Friend and Doctor, slaughtered martyr.

August 8, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today is the saddest day my family has experienced.  Beyond any family death we’ve been through.  Tom Little, the doctor who sponsored my family as Refugees under Reagan’s term, was brutally murdered in Afghanistan this week.  He brought sight to millions of Afghans in a war torn country, sacrificed life with his wife and three daughters, just to serve his medical and religious duties.  He held me for hours after my mother delivered me, allowing her to catch rest, he saved my parents from a miserable life in what was and STILL IS, a low, uneducated, hooligan-filled, worthless, Taliban ruled country.   His work and life gave my family theirs.

My parents are in the process of contacting his local church, mutual friends, and Libby, so we can set up a memorial fund in his honor.  My sister is also organizing a fundaiser for NOOR and his family as part of her sorority.  I will post links to both when i find out the details…please stay posted!

A few National newspaper articles:

Afghan medical mission ends in death for 6 Americans (MSNBC)

KABUL, Afghanistan — They hiked for more than 10 hours over rugged mountains — unarmed and without security — to bring medical care to isolated Afghan villagers until their humanitarian mission took a tragic turn.

Ten members of the Christian medical team — six Americans, two Afghans, one German and a Briton — were gunned down in a gruesome slaughter that the Taliban said they carried out, alleging the volunteers were spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity. The gunmen spared an Afghan driver, who recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged for his life.

Team members — doctors, nurses and logistics personnel — were attacked as they were returning to Kabul after their two-week mission in the remote Parun valley of Nuristan province about 160 miles north of Kabul. They had decided to veer northward into Badakhshan province because they thought that would be the safest route back to Kabul, said Dirk Frans, director of the International Assistance Mission, which organized the team.

The bullet-riddled bodies — including three women — were found Friday near three four-wheeled drive vehicles in a wooded area just off the main road that snakes through a narrow valley in the Kuran Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan, provincial police chief Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz told The Associated Press.

One of the dead Americans had spent about 30 years in Afghanistan, rearing three daughters and surviving both the Soviet invasion and bloody civil war of the 1990s that destroyed much of Kabul.

‘Spying for Americans’
Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told the AP that they killed the foreigners because they were “spying for the Americans” and “preaching Christianity.” In a Pashto language statement acquired by the AP, the Taliban also said the team was carrying Dari language bibles and “spying gadgets.”

Frans said the International Assistance Mission, or IAM, one of the longest serving non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan, is registered as a nonprofit Christian organization but does not proselytize.

Violent end to life of caring

By Jennifer Gish Staff Writer
Published: 11:52 p.m., Saturday, August 7, 2010
  • First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady was among the churches sponsoring the ministry of Tom and Libby Little in Afghanistan. Little was executed by the Taliban.(Cindy Schultz / Times Union)
  • A knitting group, “Sharing God’s Love ? one stitch at a time,” meets once a month to pray together for the Little family. They did again Saturday at the First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady after learning of Tom Little’s murder in Afghanistan. The church sponsored the ministry of Tom and his wife, Libby Little. (Cindy Schultz / Times Union)

  • Tom and Libby Little prepare to speak at Brunswick Church in this 2001 file photo. (Times Union)

Tom Little never sugar-coated the outreach work he and wife, Libby, did in Afghanistan.

When he spoke to friends from the Capital Region churches who supported the efforts of the NOOR Eye Project, he talked about how his three daughters grew up being able to tell the difference between incoming and outgoing missiles by listening from the basement of their Kabul home.

And he talked about once having the doors of an eye clinic he supervised locked by government officials. He had to creep into the clinic at night to retrieve some of the expensive medical equipment, placing it at a new site so he could continue to provide desperately needed care, just as he had done for more than 30 years.

Little, a 61-year-old optometrist who maintains a residence in Delmar with his wife, Libby, and was originally from the Kinderhook area, was one of 10 members of the Christian-sponsored medical team murdered in Afghanistan last week. The Taliban has taken responsibility for their deaths, alleging the volunteers were spying and trying to convert Muslims to Christianity.

