Japanese physician Tetsu Nakamura, one of six people gunned down in eastern Afghanistan on Wednesday, was a committed aid worker who had for decades provided medical treatment and help to the poor in the borderlands of the country and Pakistan.
In recognition of his significant contributions, including the construction of irrigation systems, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani granted Nakamura honorary citizenship in October.
Nakamura’s 66-year-old wife, Naoko, tearfully told reporters Wednesday that she had recognized the risks her husband faced doing aid work in Afghanistan, where security remains volatile, but hoped that she would never have to hear the news of his death.
“I’m filled with sorrow,” she said at her home in Omuta, Fukuoka Prefecture.
But she showed her understanding for his life dedicated to supporting poor people.
“I wanted him to stay home but he put all his effort toward his activities,” she said, adding that he was back home for about two weeks until late November, and left for Afghanistan as if it were business as usual.
A graduate of the Kyushu University School of Medicine, Nakamura began his medical work in Pakistan’s northwest region of Peshawar in 1984, treating people with leprosy and other diseases.
During that time, he also treated countless refugees in Pakistan who had fled the civil war in Afghanistan. In 1991, he opened a clinic in the province of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan.
Realizing that poverty is one of the main reasons young people join militant groups in the country, his focus gradually shifted from health care to drought and anti-poverty measures.
Water shortages due to a drought in Afghanistan in 2000 led to the spread of infectious diseases and a rising death toll among children. Nakamura assembled a group of workers, including Japanese youth, to dig wells in order to improve villagers’ access to water, with the construction of irrigation channels commencing in 2003.
After studying hydraulic engineering, Nakamura developed construction methods through trial and error that did not require expensive machinery.
Despite low pay, the young workers toiled at their work. They strived to adapt to the local lifestyle in the Islamic country. Nakamura would often use harsh words but many young volunteers sympathized with Nakamura’s warmth and community-based approach.
Osamu Hasuoka, 46, one of the former members of Nakamura’s aid group, Peshawar-kai, helped dig wells and engaged in other work in Afghanistan. Hasuoka described Nakamura as the kind of person “who never let himself compromise on his work, in doing activities that save people’s lives.”
Hasuoka said Nakamura had led young staff members and always adhered to the rules and did not allow the members to let their guard down.
In 2008, the organization also started building a school in eastern Afghanistan with the aim of educating children and caring for infants in poverty-stricken families. Many poor people in the desolate region, lacking in industry, side with anti-government militant groups.
In August 2008, Kazuya Ito, a 31-year-old member of Peshawar-kai who was working on the construction of irrigation channels, was shot and killed by an armed group.
Although the aid group restricted the entry of Japanese nationals into the area following the incident, Nakamura continued his work there, using donations to improve the lives of locals.
The Afghan government commended Nakamura last year for his dedication to humanitarian work.
He was also awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, dubbed the Nobel Prize of Asia, in 2003 for his long-standing contributions to the region.