Nuristan is one of the most remote areas in Afghanistan. Located to the north, reaching it requires an experienced guide and a whole lot of guts.
A group of ten medical professionals chose to go there anyway, bringing eyeglasses and toothbrushes to the remote villagers for the very first time. On their way back, they were ambushed by the Taliban and executed. The Taliban's excuse? They claimed that they were preaching Christianity and trying to convert them.
I might be inclined to believe this if the people involved were not experienced, long-term aid workers in Afghanistan. This group was not a church missions trip gone bad. NPR has some background on the slain health professionals:
Team leader Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, had been working in Afghanistan for more than 30 years. He and his wife, Libby, reared three daughters in Kabul, sticking it out through the Soviet invasion of the 1980s, and the vicious civil war of the 1990s, when Afghan warlords rained rockets on the city.
Dan Terry, 64, was another long Afghan veteran. A fluent Dari language speaker like his friend Little, Terry first came to Afghanistan in 1971 and returned to live here in 1980 with his wife, rearing three daughters while working with impoverished ethnic groups.
Dr. Thomas Grams, 51, quit his dental practice in Durango, Colorado, four years ago to work full-time giving poor children free dental care in Afghanistan and Nepal
Dr. Karen Woo, 36, the lone Briton among the dead, gave up her job with a private clinic in London to work in Afghanistan.
Another victim, Glen Lapp, 40, a trained nurse from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, had come to Afghanistan in 2008 for a limited assignment but decided to stay, serving as an executive assistant at IAM and manager of its provincial eye care program, according to the Mennonite Central Committee, a relief group based in Akron, Pennsylvania.
Global Dental Relief, Dr. Grams' organization, does not appear to have any religious affiliation.
International Assistance Mission (IAM) was the lead organization for this group. They are indeed a Christian organization, but also have a very clear statement on their website:
IAM is a signatory to the “Principles of Conduct for The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement and NGOs in Disaster Response Programmes” ().
Amongst others, we ascribe to the code that aid will not be used to further a particular political or religious standpoint. IAM fully commits to the standard that aid is given regardless of the race, creed or nationality of the recipients and without adverse distinction of any kind.
It is, therefore, difficult to believe the Taliban's claim they were up there preaching Jesus to Afghan villagers.
The Christian Science Monitor says it's all part of the Taliban's new war strategy:
The execution-style killings of 10 people working for a Christian medical team in a remote region of northern Afghanistan fit into Taliban insurgents' stated shift in tactics: Target Western civilians, especially Christians, as "foreign invaders."
This fits with the near-universal confirmation that this group was preaching nothing to Nuristani men and women, but simply bringing basic medical and dental aid to them.
The International Assistance Mission has operated under kings, warlords, and the Taliban since it began its work in Afghanistan in 1966, making it the longest-serving nongovernmental organization in the country. "This tragedy negatively impacts our ability to continue serving the Afghan people as IAM has been doing since 1966," the organization wrote on its website. "We hope it will not stop our work that benefits over a quarter of a million Afghans each year."
Hillary Clinton's statement:
"We are heartbroken by the loss of these heroic, generous people," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said in Washington. She condemned the Taliban for the deaths and what she called a "transparent attempt to justify the unjustifiable by making false accusations about their activities."
May they all rest in peace, and their families find comfort somehow, somewhere.