The team was returning from providing eye treatment and other health care in remote villages in northern Afghanistan.
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All of the dead were associated with the International Assistance Mission (IAM), a Christian organisation which has provided humanitarian relief and medical aid in Afghanistan for decades. The Taliban claimed they were killed as western spies who were preaching Christianity. However, security forces in Afghanistan say robbery was the probable motive.
The victims included British medic Dr Karen Woo, 36, from London, who worked with aid organisation Bridge Afghanistan. IAM director Dirk Frans said Woo -- along with one German, six Americans and two Afghans -- was coming back from a two-week humanitarian trip to Nuristan province.
The team had driven to the province, left their vehicles and hiked for hours over mountainous terrain to reach the Parun valley in the province’s northwest. Their bodies were found next to three bullet-riddled four-wheel drive vehicles in the Kuran Wa Munjan district in the north-eastern province of Badakhshan.
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid in Pakistan said that his fighters killed the foreigners because they were “spying for the Americans” and “preaching Christianity”.
Frans said the IAM is registered as a non-profit Christian organization but does not proselytize.
“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.”
The team, made up of doctors, nurses and logistics personnel, was attacked as it returned to Kabul, Frans said.
They had decided to travel through Badakhshan province to return to the capital because they thought it would be the safest route, he added.
Among the dead was team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, who has worked in Afghanistan for more than 30 years.
Little was 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 US-backed forces.
Frans said he lost contact with Little on Wednesday. On Friday, a third Afghan member of the team, who survived the attack, called to report the killings. A fourth Afghan member of the team had taken took a different route home to see family in Jalalabad.
According to Frans, two members of the team worked for IAM, two were former IAM workers and four others were affiliated to other organizations, which he did not name. He said five of the Americans were men and one was a woman. The German victim was also a woman.
General Agha Noor Kemtuz, police chief in Badakhshan province, said the victims, who had been shot, were found on Friday. Villagers had warned the team that the area was dangerous, but the foreigners said they were doctors and weren’t afraid. Kemutz said local police were reporting that about 10 gunmen robbed them and killed them one by one.
The police chief said the two dead Afghans were interpreters from Bamiyan and Panjshir provinces. The third Afghan who survived “told me he was shouting and reciting the Holy Koran and saying ‘I am Muslim. Don’t kill me’,” Kemtuz said.
Last night Woo’s family, from Stevenage, Hertfordshire, were too upset to comment. She had previously worked for the private healthcare firm Bupa before deciding to undertake aid work and be based in Afghanistan.
As well as providing healthcare and delivering medical supplies to remote destinations in the war-ridden country, Woo was also creating a documentary.
She said she wanted to use the medium of healthcare to show people living outside Afghanistan what was happening in the country.
She appeared dedicated to improving the plight of Afghans and giving them a greater voice, describing in a series of online blogs her experiences in the war-ravaged country and explaining her desire to use the medium of healthcare to gain greater access and understanding.
In her last message, she explained that her forthcoming trip with IAM “will not be without risk”, and added: “But ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it to assist those that need it most.”
On the website for relief organisation Bridge Afghanistan, Woo told of the impact of observing a number of medical projects in Kabul last April.
“The things that I saw during that visit made me, as a doctor, want to bring back the human stories both good and bad.
“For the last few months I’ve been working with a small team of journalists and filmmakers ... to put together a plan for the documentary I envisioned.
“The principal drivers are to use the medium of healthcare to provide an in-road for people outside of Afghanistan to come on a journey with me as I explain what it is I am seeing.
“The access that a doctor or healthcare professional has to a community is unlike that available to a journalist; the trust and conversations are different.
“The insight is through the lens of birth and death, of loss and disability, and reflects every aspect of the consequences of conflict on individuals and on their community,” she wrote.
In a blog entitled Dr Karen Explores Healthcare in Afghanistan, the surgeon regularly updated followers of her life, both professional and personal, in Kabul.
Often humorous, the postings discussed everything from Afghan cuisine and her growing animal collection to bombings in the city and the threat from insurgents.
Following a double suicide blast near her clinic in December, Woo vented her anger.
“Why don’t the insurgents just “f*** off and stop being so selfish!” she wrote as she described treating those injured in the blast.
As the trip to Nuristan neared, she wrote of fears that her medical skills would not be sufficient in such a remote place.
“The trek scares the living daylights out of me right now, what if I’m not good enough,” she said.
But the fears were secondary to her desire to provide aid to those that needed it most.
On the Bridge Afghanistan website, colleagues said they were “deeply disturbed” by the murders.
Woo’s friend Firuz Rahimi wrote: “We have just heard the terrible news from Afghanistan.
“Unfortunately Karen was part of the group that were killed while delivering aid and medical care. We are distressed and deeply disturbed by [this] sad news.”
