The murder of Tetsu Nakamura in Afghanistan this week was a horrific tragedy for both Afghanistan and Japan. Nakamura’s passionate commitment to helping the people of Afghanistan earned him not only immense respect but friendship, too. That commitment also made him a target of the reactionary and xenophobic forces in Afghanistan that prefer privation and instability, conditions in which they can flourish. Those who support and admire Nakamura’s work must not be deterred by this appalling act but must instead honor his memory and his work by continuing to assist those most in need throughout the world.
Nakamura first visited Afghanistan in the 1970s, drawn to the region by a fascination with insects and a desire to climb its mountains, and he quickly developed a deep affection for the area. After completing his medical training, he returned in the 1980s to Peshawar, Pakistan, to work in medical clinics to help locals and refugees fleeing war in neighboring Afghanistan.
As his medical practice spread to eastern Afghanistan, Nakamura discovered that drought and dirty water were a greater threat than disease. First he dug wells — more than 1,600 in total — but he then introduced and helped spread age-old Japanese irrigation techniques that required little technology. Eventually, his efforts yielded a network of canals that transformed a region that was home to almost 1 million people, turning nearly 24,300 hectares of desert into forests and productive wheat farmlands.
Nakamura’s work earned him widespread recognition. He won the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award, a prize for “greatness of spirit and transformative leadership in Asia” that is often referred to as “Asia’s Nobel Peace Prize.” His award cited “his passionate commitment to ease the pain of war, disease and calamity among refugees and the mountain poor of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.” In 2013, he won the Fukuoka Prize, awarded by the city where he was born to honor “the promotion and understanding of unique cultures in Asia.”
Earlier this year, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani gave Nakamura honorary citizenship for his services to the country. Ghani expressed “utmost grief and sorrow” after Nakamura’s death and his spokesman called the attack a “heinous act and a cowardly attack on one of Afghanistan’s greatest friends.” Villagers and leaders lauded Nakamura’s work and lamented his death. Hundreds of social media pages published pictures of the doctor and condemned the killing.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Nakamura made an “enormous contribution” to Afghanistan, adding that the doctor had “risked his life to make various contributions.” A spokesman for the United Nations secretary-general called the killing “a senseless act of violence against a man who dedicated much of his life to helping the most vulnerable Afghans.”
Nakamura was well aware of the risks he courted. A colleague was kidnapped and murdered by a militia group in 2008, but that did not deter him. In recent months, instability has spread throughout Afghanistan as the Taliban grew more powerful. The group is now thought to control as much as half the country and launches almost daily attacks. The Taliban has denied any connection to the attack that killed Nakamura and his four bodyguards; no group has claimed responsibility for the assault. It appears as though this was not a random attack, however, and he was specifically targeted.
Aid workers are particularly vulnerable. In late November, a worker at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan was killed and five Afghans, including two staff members of the mission, were wounded following a grenade attack in Kabul. This is part of a disturbing trend. A U.N. report showed that more civilians were killed and injured in Afghanistan in the past quarter than during any other three-month period in the past decade, with more than 8,000 civilian casualties (dead and injured) this year. Insurgents are blamed for most of the incidents, but Afghan government and coalition forces have killed civilians as well.
While the world mourns Nakamura’s death, we should focus on his work. His efforts are a powerful reminder of the power of a single, dedicated individual and the good that can be done. He pushed himself, refusing to let his chosen profession limit his initiatives. He was determined to solve real problems and took inspiration, knowledge and answers from any encouraging source. His irrigation solutions were inspired by practices in his hometown hundreds of years ago.
Nakamura’s commitment is also a compelling counterpoint to the image — the product of this country’s resistance to opening its doors to refugees — of a public largely indifferent to events beyond its border. While Nakurama was well known in the development community, he remained relatively anonymous more widely. Now it is up to all of us to ensure that his work and spirit continue.