The director of the International Assistance Mission, the nonprofit organization that coordinated the trip, has said the group does not proselytize in the areas it serves.

While Tom Little returned to Afghanistan for this particular project, Libby Little made the rare decision to stay in the Capital Region because the couple is expecting their first grandchild this fall. Harry Heintz, pastor of Brunswick Church, said Tom Little had accepted a speaking engagement in the Western part of the United States in the coming months, thinking it would also give him the opportunity to visit his new grandchild.

The Littles and their three adult daughters — scattered among Baghdad, Texas and New York — had spent a week together in the Adirondacks last month, a rare chance for the family to be together when most of Libby and Tom’s lives has been rooted in Afghanistan, Heintz said. (Attempts to reach the family’s official spokesman for comment were unsuccessful Saturday.)

Tom Little and team members — doctors, nurses and logistics personnel — were attacked last week as they were returning to Kabul after their two-week mission in the remote Parun valley of Nuristan province about 160 miles north of Kabul. They had decided to veer northward into Badakhshan province because they thought that would be the safest route back to Kabul, said Dirk Frans, IAM director.

Frans said the team had driven to Nuristan, left their vehicles and hiked for nearly a half day with pack horses over mountainous terrain to reach the Parun valley where they traveled from village to village on foot offering medical care for about two weeks.

The bullet-riddled bodies — including three women — were found Friday near three four-wheeled drive vehicles in a wooded area just off the main road that snakes through a narrow valley in the Kuran Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan, provincial police chief Gen. Agha Noor Kemtuz told The Associated Press. Also killed was Karen Woo, a British-trained surgeon who recently held a fundraiser in Kabul for the expedition.

According to one survivor of the attack, the group had stopped for lunch at a restaurant between Badakhshan and Nuristan provinces when about 10 masked gunmen attacked the medical team.

The survivor, a driver named Saifullah, told Afghan officials that the group had been warned by Nuristan residents to leave because of Taliban threats. Saifullah told police that the attackers spared his life because he recited verses from the Koran.

In a Pashto language statement acquired by the AP, the Taliban also said the team was carrying Dari language bibles and “spying gadgets.”

Frans said the IAM is one of the longest serving non-governmental organizations operating in Afghanistan and is registered as a nonprofit 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.”

Little, along with employees from other Christian organizations, had been 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. Friends said Little used this opportunity to return to school, furthering his education in eye care so he could help the Afghan people more when he was allowed back in.

Little returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban government was toppled in November 2001 by U.S.-backed forces. Known in Kabul as “Mr. Tom,” Little supervised a network of IAM eye hospitals and clinics around the country largely funded through private donations, including those from several Capital Region churches.

Family found a calling

The Littles had been high school sweethearts at Ichabod Crane High School in Valatie, and Tom’s father was an ophthalmologist in Kinderhook.

The Littles began outreach work after college, and were sent to Kabul, ministering to travelers coming and going from India and other eastern areas at a Christian hostel. After a year, political events ended that work, but Afghanistan became their calling and Little became involved with the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation (NOOR) Eye Project.

They raised three daughters through the Russian invasion and the rise of the Taliban.

The couple’s three daughters, Molly, Nelly and Kattie, who grew up in Kabul and for parts of high school attended boarding school in India, have followed their parents’ lead in one way or another, John Little, Tom Little’s brother, told the New York Times News Service in a telephone interview from Florida. Kattie Little is a doctor in Texas, John Little said. Nelly Little worked in Afghanistan for a nongovernmental organization overseeing the 2005 elections, and Molly Little works for the United Nations, most recently in Iraq, he said.

Fighting the darkness

Little, described as quiet and sometimes even shy, would use his knowledge and grasp of the language, customs and culture to converse with Taliban members and warlords, hoping to continue his work to bring eye care to the people there.