An anonymous post read: “She was a beautiful soul and had such a big heart. We will miss her in Kabul.”
l Elsewhere, five people were killed and 13 were wounded yesterday when a bomb struck a police vehicle in the Nahr-e Saraj district of Helmand province in the south, the Interior Ministry said. Four of the dead were police and all but one of the wounded were civilians.
‘Many villagers talked of armed men setting up makeshift roadblocks’
A little over a week ago, I travelled by Jeep across the mountainous dirt tracks of Badakhshan Province in north-eastern Afghanistan. There, yesterday, the bodies of 10 murdered aid workers including British doctor Karen Woo, were discovered riddled with bullets and stripped of all their possessions. Badakhshan, like neighbouring Nuristan Province from where the team of aid workers had come, is one of the poorest most rugged and remote parts of Afghanistan and close to the porous border with Pakistan in the east and Tajikistan to the north.
While for some time there have been concerns over the deteriorating security situation in Nuristan, Badakhshan has always been regarded as comparatively safe, not least given its reputation as something of an anti-Taliban heartland. It was from this province’s valleys embedded in the Hindu Kush mountain range that some of the staunchest Northern Allliance fighters came who forcibly removed the Taliban from power with the help of British and US forces after September 11.
That said, time and again during my recent journey, I heard stories from locals that should give cause for concern to both the Afghan government and the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Sitting as it does in what until recently was one of the biggest poppy growing areas, supplying the opium that is turned into heroin for Afghanistan’s enormous illegal drugs trade, Badakhshan has long been home to some of the country’s most notorious narco-trafficking gangs.
Faced with massive levels of poppy cultivation the Afghan government has worked hard in recent years to convince many of Badakhshan’s farmers to move away from poppy growing, with promises of agricultural support and investment in badly needed infrastructure projects like roads and bridges that would help open up this inaccessible region. The problem now, however, is that many farmers and rural communities who gave up poppy farming are increasingly angry over the government’s failure to keep its side of the bargain and deliver on its promises.
“If this continues, people will pick up the gun against those who are making money from us and leaving us with nothing,” warned one village mullah I spoke with.
Even in the provincial capital, Faizabad, where there is some evidence of investment and development, there are rumblings of discontent and talk of a potentially worsening security situation.
On one afternoon, shortly after the vehicle in which I was travelling passed along the road that runs from Faizabad to the district’s ramshackle airport, a roadside bomb exploded there.
A few weeks earlier local policemen were blown up by a similar device when they went to investigate a village said to have ignored warnings about returning to poppy cultivation.
Many of the region’s villagers talked of the increased presence of armed men setting up makeshift roadblocks, stopping vehicles and robbing their drivers and passengers at gunpoint. With the annual wheat harvest currently underway, local farmers are regularly taking to the road to sell their produce in neighbouring provincial towns and are being ambushed en-route and their meagre earnings seized, with some killed in the process.
Asked if the gunmen responsible are Taliban, some villagers said they were, while others insist they are only criminals. Certainly for some time there have been fears over the Taliban infiltrating the area from neighbouring Pakistan and opening up a new “northern front” far from their more established southern battlefields in Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Whether the aid workers killed yesterday were victims of the Taliban, as their leaders claim, or were simply murdered by bandits, only time will tell.
Whatever the motive, the deaths yet again are stark reminders of Afghanistan’s fragile security situation in areas perceived as stable. In Badakhshan for the forseeable future at least, most Afghans I spoke with are convinced things will only get worse.
Aid Workers: The Dangers
Humanitarian aid workers are four times more likely to be killed now than they were in the 1990s, researchers claim.
Dr Karen Woo admitted she was taking a risk in joining the International Assistance Mission.
Aid work is now riskier than UN peacekeeping as attacks become increasingly politically motivated in some countries, experts say.
The number of aid workers killed has soared in the past decade, according to the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), which has been measuring violence against aid operations since 1997.
One of the most dangerous years across the world was 2008, with 122 killed. Some 260 humanitarian workers came under attack that year in 155 serious incidents -- compared to 27 incidents in 1998, according to the Centre on International Co-operation (CIC) in New York, and the ODI in London.
Relief workers say this is partly because the aid sector has grown, but also because they are increasingly seen as political.
ODI researchers Abby Stoddard and Adele Harmer wrote: “Although there has been improved and professionalised security management, humanitarian organisations are unable to secure their personnel in a small number of the most dangerous operational settings, particularly Afghanistan and Somalia, where they are perceived as part of Western geopolitical interests.”
Dr Woo’s death is not the first associated with Christian groups in Afghanistan.
In October 2008, Gayle Williams, a dual British and South African citizen, was killed by two gunmen as she walked to work in the capital, Kabul. In 2007, 23 South Korean aid workers were taken hostage. Two were killed and the rest released.