- The Washington Times
Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The recent execution-style slaying of 10 medical aid workers, six of them Americans, by the Taliban in Afghanistan will hurt poverty-stricken Afghans the most and underscores the vulnerability of humanitarian groups, charities working in the region say.

The medical charity group Doctors Without Borders said the incident “can only detrimentally affect and undermine the work carried out by the medical community in the country, and the Afghan people relying heavily on this much-needed assistance.”

Dean Owen, a spokesman for the U.S.-based Christian relief group World Vision, said the charity continually evaluates the safety and security of its staff because it operates in some of the most difficult and dangerous parts of the world.

“We lose on average one staff member a year to violence,” Mr. Owen said.

On Friday, Afghan police officers found the bodies of 10 aid workers in the northern Badakhshan Province. All of the victims, who belonged to the humanitarian group International Assistance Mission (IAM), had been shot at close range.

World Vision is no stranger to tragedy. On March 10, seven staff members were killed in Pakistan. Its workers have also been killed in Kenya and Sudan, and were recently pushed out of parts of Somalia by the al Qaeda-affiliated al-Shabab.

Another humanitarian group, Mercy Corps, has been active in the northern and southern parts of Afghanistan since 1986.

Afghanistan is a difficult place to work. There is growing insecurity in parts of the country,” said Joy Portella, director of communications at Mercy Corps.

The deaths of the 10 medical workers have not prompted Mercy Corps to rethink its operations in Afghanistan. But Ms. Portella said, “We are always in the process of evaluating the security situation and our own security protocol.”

Most of World Vision and Mercy Corps staff in Afghanistan are Afghan nationals.

“Local people have an easier time building relationships with communities in which we work, they also have a deeper understanding of what the greatest needs are on the ground and how to meet those needs,” Ms. Portella said, adding that her group prefers to work in a “pretty low-key, low-visibility manner.”

Edgar Mueller, director of business development with Bayat Foundation, said his group does not send Western workers to parts of Afghanistan in which they will face a security risk.

The foundation, which employs 4,000 Afghans, claims to be the largest employer of Afghans in Afghanistan.

“We are seen as local and are treated as such,” said Mr. Mueller. “The [health workers] killed a few days ago also seem to have tried to be local, with knowledge of the culture and language, but, unfortunately, they could not change their facial features or the biases of the locals.”

The Taliban claims that the 10 medical aid workers they executed had been proselytizing and distributing Bibles written in Dari, an accusation that is denied by IAM Executive Director Dirk Frans.

IAM is a Christian organization. We have never hidden this,” said Mr. Frans. “Our faith motivates and inspires us, but we do not proselytize. We abide by the laws of Afghanistan.”

World Visions’ Mr. Owen said that if any of his group’s workers are found to be proselytizing, they are “dealt with.”

“We are in Afghanistan to serve the poor and not bring a religious message,” he said.

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