“That was a constant struggle, to try to help the people in a way that still was safe,” said David Evans, of Albany, a close friend of the family who once spent several weeks assisting Little in Afghanistan. “Tom knew the risk that he was taking. It wasn’t a foolish risk. It was a thought-through risk.”

Because Afghanistan is so mountainous, UV rays are particularly hard on the eyes, and it’s not unusual for the people there to have cataract damage at 50 years old, Evans said. NOOR had managed to get the cost of cataract surgery down to $50, restoring vision to countless people and allowing them to become productive members of their families and communities again.

“Noor” even means “light” in Farsi, Evans said.

Still, Little’s life mission was rife with dark moments.

Last year, Brunswick Church’s Heintz said Little talked about how he and his family live with some post traumatic stress. He sometimes didn’t sleep well, or would feel a little scattered mentally. He spoke about his daughters’ unusual upbringing, and how they still couldn’t watch movies with war scenes because they’d lived it.

“They readily would admit to me how difficult it was. There were times they intensely disliked it, yet they always loved the people, and they wanted to serve the people,” Heintz said. “There was a sense of obedience to God and there was a sense that that land was so needy and that they were able to help in a very practical way.”

When a rocket once leveled one of the NOOR hospitals, Little began picking up bricks, vowing he would rebuilt it, even if it had to happen brick by brick.

In the states, church members would sit in awe, looking at photographs of a landscape that one clergyman described as “prehistoric” and hearing about the hardships of the people there who lived in poverty those in the United States couldn’t begin to imagine.

“(He) was able to hold your attention because of who he was and what he was doing for God,” said Rev. Michael Alford, retired pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Schenectady, one of the many in the region, including Loudonville Community Church and Brunswick Church, that financially support the Littles’ work. “He would speak at men’s meetings, not necessarily to get people to go on a mission service trip or anything like that, but (to ask) that we would look at needs around us.”

The death of Little and his fellow team members reminds Alford of the story of five missionaries who were murdered in Ecuador in 1956, only to have their families return and help the tribe that had slain their loved ones.

“I think God can use (Little’s death) as an inspiration also, as a testimony that when we follow God, we don’t always know the consequences on earth, but we know the eternal consequences,” Alford said.

Tom Little knew the dangers, he’d lived them through three decades, but the man who brought eye care to the most remote places of Afghanistan couldn’t see his life any other way.

Jennifer Gish can be reached at 454-5089 or jgish@timesunion.com. The Associated Press and New York Times News Service contributed to this report.

Taliban kills 10 medical aid workers in northern Afghanistan
By Joshua Partlow
Sunday, August 8, 2010; A01

KABUL — Gunmen killed 10 members of a medical team, including six Americans, traveling in the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan, demonstrating the reach of insurgents far from their traditional havens and shocking the expatriate community here.

The attack was one of the deadliest on civilian aid workers since the war began in 2001. That it occurred in Badakhshan province, a scenic mountain redoubt considered a peaceful refuge from the war, added to growing concern that the Taliban has seized on northern Afghanistan as its latest front.

The dead have not been officially identified, and the bodies not yet returned to Kabul, but Afghan and Western officials said the victims were thought to be members of a medical team working with a Christian charity group that has decades of experience in Afghanistan. That team, from the International Assistance Mission, lost contact with its office in Kabul on Wednesday, two days before the attack, said Dirk Frans, the group’s executive director.

“We’ve got a team that has gone missing, and then there are 10 people found dead. At the moment we’re working on the assumption that this is the same team,” Frans said.

The Taliban quickly asserted responsibility for the killings, saying the medical workers were “foreign spies” and were spreading Christianity. But police officials have not ruled out robbery as a motive, as the victims were stripped of their belongings after they were shot.

The team members — six Americans, one German, one Briton and four Afghans — were returning from neighboring Nurestan province, where they had spent several days administering eye care to impoverished villagers. They were traveling unarmed and without security guards, Frans said.

