A year ago, five of our colleagues were murdered in Afghanistan. The consequences of this horrific act haunt us still. Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is no longer present in Afghanistan – the impunity shown towards those responsible makes it impossible for us to work there, despite clear humanitarian and medical needs. One year later, we continue to struggle to deal with what happened.
Below, MSF's General Director in Amsterdam, Geoff Prescott, writes about the difficult task of balancing humanitarian needs with the protection of our staff; family and friends describe how they remember Pim, Egil, Helene, Fasil, and Besmillah with pride, even as they mourn their loss; and our loyal Afghan staff witness in despair the consequences of MSF's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Murdered in Cold Blood
General Director, Medecins Sans Frontieres, Amsterdam
On June 2, 2004, five MSF aid workers were murdered on the road between Khairkhana and Qala-i-Naw in Badghis, northwest Afghanistan.
The killings had no discernible motive and crossfire was discounted. The Taleban were quick to claim responsibility, but though we cannot be sure, we now believe that the Taleban were sending an opportunistic warning to western non-governmental organizations and are not, in fact, responsible for the murders.
A month later, all sections of MSF withdrew from Afghanistan. It was a reflection of the gravity with which MSF viewed the murders, that we were prepared to leave a population we have served for over twenty years. Although we did, in general, manage to hand over our programs satisfactorily, there is no doubt that our patients suffered by our departure.
Over the course of the last year, information about the murders has slowly emerged. Crucially, the Afghan authorities indicated to us that they had prime suspects for the crime. Despite these claims, MSF has still not received any credible official explanation of the murders and no suspect has yet been brought to trial.
As an organization, and as colleagues, we need to have a legal or official report establishing responsibility for this terrible crime. MSF and the families of the victims have tried various means to apply pressure on the Afghan authorities to pursue this matter, so far without success. In April 2005, we decided to step up our pressure on the Kabul government by commencing legal action both inside and outside Afghanistan. This route will take time, but we intend to keep up the pressure to find some form of resolution.
What do these murders mean for MSF?
First, they are a tragic reminder that much of our work is dangerous. Indeed, we have traditionally prided ourselves on being present to witness and do our best to help relieve suffering in some of the worst places in the world. Over the years, this has had its cost, not only in those instances where volunteers have been physically wounded in the field, but also in the high number of staff psychologically affected by their experiences.
It reminds all of us, that volunteering to work for MSF is a life choice that is far more than a job. It is something that sometimes entails high personal risk and as such, it needs to be balanced by the importance to bear witness, and provide health care to others. This balance of risk and benefit is something the organization needs to constantly review throughout the world.
Second, it means that until we have exhausted all possible steps to resolve these murders, Afghanistan is not a place for us to work. This policy may be controversial but on the other hand, the inaction of the Afghan authorities sends a signal of impunity for the murderers of Helene, Pim, Egil, Fasil, and Besmillah. Murder of civilians in the context of a war is war crime. Murder during a time of peace is crime. Both require action by the authorities with de facto control of the area.
Third, until we are aware of the main motives behind the murders, it is hard to speculate about the causes. Indeed, it is a dishonor to our five colleagues to use their premature deaths to advance subjective theories about the situation in Afghanistan. That is why we are pushing for a complete and detailed investigation. Opinions have been expressed, for example, that the blurring of the lines between humanitarian workers and soldiers was a decisive factor. There is a question whether this was a political assassination connected to the war in Afghanistan. And there is another suggestion that the murders were something more criminal and local. The reality is we do not know why these dreadful events took place; we only have suspicions and hypotheses.
This year, we will commemorate our five colleagues in a dignified and respectful manner. As we remember them, we also remind ourselves that working to bring health and hope in some of the most desperate places in the world is a noble cause. The individuals who do it give much of themselves and in return, we as an organisation must do all we can to be deserving of the commitment of Pim, Hélène, Egil, Fasil, and Besmillah.
Justice or satisfactory resolution of the murders is being sought; it has not yet been gained.
