Accuracy in Media

Hamid Karzai has made several statements recently indicating his intention to bring Taliban members back into the fold of the Afghan government. The Taliban have shown no attempt to become more “civic-oriented” in their dealings. This weekend came news that ten people were shot dead in the north of the country. They had been shot on Thursday August 5, and their bodies were found on Friday.

The people who died were six Americans, a woman from Britain, a German and two Afghan interpreters. The foreign nationals were medical aid workers attached to the International Assistance Mission. The bodies were left lying in a remote forested region in the mountainous Karan wa Manjan district in Badakhshan province.

One survivor, an Afghan named Sayfullah claimed that they had been traveling for 15 days in the provinces of  Panjsher, Nuristan and Badakhshan. On Friday, the group had stop their vehicles to have dinner when

“A group of insurgents with long white and black beards and long white Afghan clothes with turbans arrived.”

The attackers searched the pockets and belongings, taking money.

The Americans who were killed who died have been named:

Dr. Tom Little was the team leader. He was an optometrist from Delmar, New York. He had been in Afghanistan since the late 1970s, and had raised a family of three children in the country. Apart from a brief period when he left the country in 2001, he had returned a few months later, after the American invasion. He had continued to provide eye care in remote regions. In 2003, he had told NPR that

“It seemed dishonest and shameful, almost, to say goodbye to our friends and patients here who couldn’t leave.”

Dan Terry, who was also shot dead, worked closely with Dr Little. Aged 64, Terry had first been in Afghanistan in 1971. He had come back in 1980. With his wife, he had raised three daughters in the country.

Glenn Lapp, aged 40, was a trained nurse from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He managed the IAM provincial eye care program.

32-year old Cheryl Beckett was a pastor’s daughter from Knoxville, Tennessee. She had been in Afghanistan for six years and worked in mother-child health care. She had spent time working in Honduras, Mexico and Africa.

51-year old Thomas Grams was a dentist who worked with Global Dental Relief. Four years ago, Dr Grams had given up his practice in Durango Colorado to dedicate himself to providing free dental care to children in Afghanistan and Nepal.

Dr Karen Woo (pictured above) was a Briton who worked on mother-and-child healthcare. Dr Woo had been due to leave Afghanistan to go home and get married. Her fiancé identified her body. They would have been married in two weeks’ time.

At the time of writing, I cannot find the names of the sixth American or the German aid worker.

The Taliban claimed that it had killed the eight foreign aid workers and their two Afghan interpreters. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid stated that the aid workers had been killed because they had been “spying for the Americans” and “spreading Christianity.” The head of the International Assistance Mission is Dirk Franz. He denied the Taliban’s claims:

“The accusation is completely baseless, they were not carrying any bibles except maybe their personal bibles. As an organization we are not involved in proselytizing at all.”

Relief Agencies and the Taliban: 2001

The International Assistance Mission is an umbrella group that works with Christian medical agencies. In 2001, when the Taliban were still in control of Afghanistan, the Kabul offices of IAM were shut, and workers – including Tom Little – had been expelled at gunpoint. Little’s wife Libby had been slapped by Taliban members. Some members of IAM at that time had been put on trial, accused of trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

On August 5, 2001, 24 workers for the charity Shelter Now International were arrested. The charity builds homes for refugees and the poor.16 were Afghans and 8 were westerners. The workers were eventually freed after a rescue mission in November. The westerners had been six women and two men, from Germany, America and Australia. One of the hostages, Georg Taubmann, had been the head of Shelter Now’s Afghan operations. He returned in 2002 to Kabul to continue his work. The staff of Shelter Now had been accused of converting Afghan Muslims to Christianity.

Before the “arrests”, in July 2001 foreign aid agencies had been given a list of rules which workers were obliged to sign and return. Salim Haqqani, who ran the Taliban’s ministry for protection of virtue and prevention of vice, said:

“Other countries are upset about the arrest, but what about us and our religion? They [Shelter Now International staff] have shown disrespect for our religion.”

Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer had been arrested on August 3, 2001, at the home of an Afghan family. This – of itself – was a crime under Taliban “law.” The Taliban claimed that the two women had been trying to proselytize for Christianity.  Mullah Mohammed Khaqzar, the Taliban’s deputy interior minister said: “Maybe we had suspicions before about Shelter Now that they were preaching Christianity, but now we have proof.” (After 9/11, Khaqzar defected in late November, 2001). Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer were freed on November 13 after the Northern Alliance took control of Ghazni, where they had been held.

2007: South Korean Christian Aid Workers Killed

On July 19, 2007, 23 members of a community church in Seoul, South Korea, were abducted by the Taliban as they made their way to carry out work in Kandhahar in the south of Afghanistan. There followed six weeks of incarceration.

The Taliban had held the captives while expecting some of their imprisoned fighters to be freed in exchange. Two male members of the Korean group, including pastor, were shot soon after the Christians had been kidnapped. The killings took place when it appeared that there would be no prisoner exchange.

Taliban sources said at the time that a ransom, valued at between two and 20 million dollars, had been secretly paid by the South Korean authorities. The head of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service had been in Korea when the last hostages had been released, but had denied that payments had been made.

Rudolf Blechschmidt, a German national had been kidnapped in Wardak province on July 18, 2007 with four Afghans. The kidnappers were working for Afghan warlord Mullah Nissam Udin. Ruediger Diedrich, another German who had been kidnapped at the same time died from gunshot wounds. 62-year old Blechschmidt had a heart condition and was in frail health. The German authorities agreed to a deal whereby members of an Afghan gang were released and money was paid. Rudolf Blechschmidt had been freed in October 2007, two weeks after two messengers, sent to negotiate his release, were also kidnapped.

