Probe into IAM Workers' Deaths Continues

( [email protected] ) Aug 12, 2010 01:26 PM EDT

The Christian aid agency whose workers were murdered in Afghanistan suspects the attack was "an opportunistic ambush by a group of non-local fighters," and not a robbery, according to an announcement Thursday.

International Assistance Mission is currently working on that assumption after having conducted its own research into last Thursday's massacre of 10 of its workers.

In the meantime, the group is waiting on "the outcome of the official investigation by the relevant departments of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and its partners," said IAM Executive Director Dirk R. Frans.

The 10 IAM workers were killed as they were returning to Kabul after providing eye care to impoverished villagers in Nuristan province, a remote area in northeastern Afghanistan.

According to Lisa Schirch, professor of peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University, the mission IAM workers were on was difficult and dangerous and the regions they were going into didn't have a lot of foreigners.

"Many of the other international [NGOs] don't allow their staff out into these other regions. U.S. government workers don't travel at all unless they're armed," said Schirch, who has worked with IAM and other NGOs in Afghanistan.

The IAM workers trekked about 100 miles through the Hindu Kush mountains. After getting into their vehicles, they met a river swollen by heavy rains in the area but were able to make it safely across. The eye camp team then got out of their vehicles, "obviously relieved at the successful crossing and end of the difficult part of their trip," said Frans.

It was then that a group of armed men attacked.

According to a more detailed report by The Associated Press, a gunman struck Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, N.Y., who worked in Afghanistan for some 30 years, in the back with a rifle. When Little tried to get up, he was shot.

Two of the female workers tried to hide in one of the vehicles but they were killed by a grenade. The rest of the team were killed one by one, except one. The victims included six Americans, a Briton, a German and two Afghans. They were as young as 24 and as old as 63.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility, accusing the workers of spying and proselytizing, which is illegal in the South Asian country.

But IAM, which has worked in Afghanistan since 1966, has denied the allegations.

Though it is a Christian organization, Frans stressed that they abide by the country's laws, and IAM workers being invited back to villages to provide aid is proof of that, he said.

The attack came months after Afghanistan suspended two Christian aid groups over proselytism claims. Church World Service and Norwegian Church Aid have also refuted the claims.

Donna Derr, international director of development and humanitarian assistance at Church World Service, told The Christian Post on Wednesday that they were recently granted temporary permission to resume their work, which includes health and livelihood programs, throughout the country.

The notice came about a week and a half ago.

"At this point, that was granted in anticipation of the final report being released by the [Afghan] Ministry of Economy in coming weeks but because they couldn't give a firm timeline for that, we received temporary permission to resume," Derr said.

"We're just happy that we're able to get back to our work and meet a lot of unmet needs especially through our health services," she commented.

Church World Service has nearly 300 workers in Afghanistan.

IAM, meanwhile, plans to continue serving the Afghan people. Its eye care work alone has benefited an estimated 5 million Afghans over the last four decades. But their ability to conduct eye camps has been curtailed because they lost two veteran workers, including Little, as well as younger workers who were being trained to do the difficult assignments.