Patients left behind
As former member of MSF, I want to declare my condolences to the families of my lost colleagues and my sympathies with all of you.
This event was not only hard for MSF and families of the victims but it was very difficult to hear for the community that MSF was providing service for. It has been difficult for the communities and the patients MSF left behind as consequence of the event, especially the TB patients whose treatment was stopped straight after MSF's withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Former Administrator, MSF H, Badghis, Afghanistan
I would like to express my very deepest sadness over the catastrophic death of our colleagues in Badghis, who were serving impartially for the medical treatments and for the safe lives of the people of a country destroyed during the wars, droughts and so many other internal problems. I would like to ask for patience for the family members of those colleagues. It was a very shocking attack on MSF staff and really shocked us, we do consider ourselves shared in grief and wish all MSF colleagues patience.
Sharif Ahmad Zapalyar
Former Log/Admin, MSF, Kandahar, Afghanistan
All our plans and dreams were lost
On June 2, 2004 tragically, with deep feeling of sadness and anger we got the news of the brutal assassination of five MSF staff members on the road between Khairkhana and Qala-i-Naw in northwestern Badghis province. Everyone was sad and shocked by the news.
After weighing the options, MSF sadly decided to close all of its medical projects in Afghanistan by the end of August 2004. Most activities were handed over to local groups, international NGOs or the ministry of health.
All our plans and dreams were lost. The Ministry of Health has now finished the medicines MSF donated. From a medical point of view the situation at present in the infectious disease and gynaecology/obstetric wards and in Zhare Dasht IDP camp is disastrous. It's far from a good standard of medical care when it's hard to find medicines for free. There isn't even any Paracetamol available in Zhare Dasht IDP camp.
Women with complicated obstetric or gynaecological problems must always now be referred to Pakistan, if they survive or make it. Male surgeons are not permitted to operate on gynaecological or obstetric cases due to cultural sensitivities, therefore maternity mortality rate is always the highest in this region. Everybody is eagerly willing to have MSF back in Afghanistan soon. We Hope Inshah Allah
Mohammedd Yaqub Sulliman,
Former head nurse, MSF, Kandahar, Afghanistan
Living on without you
Pim Kwint, (24 September 1964 - 2 June 2004, 3.30 p.m.)
So when did Pim make up his mind to go to Afghanistan? To answer this, we should perhaps go back to the summer of 1988. From August '85 to August '88, my husband Adrie Konijn and I worked at a small technical school in northern Tanzania, situated in the beautiful area between Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro.
That summer, during his holiday, Pim climbed Kilimanjaro and (for those in the know: as far as Gilman's Point) with Karin Blokdijk and brother Rik. He came on safari with us for a week, and spent a week with us at the compound. He worked on the vehicles of co-ordinators who visited the compound, maintained our Suzuki, installed a solar panel on the roof of a local chief's home before enjoying the delicious mtori (tripe soup) which we'd seen ominously simmering away for several hours in the cooking hut.
While he was at the compound, the concept of "Local Application" (solving a local problem using resources available locally, for example a wooden roof rack on your vehicle if the garage doesn't have a metal one) became a permanent part of his vocabulary. Pim found everything exciting and enjoyable: roasting our own coffee beans, making peanut butter, driving with the ambulance (the white Suzuki) to the local clinic.
Mount Kilimanjaro remained important in his life. We planned to climb it again one day – with our children. I will definitely do that. I'll light a candle for him on Uhuru Peak and write his name in the visitors' book .....It was always at the back of his mind.
In the meantime he found an interesting and challenging job as systems controller at the town hall of Landsmeer, which distracted him from his goal for several years. Then he set up his own business, but once the excitement wore off, he again began to feel that there was a more meaningful role for him somewhere else – in a poor country, where he would feel more useful. He did not want to live simply to increase his own comfort and well-being. In Pim's own words: "People in the Netherlands don't know what life is really about any more".
