Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 14 August 2010 12:04 UK

New targets in Afghanistan: Women, children, foreigners

By Kate Clark
Former BBC Kabul correspondent

The deaths earlier this month of eight foreign aid workers and two Afghans in the north-eastern Afghan province of Badakhshan show new levels of cruelty and disregard for human life.

Dan Terry
Aid worker Dan Terry went to Afghanistan in 1971

In the summer of 2001, I met by chance two people who like me had also been kicked out of Afghanistan by the Taliban government: Mervyn Patterson and Dan Terry.

We sat in Islamabad in Pakistan, just next door, discussing the bloody scenarios being played out in the country we all loved.

The Taliban were massacring civilians in parts of the north, burning villages and enacting a scorched earth policy which created pockets of hungry, cold refugees, who they then bombed as they camped out in the remotest mountainous areas.

Both Mervyn and Dan had seen the suffering first hand and Dan had been part of a very local, very determined aid effort to get food through the snow, across the front lines that winter.

Dan turned to us and said: "You know, I think we've taken the wrong tack with the Taliban.

"We should be trying to reach out to them, maybe we could use our shared faith to get some sort of dialogue going."

Mervyn and I just stared at him.

In the last days of the Taliban, this great-hearted man had not given up on finding the common humanity between himself and the members of what had become a murderous regime

You may be thinking that Dan was some sort of holy fool, naively venturing into danger and hoping for the best.

But his work here was entirely practical, fixing machines from scrap, setting up wind power projects from materials in the bazaar, rigorously working his contacts and getting security guarantees and sitting drinking tea with the worst of commanders to enable him to get to the poorest people.

He also fixed lives - reconciling, peacemaking - and always, always laughing.

In the last days of the Taliban government, this great-hearted man had not given up on finding the common humanity between himself and the members of what had become a murderous regime.

Dan's close friend, Tom Little, an optometrist who was killed alongside him, was a different character. Stoic, determined, utterly unflappable and a huge fan of Bob Dylan.

He was a man of few words, but with a laconic humour when he did start telling anecdotes:

  • The Taliban commanders who demanded sunglasses that would attract the ladies
  • The armed men who, pointing a gun at Tom's face, would demand that he heal them on the spot because they could not see in the dark or it hurt their eyes to look at the Sun

He always had some soothing saline solution about him for such emergencies.

Changing lives

Both men came to Afghanistan in the 1970s, inspired by their Christian faith to help the poor and in love with the high mountains of this country.

Tom Little (L) inspects a patient's eye
Optometrist Tom Little was the team leader of the group

They brought their children up here, staying on through coups, invasions, massacres and bombings and touching the lives of countless people.

But their deaths have proved that Dan Terry and Tom Little's ability to use their experience, networks and sheer bloody-minded courage to reach the nation's poor was no longer enough.

What the team had done - walking 100 miles through the mountains to treat women, give dental care and literally bring sight to the blind - was unimportant to the gunmen.

Ever more Afghan non-combatants, especially women and especially children are being killed by the insurgents

They spared one Afghan because he was reciting from the Koran, another was killed probably by mistake and the last probably because he was a Shia Muslim. In the eyes of the gunmen, he was as much an infidel as the eight Westerners.

This was rank racism which recognised no humanity in the other and had no mercy, even for women. And they chose to kill in cold blood, rather than opt for kidnap.

They also killed them because they could. They faced no threat or worry of a security response. They had all the time in the world.

Spreading horror

There has always been cruelty during this long war, but there have also been limits.

Map of Afghanistan

You did not kill women. You did not kill doctors. And until this last phase of the conflict, you did not kill foreigners, especially those who were here to help, whether aid workers or journalists.

These are dark and disturbing times. The horrors of the war in the south of the country are spreading.

And the north feels dangerously on the edge. Ever more Afghan non-combatants, especially women and especially children are being killed by the insurgents.

At the margins and increasingly also at the centre, neither the internationally-backed government, nor the Taliban's shadow administration can bring security.

The assassinations of elders, the fragmentation of insurgent groups and the pursuit of wealth by the country's elite, is breaking down the old social fabric, already worn thin by decades of war.

With the deaths of Dan Terry and Tom Little, two great humanitarians perished. And yet, the country they leave behind is one which needs such peacemakers more than ever.

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Medics shot dead in Afghanistan
09 Aug 10 |  South Asia
Diplomats expelled by Afghanistan
27 Dec 07 |  South Asia
Afghanistan - Country profile
15 Mar 11 |  Country profiles


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