In March of 2007, kidnapped Swiss Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo was released after five Taliban prisoners were released from jail. The journalist had been a captive for a fortnight. He had been captured on March 5 near Lashkar Gah, along with his driver Syed Agha and his translator Ajmal Naqshbandi. The driver was accused by the Taliban of spying. His head was slowly cut off in front of the journalist, and a film of the event had been distributed.

The exchange of captives set a dangerous precedent for foreign workers in Afghanistan in 2007. When the Korean missionary workers had been kidnapped, they had rented a bus which had been driven by a Taliban member. This driver had handed the Koreans over to the Taliban.

The two members of their group who were killed in the early stages of the hostage situation were Presbyterian pastor Bae Hyung-kyu (pictured) and medical-services volunteer Shim Sung-min. The Koreans, from the Saemmul church, had been warned that they would be at risk if they went to Afghanistan.

A year earlier, on August 3, 2006 another group of South Koreans had been expelled from Afghanistan. These were Christians from the Institute of Asian Culture and Development (IACD) which had run medical centers in Afghanistan since January 2002. The group had intended to run a medical education event on August 5, 2006, but clerics from Mazar-e Sharif protested until the Koreans were officially banished. The IACD were accused of spreading Christianity, even though the organization denied this.

Said Hashemi, a cleric in Mazar-e Sharif claimed in 2006 that:

“Some Korean students who are Christians came as tourists to Afghanistan. Some came to Mazar-e Sharif — and in addition to their tourist activities, they’ve been spreading Christian propaganda both secretly and overtly. Some time ago, in the presence of the religious adviser of the Afghan president, there were discussions in which provincial officials presented evidence about Christians spreading propaganda through documents and compact discs. They were seen doing this in one of the districts [of Balkh Province].”

2008: Killings of Aid Workers in Logar Province

In August 2008, three women aid workers and one of their Afghan drivers were shot dead. The women were from the International Rescue Committee. Only one person survived. They had been traveling in two clearly-marked IRC Toyota Land Cruisers from Gardez to Kabul when they were ambushed. The victims were shot without being taken hostage. The Taliban claimed that they had fired upon a two-vehicle convoy carrying “military personnel, most of them female.”

One of the victims was 40-year old Jacqueline Kirk, adjunct professor of education at McGill University in Canada and a former University of Ulster research fellow. Her husband Andrew Kirk said: “Their policy was never to travel with weapons in the car so there wouldn’t be any doubt that they’re a peaceful humanitarian organization.”

Five Taliban had fired numerous bullets at the convoy. The workers had died from multiple bullet wounds. The other IRC employees who died in the attack were 30-year old Shirley Case, from Trinidad and Tobago, 30-year old Shirley Case from Canada and their driver, 25-year old Mohammad Aimal. He had been employed by IRC for six years before the attack.

The Future for Aid Workers in Afghanistan

Aid workers are not the only people to have been kidnapped or killed. Journalists have been killed and abducted, as have construction workers and UN workers. In April this year, a 40-year old Japanese Muslim journalist, Kosuke Tsuneoka, was abducted in the northern city of Kunduz. A ransom of several hundred thousand dollars was demanded by his captors, but so far Tsuneoka’s fate is unknown.

In a country where the central government of Hamid Karzai is plagued by endemic corruption, civilians in outlying rural regions are more susceptible to health and social problems. In these regions, away from the main conflict zones of the war, it is almost exclusively through the actions of foreign aid workers that children and families can get access to proper medical treatment. Yet in these regions there is less protection.

The story of foreigners proselytizing for Christianity is a feeble device. If Islam were a secure faith, it would be able to survive a few converts to other religions. In June this year, Afghans who had converted to Christianity were imprisoned after a TV report asserted that the converts had been led to Christianity by Norwegian Church Aid and Church World Service of the United States. Both groups have denied proselytizing activities, but they were banned from operating in Afghanistan.

Abdul Sattar Khawasi, a politician in the lower house of the government said:

“Those Afghans that appeared in this video film should be executed in public, the house should order the attorney general and the NDS (intelligence agency) to arrest these Afghans and execute them.”

After the two Christian aid groups were banned, more than 1,000 protesters raged against Christianity in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. An effigy of Pope Benedict XVI was burned, and there were cries of “Death to America! Long live Islam!”

The government bans proselytizing of faiths other than Islam, and all NGOs that operate in the area have to abide by this guidance if they wish to get aid to the people they wish to help.

When mere rumors can fan hysteria, and when the Taliban kill people for proselytizing when there is no evidence, the future for aid workers in Afghanistan looks bleak.

The charity Save the Children states:

Afghanistan has both the highest child mortality rate and the highest fertility rate in the world. The true scale of the crisis facing these children is hidden by the international community’s focus on the conflict:

·         25% of Afghani children will die before reaching their fifth birthday

·         more than half of all children are stunted, and one in three children under five is underweight

·         maternal mortality rates are the second highest in the world – an Afghan woman is 225 times more likely to die in childbirth than a woman in the UK.

In July, the British government’s Department for International Development announced that it would be expanding its aid operations in Afghanistan by 40%. After the killing of the nine aid workers on Thursday, the UK government is now being forced to reconsider if it can provide any aid staff to work outside of the cities.

The north of Afghanistan, and particularly the province of Badakhshan where the aid workers were killed, has very rapidly become a security risk area. No NGOs have yet decided to withdraw from this province after the murders, but the uncertainty for the future continues. It has been argued that if aid work is scaled back, then the Taliban will have scored a victory.

Guest columns do not necessarily reflect the views of Accuracy in Media or its staff.

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