The Precarious Lives of Aid Workers in Afghanistan

“He was a doctor by profession, but he knew what we needed here. He turned a desert into a green and fertile land. He gave us jobs when there was nothing to make a living from, he gave us hope for a better future. Even now when we talk to people who went for work to Iran during drought, they don’t believe, we earn our living from Gambiri desert” said Gul Agha a farmer who owns a portion of land around the newly built water canal by Japanese Dr. Tetsu Nakamura.

On the 4th of December, a group of armed gunman opened fire in a broad daylight killing the Japanese physician, a devoted aid worker along with his four bodyguards and a driver. Dr. Nakamura who came as a health physician, realizing the need of the community which was suffering from drought, built a water canal in the east of Afghanistan to give the community the much-needed source of life, water. Dr. Nakamura was the head of Peace Japan Medical Services a Japanese NGO active in Afghanistan since the 1990s, Dr. Nakamura spent 30 years of his life serving people of Afghanistan.

For his great service, he had received honorary citizenship of Afghanistan. The Taliban Spokesman denied any involvement in the assassination of the Japanese doctor via his twitter: “Attack on Japanese national & head of PMS NGO in #Jalalabad city has no connection with the Mujahidin of IEA. NGOs operating in the reconstruction field have good relations with IEA & none are military targets for the Mujahidin.”

A couple of weeks before the assassination of Dr. Nakamura, a hand grenade was thrown in a vehicle used by UN staff killing several people, including a local staff and a foreign national working for the UN. The attacked was condemned by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan. No group claimed responsibility for either of the attacks.

But on occasions, the Taliban have deliberately attacked NGOs. On May 8, the Counterpart International – an NGO funded by USAID – was attacked at the center of Kabul. The Taliban claimed the responsibility via the official twitter account of the Taliban Spokesman: “#Breaking US network named Counterpart involved in harmful western activities inside Afghanistan under attack by IEA Mujahidin in Shahri Naw of #Kabul city. Site currently under deadly attacks. Mentioned NGO was established by USAID organization. The Taliban further added that “Around 40-50 foreign advisors occupied the US network under attack mentoring Kabul admin workers in various aspects of brutality, oppression, terror, anti-Islamic ideology & promotion of western culture”. The Taliban have always been against the NGOs working on specific issues that they called the “promoting western culture”.

In the documentary by NHK world about Dr. Nakamura, he says “many foreigners come here, promise to respect the culture of Afghanistan but, they do not always do so but we keep our promises”. “Even if I die, we will continue, the work we have started won’t stop” promised Dr. Nakamura.

The Afghans who work with humanitarian agencies face severe problems in their daily lives, which almost goes unnoticed by the media. Last year an Afghan couple were working in the eastern province of Laghman with one of the few NGOs active there were threatening to abandon their duties. After not paying much attention to the warning letters they received from the Insurgents, Jan Mohammad (name changed) who worked as a local staff with the NGO was killed. His widow who was working as a local employee with the same NGO was fired due to the security threat she posed to the NGO. The NGO told her “we don’t want to put our staff and the compound in risk by keeping you,” the victim who preferred her identity to remain unidentified said.

A Swedish Committee operated clinic was raided and bombed by the US-Afghan forces in Wardak province on the 8th of July killing local staffs and a patient, who was suffering from Appendicitis. A local resident who goes by the name of Ahmad Shah said the government forces attacked and blamed the clinic for treating the Taliban fighters. “It is a health clinic providing services to the people in need, how the clinic could deny a dying person help based on which side he is? He added”

In the year 2019, there have been 133 Attacks on health workers or facilities impacting humanitarian access and health services. The number of aid workers killed  was 27, while another 31 were injured and 33 were abducted in 2019. The delivering of humanitarian assistance in a conflict zone comes with a heavy price to everyone involved as well as the people in need.