Nakamura Tetsu: Humanitarian doctor, farmer, and hero of Afghanistan



Afghanistan has lived through so many tragedies throughout its recent modern history that one would be forgiven, to think it inured to still one more tragedy. Yet the nation-wide outpouring of grief and outrage, at the murder of the Japanese physician and development worker Dr. Nakamura Tetsu and five of his colleagues in Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan, has been intense and heartbreaking. Candlelight vigils are still taking place across the cities and valleys of Afghanistan for this slight Japanese with a gentle demeanor. Last Saturday the Afghan president helped carry his flag-draped coffin on its way to Japan amidst an official salute at Kabul Airport. Afghan communities across Japan came together in memorial services, many weeping openly alongside colleagues and ordinary Japanese. In Tokyo, the National Diet observed a moment of silence, and more than a thousand grief-stricken mourners gathered at his funeral in Fukuoka. This article documents the contributions of Dr. Nakamura to Afghan health over the decades.

My friend Sabahuddin Sokout wrote from Kabul “We really lost humanity, he was working for the people. We have no words to even present our condolences, we could not protect our single most loyal Japanese companion.” Afghans are a resilient people, having endured much that would be unendurable for many. One of their last protected realms is their deep sense of honor, and they now feel that in not being able to protect the life of one of their best friends, that honor, too, has been assailed.

I first learned of the work of Dr. Nakamura in 2003. My institute, the United Nations Institute for Training and Research, had just opened its Asia-Pacific Office in Hiroshima, and the centerpiece of our work was the Hiroshima Fellowship for Afghan professionals. It was a unique concept, the result of much trial and error—slow and long-term in implementation, modest in budget and ambitious in goals. Funded in the main by Hiroshima Prefecture and benefitting from pro-bono professional support from many institutions and dedicated individuals across the world, the Fellowship also aspired to find ways to meaningfully distill and share the lessons of the post-war reconstruction of Hiroshima and Japan, with the Afghans.

I had been personally familiar with Afghanistan from a childhood trip in the 1960s, and was shocked at the wreckage and misery I had found, upon returning in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. Even Kabul, once a city of tree-lined avenues and crisp, blue skies was full of bullet-riddled walls, bereft of greenery, notable for the detritus of 30 years of war and neglect. It had become clear to my team and I that the Hiroshima Fellowship needed a different model of human resource development—that quick, glib, unsustainable programs were meaningless for a country emerging from three decades of war.

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