Dhaka Courier

A fallen Japanese hero in a remote land

Tetsu Nakamura, who has headed the Japanese charity, Peace Medical Service, speaks during a press conference regarding the killing of the Japanese aid worker Kazuya Ito, at the Japanese embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Japanese physician and aid worker in eastern Afghanistan died of his wounds after an attack Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, that also killed five Afghans, including the doctor’s bodyguards, the driver and a passenger, a hospital spokesman said. - AP/UNB file photo

Tetsu Nakamura was a physician who after graduating from the Faculty of Medical Sciences of Kyushu University started his career as a medical practitioner like many of his colleagues in the same profession. However, he had an added passion; love for insects, particularly butterflies. This later led him to join a mountaineering expedition team from Fukuoka as an accompanying doctor, as he thought the trip might allow him to see some rare butterflies.

The team visited Pakistan in 1978 and Nakamura saw not only butterflies; but also for the first time encountered the plight of rural poor in remote mountain areas with no doctors and no medical facilities. When local people heard that a doctor was in the expedition team as the team was moving from one village to another, they approached Nakamura and asked for medical help. But being attached to the team, Nakamura could only provide temporary health checks and also not to all. This bothered him and had a strong impact on the young doctor who gradually realized that healing the wound of people has a broader perspective. Looking back to those formative years, he later recalled how frustrated he was as he suffered from a sense of guilt and wanted to do something for those without medical facilities in remote mountain areas of Pakistan.

However, by then Pakistan was facing the broader problem of Afghan refugees; as hundreds of thousands Afghans crossed over to the country fleeing the civil war back at home and taking shelter in refugee camps scattered around the border with Afghanistan. With that Nakamura shifted his focus on providing medical assistance to refugees, and in 1983 he formed a non-governmental organization Peshawar-kai in his hometown in Fukuoka with that idea in mind. From then on it was a life-time involvement with the poor and helpless.

With the return of refugees to Afghanistan, Nakamura and his Peshawar-kai also moved to the war-torn country. He opened a clinic in eastern Afghanistan in 1991 and subsequently expanded his activities to other areas. Years later when Afghanistan had a prolonged draught that seriously hampered agricultural production and subsequently resulted in the shortage of food and drinking water, Nakamura started digging wells to secure clean water for the local communities. And in 2003 he launched a project to dig irrigation canals that would supply water for cultivation of various crops. In short, helping Afghanistan to overcome the problem of poverty eventually turned out to be his life-time passion, a devotion that was cut short abruptly on December 4 when the motor vehicle carrying him through the streets of Jalalabad was ambushed by a group of gunmen, killing the good old doctor and his accompanying comrades in arms fighting a different kind of war without carrying any killer weapon with them. His dream was to help people fight poverty and hunger by means of becoming self sufficient and in the process he himself became a victim of the real battlefield.

The story of Nakamura is a good example of how encountering with the reality might change the perception of life and lead people to take a different and a more meaningful road. Addressing the press in later years, Nakamura always said it wasn’t that he wanted to help the poor from the beginning. Rather, circumstances dragged him deeper into such activities and he simply could not leave the work unfinished. Now with the body of the slain 73 year old doctor flown back to Japan last Sunday, the responsibility of finishing his unfinished tasks has been duly handed over to his colleagues in Peshawar-kai, who have vowed not to abandon the works that Nakamura started.

Working first in the refugee camps in Pakistan and then inside the war-torn country of Afghanistan was not an easy task at all. It called for devotion as well as a strong heart for ignoring the risks associated to such works. Years of work with the poor had turned Nakamura into such a personality, despite the fact that the US-led invasion of the country following the September 11 terrorist attack resulted in the collapse of security situation as Taliban and Al Qaida resorted to hit and run tactics targeting not only enemy troops, but civilians as well. His devotion eventually paid off as he could win the trust of villagers in eastern Afghanistan where he was running his water development and agricultural project. He was affectionately called by them as “Uncle Murad”.

It’s not clear yet which of the terrorist groups had targeted him and what was the real motive behind killing a person who had spend years helping the local communities. Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, where Nakamura had been running his project, is a hotbed of terrorist activities of competing groups. A traditional stronghold of Taliban, the region has seen the emergence of Islamic State in recent years.

With the worsening security situation, the provincial authorities alerted Nakamura of possible terrorist attacks. However, years of his close encounter with the local communities convinced him wrongly that he might not be harmed. As a result, he was reluctant to travel around with increasing number of police vehicles escorting his car; a scene that he thought did not fit in to the kind of work he was involved with. As a result, on that fateful morning of December 4, he was travelling in the car trailed at a distance by a single police vehicle.

Nakamura’s killing shocked many in Afghanistan and sorrow and anger over the loss of their beloved Uncle Murad echoed in every corner of the country. President Ashraf Ghani termed his death a big loss to the people of Afghanistan and as a gesture of tribute to this true Japanese friend of his country, Ghani join the group of pall bearers carrying the coffin to an awaiting aircraft.

So, not everything had been in vain.  With his death Nakamura left the message to aid workers around the world that the best way of helping the poor is not to pour money, but to be with them and helping them learning the ways of fighting all the odds and by doing so winning their trust to the extent when they can affectionately call them by their own name. Rest in peace, Uncle Murad!

(Tokyo, 9 December 2019)

  • A fallen Japanese hero in a remote land
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 23
  • Monzurul Huq
  • DhakaCourier

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