After a great deal of badgering at MSF-Holland, he found the role he was looking for. And he certainly put everything into his work. It was the happiest year of his life, although conditions were difficult and his health sometimes suffered ("I'm getting better – I only go to the toilet 8 times a day now").
Afghan staff telephoned him while he was at home in April: "We miss you, Pim, please come back". He was all too keen to go back to make sure that, within six weeks, he could make all the preparations to hand over the project to his successor.
Here is an extract from his weblog on 21 November 2003:
"This week I showed everyone how to play the card game Donkey. Do you remember it? Everyone has to make a set of cards, then you put your thumb on the table. The last person to put their thumb on the table is the donkey. We laughed so much. Some of the local staff had tears streaming down their faces into their beards. Not only was the loser a donkey, but he or she also had to go to Segusjak the next day carrying an Iranian outreach worker on their back. The staff couldn't get enough of the game. You never know, Donkey might even become the top national amusement in Afghanistan... Despite all the experiences, parasites and emotions, I still have plenty of energy for the work ahead of me in Afghanistan. It's an unceasing task, but a worthwhile one, and perhaps it will eventually bear fruit..., Pim"
Dear Pim, It's a struggle living on without you, but I'm getting better – now I only need to cry once a day.
Your little sister,
His enormous appetite for living
When Pim told me (in strictest confidence) that he had applied to MSF, my first thought was: they'll accept you, not a shadow of a doubt. And I was right: they did accept him, and though he tried to reassure me that they never send you to a high-risk zone the first time around, he was destined for Afghanistan. Still, my thoughts were: this is right up Pim's street. He had always had a deep-seated drive for adventure and foreign climes. I myself went on two big trips with him: to Thailand and Mexico and Guatemala. He loved far-away places, thrived on the excitement and was committed to getting things done. I wasn't surprised when he decided to work for MSF. He had reached a point where something had to change in his life: it was becoming too much of a rut. The thought that it was Pim who was off to Afghanistan reassured me. I reckoned that if he didn't make it, then no one would. And he was a master at the art of staying optimistic and encouraging others in the direst situations. I expected it to be a success: just a couple of months and they'll be so impressed that they'll never let him go.
Pim's year in Afghanistan was an eventful year for me; I married and became a mother. It felt strange, experiencing these things without Pim around; never mind, the year would soon pass and we would take up again where we left off. Pim and I were very close, real soulmates, but we could also let each other go; each of us had total confidence in the choices of the other. When I look at these wonderful photos taken in Afghanistan, I feel good: Pim was in his element there and must have had a tremendous year. And to cap it all, he had found a new love and was about to become a father. The last time I spoke to him was in April last year, when he came to meet my 6 week-old son. He stared incredulously at that tiny person who had only just started smiling. Pim would not have been Pim, if he hadn't sent my son into peals of laughter right away. Luckily, we took a photo of that moment.
During his last weeks in Afghanistan, I felt that Pim was half in Afghanistan and half in the Netherlands, preparing for the arrival of Christiane. He was so looking forward to his new life and couldn't wait for it to start. It is this aspect that makes his death so unbearable for me, personally. I wanted it so much for him: this wonderful future that awaited him. My son Tommie is now eighteen months old. Pim's daughters, Emilia and Nynke, are already almost six months old. To me they represent the incontrovertible proof that life is worth living and worth fighting for. But that doesn't stop the tears from rolling down my cheeks almost every day, at unguarded moments, when I think of Pim and the horrific death he must have faced. At these moments I find it so difficult to trust in the future and in life. It is the image of Pim, with his enormous appetite for living that helps me to continue... with life.
Zoë Kwint, Sister of Pim
A tribute to our daughter
Hélène always let us know in no uncertain terms how she felt, and what she liked and didn't like. She could certainly fume if she thought she'd been wrongly told off or punished. She always had a strong sense of fairness, and fought against any injustices she came across. She defended her views with warmth and passion, and became completely immersed in whatever she devoted her attention to! She had a quiet inner resolve rather than a fiery passion. She never gave up, and knew precisely where she wanted to go in life.
