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Brutal fallout

Afghanistan | Selfless medical aid workers murdered in Afghanistan remembered

On Sunday evening as members of an international fellowship in Kabul gathered to remember and celebrate the lives of 10 humanitarian aid workers killed during a medical mission to Afghanistan's northern province of Badakhshan, details of their lives and events leading up to their deaths continued to emerge.

Gunmen apparently surrounded the team as they crossed into Nuristan Province from remote Badakhshan late last week, shot them at close range, then raided their vehicles and belongings. The Taliban quickly claimed responsibility, one of the most brutal attacks on aid workers since war began in 2001, saying they were foreign spies and accusing them of spreading Christianity.

The team, organized by International Assistance Mission (IAM), included six Americans, four Aghans, a German, and a Briton. Two of the Afghans escaped death: One fled to his hometown of Jalalabad following the attack; the other, a driver sources say is suspected of aiding in the attack, returned to Kabul, where Afghan police arrested him. Bodies of the remaining team members were airlifted to Kabul on Sunday, with U.S. embassy personnel taking custody of the remains of Americans. Autopsies are planned as part of an embassy investigation.

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Team leader Tom Little, 64, an optometrist from New York who had worked in Afghanistan since 1976, was a fluent Dari speaker and helped to establish an eye hospital in Kabul that was overrun and shut down by the Taliban in 1996. He made treks to remote areas of the country in what fellow aid workers referred to as "eye camps" and was said to treat Taliban fighters though they briefly kicked him out of the country in 2001.

Among the aid community Little and his wife Libby were widely known for holding pancake dinners every Friday night that sometimes topped 100 in attendance. "People just had to bring their own toppings, and Tom would stand at the griddle and make hundreds of pancakes each week," said Rachel Schaus, a humanitarian worker in Kabul for more than a decade and a neighbor. Schaus said Little successfully intervened during a robbery attempt at her own home, as gunmen held her, her husband, and two young children during the early days of war in 2001.

"Tom yelled, 'O bacha, chee maykuni?' which means, 'Little boy, what are you doing?'-words chosen to shame our robbers-and after pointing their guns at him, they fled the house," recalled Schaus.

Dan Terry, 63, was another veteran of Afghanistan aid work and close friend of Little. He had worked in the country since 1971, married a Finnish aid worker named Seija in 1976, and raised three daughters there. Just a week ago in Kabul, with Terry on "his trek north," I listened as Seija recounted over dinner their family surviving Soviet occupation, civil war, and Taliban takeover. They worked for a time in a remote village in the mountains west of Kabul, 9,000 feet above sea level. The Taliban once jailed Terry for overstaying his visa, and he made friends with fellow prisoners whom he witnessed being beaten. Terry and his wife had just returned to Afghanistan from the United States for the medical mission to Badakhshan: "This is the work and the people that we love," she told me. On Sunday Seija told friends the only way she could identify her husband's body, after he had been shot multiple times, was by his beard.

"Dan Terry and Tom Little were men of faith and made no secret of that," wrote BBC journalist and friend Kate Clark on a blog following the killings.

But aid workers who knew the IAM team said they were on a mission to provide medical care, not to proselytize, or attempt to convert Muslims to Christianity. IAM is registered as a Christian charity working on development projects in Afghanistan going back to 1966. Executive director Dirk Frans told media that the group does not engage in evangelism efforts. In fact, non-governmental organizations registered to work in Afghanistan must adhere to the "Principles of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement," which state that "aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint."

Aid groups with Christian roots have come under increasing scrutiny in Afghanistan, following the May release of a videotape showing baptisms and prayers services allegedly instigated by Western aid workers ("Kill the Christians," June 18, 2010). Since that time two groups had their work in Afghanistan suspended. Several others, including IAM, have been the object of investigations, with Ministry of Economy officials showing up to scrutize hiring practices, internal audits, and other paperwork.

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