personal security but argue that having security guards attracts more attention than it’s worth. Besides, they just didn’t have the money. Harper usually moves around Kabul in a car with two Afghan friends but sometimes ventures out alone.

There have been close calls. In 2009, he was alone, driving the car, after dropping a friend at Kabul Airport. “It was at the time that they changed the guard protecting the airport. I noticed an old guy going along in a shaky way in a car and I knew there would shortly be a busload of troops leaving.

“I thought, ‘I bet he is going to blow that up’, and I knew I should just keep going. I’ve learnt to think and act like an Afghan. Sure enough, there was a huge explosion and people were killed.

“If we were people trying to make money or connected to the military, the Afghans would attack us. But if they feel you are on their side and not political or military, they will be friendly in many ways you would not get in New Zealand.

“I have a friend, for example, a Pathan with a long woolly beard, and he knows every Taleban leader there is. He and I have worked together for a number of years. When I ran short of money on one of my projects, he said, ‘Don’t worry, I will borrow it for you.’ He went around his relatives, some of them high up in the Government and got 5000 here, 5000 there, and ‘here it is, use it’.

“They did want it back again – they could not afford to give it outright. This is the astonishing thing about Afghans – they will kill you if they mistrust you or think you are their enemy, but in other ways they will support you in ways you would not easily find in New Zealand or in England.”

The Harpers live on an NHS pension. Harper sold a house he owned in Algies Bay, north of Auckland, to fund one of his hospitals, his family help when they can, and he has a network of committed supporters in New Zealand and abroad who contribute from time to time. He has received large one-off donations from funding organisations in the US, Japan, Germany and the UK, but says he really relies on private donations of sums as little as $20.

Harper’s legacy includes the Noor Eye Hospital, a newly completed day eye clinic alongside it and at least a dozen self-sustaining eye clinics throughout central Asia, many of them now operating for 30 or more years, and two schools. He says there is much more to be done.

“The eye clinic we recently completed cost us about US$200,000. Our aim is to build up a team of Afghan nurses and doctors, as well as foreigners, and gradually get it self-sustaining. That means literally getting a very small fee from each patient, perhaps $50, with free treatment for the very poorest, about a quarter of them. We will take them on our own shoulders.”


Hamish McMaster heads New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s Middle East and Africa Division. In early 2009, while he was our man in Iran and accredited to Kabul, he heard of Harper’s work and visited his clinic as it was being built. A long-time diplomat, McMaster describes his arrival at the dusty building site in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

“Imagine cement bags lying on the ground, piles of bricks and Afghan workers doing their thing. In the middle of this a beautifully laid table, vinyl cloth, with china teacups and saucers, and some bread to eat. I recall Dr Harper was wearing a bow tie. And my abiding memory is of a little New Zealand flag sitting right in the middle of the table.”

McMaster says he has met other New Zealanders working in Afghanistan, but Harper stands out. And he says there’s a very good reason Harper has kept a low profile both in Afghanistan and in New Zealand.

“I would say it has been essential for him to keep under the radar in order to stay and survive so long. It is uncommon for someone to live there for that length of time, and he has survived the vagaries of Afghanistan through his humility and determination.”


McMaster rates Harper’s work in improving the lot of Afghanis on a par with efforts to improve security via construction of schools and repairing roads and other infrastructure. A New Zealand Government grant of $50,000 was personally authorised by Foreign Minister Murray McCully after he visited Afghanistan and met Harper.


“When Dr Harper’s work was brought to my attention, I took the chance, during a visit to Afghanistan last year, to include him in an official dinner. I was struck by his remarkable determination. He’s made a huge humanitarian contribution in very difficult circumstances. It’s a tough place to visit, let alone live,” says McCully.

Abdul, the Harpers’ Kabul-based friend, vouches for Harper’s standing in the community.


“He is highly respected by all Afghan people regardless of ethnic persuasion. He is honourable, someone to be trusted at all times. On one occasion the King was reported to have said we need more foreigners of his calibre to serve Afghanistan.”

While he and Monika were living in unaccustomed comfort in the UK, the Taleban gained control in Afghanistan. Harper made a week-long visit in 1997, and says he was sad to see how miserable life had become. The Noor Eye Hospital had been severely damaged, and human rights were under daily attack.

“You would talk to respectable young girls and women who were whipped for even showing a tiny bit of skin on their foot.


“I went to visit the then Minister of Health to talk about resuming work there. When I met him, I was surprised – he was an uneducated man, which was very odd for the Afghans. He looked like a cross between a mullah and a butcher. He got down on his knees, though, and begged me to start work again. I said I would only do so once things settled down a bit and he accepted that.”

In 2002, the Harpers returned “home” to Kabul.

“It was vital to get back into Afghanistan after the Taleban were defeated. They had been particularly destructive. I had never seen a country brought down to such a level. They had destroyed the infrastructure, education, the freedom of women, and there was a very narrow version of Islam that even banned music.”

Harper says the arrival of the US-led forces brought about some improvements, but they are unlikely to last. “I am always optimistic as far as the people are concerned, but once the Americans and Brits pull out, who knows what will happen? The Afghans are wonderful, but once they start fighting they are quite ruthless.

“Elections have never worked for them. They need strong leadership, almost autocratic. There is little love lost between the various tribal elements. My impression is that Afghanistan is naturally two countries, one Persian-speaking, including Kabul, and the other a Pashto-speaking country – the south-east including the north-western frontier of Pakistan, ­centred on Peshawar.

“Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan. Most people think if they are given a position of power, it is for them and their family’s benefit. That will never change. There are, however, some people, like the late King, who besides looking after themselves, will also consider the good of their people and look after them. That’s the best we can hope for – find these good but usually flawed men and work with them.”

Despite the poverty, corruption and danger, Harper says there is a very simple explanation for spending a lifetime in the service of strangers in some of the most hostile places on earth.

“I spent a lot of time getting a very sophisticated education in New Zealand and England. I somehow owe something back, so therefore while other people may want to stop at age 60 or 65, I feel as long as you’re in good nick and your mind is working, your hands are able and you can think straight, there is no reason not to go on longer. I take this a year at a time.

“I might not have much money, but I’ve had a very rich life.”

Howard Harper will be honoured by his alma mater, Auckland Grammar School, at a dinner in Auckland in November.

Thanks to the New Zealand Listener for permission to run this article and congratulations to Clare de Lore/ David Lomas for such an outstanding piece of writing and editing.





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