Charles McCurdy, one of her teachers at secondary school, describes her so beautifully:
"I remember having a conversation with her – she must have been fifteen or fourteen years old – about what she thought about doing in her adult life. She replied she was thinking about charity work. I was a little surprised at her answer as our school and education could open other easier and certainly more lucrative avenues. I pointed this out but could see that she had understood this already and was not going to give waiver in her conviction. At the time, I did not pay much attention to the conversation. However, it showed one of Hélène's qualities that I haven't seen remarked on – the quality of inner stillness – leading to strength and conviction.
I am in danger of making Hélène seem over-serious and humourless. Nothing could be further from the truth as all those who met her would know and even those who did not know her can see from her photograph – the warmth, the humour, the sheer fun of Hélène. A number of people have these qualities. But the inner stillness... that is why I remember Hélène."
Her studies and professional experience were all geared towards what she wanted to do. She genuinely wanted to leave behind a better world than she found.
Hélène certainly knew how to enjoy the pleasures of life – drinking, dancing, joking - and she attached great importance to elegance and appearance. We were always somewhat surprised that Hélène, a modern child of her time, was more committed to humanity and the problems of those in need than she was to income and status.
Hélène told us that the best possible reward was to see a smile slowly spread across the sad face of a worried mother, whose child they had cared for. She was so concerned with the plight of women and children in Afghanistan. She believed so strongly in education and a sound upbringing as the best protection against repression and ignorance.
We all miss her so much.
Francis De Beir and Barbara Geuten-van Boxtel, Hélène's parents.
A year full of memories
In memoriam, one year after having lost our colleagues and friends in the northwest of Afghanistan.
A year full of memories of Fasil, Besmillah, Pim, Egil, and Hélène; Their strong motivation for doing this work, the great team spirit, the successes they had expanding the clinic and treating more and more patients, the many anecdotes, the laughs...
Good memories, although joined with pain in my heart.
The pain of the harsh reality that they were killed.
The pain of being helpless towards the grief of families, partners and friends.
The pain of having to leave behind the Afghan population in need.
The pain of simply missing them.
But I am grateful that I had the chance to get to know Fasil, Besmillah, Pim, Egil, and Hélène. And I am grateful that for 24 years we were able to provide medical care to so many families in Afghanistan, living in difficult circumstances.
I have been amazed by the strength of the families of Fasil, Besmillah, Pim, Egil, and Hélène. I realize that what they have in common is a deep respect for the choices of their loved ones. It does encourage pursuing the choice that we made: to try to preserve life and alleviate suffering and restore people's ability to also make their own choices.
Former head of mission, MSF H, Afghanistan
Death is nothing at all. I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the easy way you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed together. Pray, smile, think of me, pray for me. Let my name be ever the household word that it always was, let it be spoken without effect, without the trace of a shadow on it. Life means all that it ever meant. It is the same as it ever was; there is unbroken continuity. Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the corner.
All is well.
Poem of Henry Scott Holland
Former midwife MSF H, Badghis, Afghanistan
One year on
They say that time is a great healer, and in many respects it is true. As the months go by in some ways it does get easier to get back into a normal life again and start to feel a bit like the person you were before. But in other ways I feel as if the 2nd June 2004 was just yesterday. There is rarely a day that goes by when I do not think about my 5 friends and colleagues who were brutally murdered in cold blood. I remember the reality, the horror of it all very vividly. I remember last conversations, not knowing that they were in fact going to be last conversations. I remember our shared grief and shock with the Afghans. I remember their tears. I remember giggling with Helene like a schoolgirl but at the same time being in awe of her total commitment and passion for the work that we were doing. I remember Egil and his gentle manner with patients. He was not too good at paperwork, but he was a wonderful doctor and I guess in some ways that was all that mattered. I remember the comradeship of Pim, my great friend, my rock, the person who always made me laugh and his pure child like excitement about becoming a father to twins. I remember Besmillah, the driver, but a man of old trades, able and willing to help wherever was needed, a quiet and gentle man, a new father. I remember Fasil Ahmad and his shyness about his singing voice and his enthusiasm for his new job. I remember feeling that Badghis was my paradise, sitting out under the stars at night, sharing a cigarette and a story with friends...was this really humanitarian aid work?! How could our paradise be so brutally shattered? I just remember laughing almost every single day. I remember our clinic and how hard we all worked to try and improve the medical care we were providing against quite challenging obstacles. I remember my tuberculosis patients, I remember their faces, I remember their names and I wonder what on earth happened to them all. Maybe, no probably, they are dead too.