The dead are thought to include the team’s leader, Tom Little, an optometrist from New York who had worked in Afghanistan over the past four decades. Little, a fluent Dari speaker, had been thrown out of the country by the Taliban in 2001 during a crackdown on Christian aid groups. Three of the victims are thought to be women, including Karen Woo, a British surgeon who had written on her blog about the possible risks of traveling to the area.

Two of the Afghans were unharmed.

The group is registered as a Christian nonprofit organization. Although its members do not shy away from this affiliation in this conservative Muslim country, Frans and others said they do not proselytize. In their work since 1966 on health and economic development projects, under King Zahir Shah, the Russians, the mujaheddin government and the Taliban, Frans said, “all along we’ve been known as a Christian organization. That has been a nonissue.”

“This is truly a bedrock institution in Afghanistan,” said Andy M.A. Campbell, the Afghanistan country director for the National Democratic Institute. “They have been around for decades.”

Others who have worked with the group described it as culturally sensitive to the Muslim values of Afghanistan and staffed by foreigners committed to long-term development work in the country. “This is not a Mickey Mouse organization,” said a person who has worked for and evaluated the organization’s projects in the past.

The Taliban has targeted foreign aid workers in the past but such attacks are relatively rare, and insurgents have allowed some aid groups safe passage into areas they control. In August 2008, gunmen killed three women from the International Rescue Committee and their Afghan driver in Logar province. Four years earlier, 11 Chinese road workers were shot to death in Kunduz province.

Among the confusing aspects of the attack was why the Taliban, if indeed responsible, chose to summarily execute the team, rather than hold its members hostage, which it has done in many other cases to bargain for money or other concessions. In July 2007, the Taliban seized 23 South Korean missionaries driving in a bus from Kandahar to Kabul. Two of the hostages were killed before the South Korean government negotiated the release of the others.

The medical team was returning from several days of treating eye problems and administering dental care in the Parun Valley of Nurestan. Unable to reach the isolated valley by road, they abandoned their three Land Rovers and hiked with pack mules for miles through a pass in the 16,000-foot mountains.

The exact timing of the attack remained unclear Saturday. The deputy police chief in Badakhshan, Gen. Sayid Hussain Safari, said insurgents might have followed them on their return hike and attacked as they reached their vehicles.

When Frans last heard from the group members, on Wednesday, they had already crossed into Badakhshan, he said. They had driven that way to avoid a southern route they considered too dangerous, he said. One of the Afghans, who lived in Jalalabad, left the group to make his own way home and was unharmed.

Safari said 10 gunmen surrounded the medical team, shot the victims with AK-47s, and ransacked their belongings from the vehicles. Of the 11 people at the scene of the shooting, only one survived, an Afghan driver named Saifullah. He told police that the gunmen led him on a long march uphill as he recited the Koran and prayed to be spared.

“He swore to God and said that I’m a true Muslim. That’s why they trusted him and released him,” Safari said.

But his escape has raised suspicion among some close to the medical team that he might have been involved in orchestrating the attack. Saifullah, who remains in the custody of district police, has not yet been interrogated by the provincial authorities and could not be reached for comment.

Other accounts of the killing conflicted slightly with Safari’s version. Frans said police in Badakhshan told him that the group was shot at while driving. “We’ve only heard what we’ve heard from the police in Badakhshan,” he said. “The cars were sprayed with bullets, the people were pulled out and robbed of everything they had.”

The team members were apparently aware that they were going into difficult territory. Woo, the British surgeon, who had been working on a documentary about her time in Afghanistan, had written on a Web site that “the trek will not be easy.”

“The expedition will require a lot of physical and mental resolve and will not be without risk but ultimately, I believe that the provision of medical treatment is of fundamental importance and that the effort is worth it in order to assist those who need it most,” said Woo, who was engaged to be married.

Badakhshan is a scenic province far from the insurgent hot spots in southern and eastern Afghanistan. But insurgents have become more prevalent there and in other northern provinces over the past year as they have shifted to areas with fewer NATO troops. Military officials have said the area is also an important point for manufacturing heroin and transporting it out of Afghanistan.

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