On August 7th of this year the New York Times reported that 10 members of an unpaid volunteer team of doctors, nurses, and technicians making their way back to Kabul after delivering free health care in a remote region of Afghanistan were murdered in cold blood. Unidentified gunmen sporting long red beards herded the group into the woods, lined them up, and one-by-one shot all but one dead. The lucky man, an Afghan, said he was spared because he had dropped to his knees while reciting from the Koran.
Dr. Tom Little, a Delmar-based ophthalmologist, was one of the medical team members killed. Dr. Tom began doing outreach work in Afghanistan in 1976, lived in Kabul raising his family through the Soviet invasion, and had spent the last three decades providing eye care to Afghans in need via the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation Eye Care Program (NOOR), Afghanistan’s singular eye care program. NOOR’s mission has been to train Afghans to run the program and to carry out the surgical eye camps held in remote areas of the country where little to no aid is present.
In our November 2005 issue, photojournalist and activist Connie Frisbee Houde profiled Dr. Tom, a childhood playmate, after traveling with NOOR in Afghanistan and documenting their singular eye care program.
The news of Dr. Tom’s death caused me to remember Connie’s e-mail earlier in the year announcing her trip to Afghanistan for the month of August. Unsure if she said she’d be traveling once again with Dr. Tom or not, I began searching her out on the Internet. It was with great relief I found her alive and well in Herat, where she had just heard of the killings. Unable to comment at the time, I caught up with Connie in October and asked her to share her experience in the wake of this incomprehensible crime.
Lorna Tychostup: Did you ever think something like this would happen?
Connie Frisbee Houde: At Tom’s memorial service, a person was describing what Tom had said when he began working in Afghanistan: You know your life is at risk. You have to just make peace with that and go on and do your work or you can drive yourself nuts worrying about it every time you walk out the door.
From everything I’ve read, Tom was very low key. Yet he did so much and endeared so many people to him.
That’s the kind of guy he was. You could rely on him. You knew he knew what he was doing and he just quietly went about and did his work. He didn’t make waves and yet in other ways he did. Early on, he set up a program of doing the eye camps and going out into rural areas. I was told recently that [NOOR] probably won’t be doing them anymore because they don’t have anyone like Tom. He spearheaded the program and made it work.
When I heard the news I felt the enormity of how this act would affect Afghanistan in a major way. This wasn’t just some aid organization that had a couple of people killed. This was a team of people who were going to places where no one else would go, where most major aid agencies don’t reach into and they were really affecting peoples lives for the better and this was just a tragedy for the country of Afghanistan.
The effect of this is going to be in the rural areas that are no longer going to be receiving the aid. There was an article that came out from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs that said the murders were going to affect how they operate, and how much they go out and do hands-on work. People are much more afraid, more wary of doing what they have been doing.
One of the big debates right now is how aid organizations in Afghanistan are being targeted and attacked, and how that will affect the future of their work.
Yes. How can they continue to operate? A major problem in Afghanistan is that you’ve got so many different groups that no one knows who has killed who. BBC journalist Kate Clark wrote that the Taliban group acting as a shadow government in the Nuristan area condemned the killings. So one Taliban group can say, “According to our code, we don’t assassinate aid workers.” Yet you’ve got another group that might also be called Taliban who does. Some are so fanatical they say, “Let’s kill all the infidels” and bang, it’s done, no questions asked. The one member of Tom’s group who survived, an Afghan, said the killers were not Afghans.