Please do not make the mistake of thinking that Afghanistan is a dangerous country all over, that we were careless, not following security procedures, not being aware of the context in which we were living. Badghis was a safe place, a settled and relatively quiet province. We were very stringent as a team about our security procedures and did everything as we should have done. We were very aware of our community and its conservativeness and took great measures to ensure we did not offend anyone. I never, never anticipated that something so brutal and terrible could happen. I believed that our principles of neutrality and independence would protect us. I believed that the humanitarian space was respected. I was wrong, very wrong.
My grief that I feel seems so vast that on some days it overwhelms me. I grieve for my 5 friends, they lives being cut so short and so violently. I grieve for what the world has lost in losing them, 5 people who cared, who believed that you could make a difference, 5 very different people all with great talents and passions. I grieve for their loved ones, who are now left without a daughter, a father, a son, a partner. I grieve for the children who will never know their remarkable fathers. I grieve for our clinic, for our patients, who will help them now? It was a very remote part of Afghanistan, cut off from the rest of the world. Who will show them now that someone does care about them and their lives? Who will stop maternal mortality due to a lack of basic health care, who will stop infant mortality due to a lack of vaccines and simple interventions? Who will attempt tuberculosis treatment against such difficult odds, who will try and improve the general standard of medical knowledge and care? I grieve for our staff that all lost they jobs and their livelihoods. I grieve for that fact that this was not what the local community wanted, of this I am very sure, they wanted their clinic, they wanted their tuberculosis treatment and they wanted us there. I grieve for the fact, as is often the way in life, it is the evil few who ruin it all for the majority. I grieve for that fact that the world forgets these murders took place and that no one does anything about it. I grieve for the fact that this time guns and violence appear to have won. I grieve for the fact that the man responsible for these murders got what he wanted, he got his job back...killing 5 people paid off for him and he literally did get away with murder. How can this possibly be right? I grieve too for myself, that I am no longer the same person. The effects of seeing your friends full of bullet holes inevitably leaves its scars and I am no longer sure if I can carry on the work that I truly loved and completely believed in.
As I sit here trying to write this, once more the tears fall down my face. So is time a healer? I hope so.
I dedicate this to my 5 friends and colleagues, Hélène De Beir, Egil Tynaes, Pim Kwint, Besmillah and Fasil Ahmad. To 5 remarkable people...you will remain in my heart always.
Former Tuberculosis Nurse, MSF H, Badghis, Afghanistan
We were just a very normal team
We were just a very normal team, with normal highs and lows. There were times of big frustration: about the lack of privacy; the snoring team member; the horrible food and the disgusting latrines; about the intense heat and extreme cold; about the dusty roads and the long distances; about the program that needed direction; the injustice we encountered; about ignorance and arrogance and about not being able to do more.
Those are not the memories that come first.
We had fierce and passionate discussions, we challenged each other and the program, we saw the humor of things and we were shocked about others. We got to know each other and learned to appreciate, we had big laughs. We worked our arses off and we took time to look at the stars. We did achieve an awful lot and we were proud of that. We would. I am sure, have kept in touch, somehow. Now, a year after, we are a team that is bonded by the unthinkable that actually happened. It still makes no sense and it probably never will. We owe it to them to be aware of the risk we take and wish to take, to care for what we do, to not forget and to keep hope and inspiration.
Former project coordinator MSF H, Badghis, Afghanistan