New York Times - August 7, 2010
Slain Workers Undaunted by Risks, Friends Say
By Liz Robbins
Tom Little raised three daughters with his wife in Afghanistan, avoided kidnappings during the Russian occupation, hid in his basement for months during the Taliban rule in the 1990s, survived rocket attacks and endured arrests for one reason, friends and family members said: to provide eye care for indigent Afghans.
After four decades in the country he came to call home, Mr. Little, a 61-year-old optometrist originally from upstate New York, was returning from treating people in a remote valley in Nuristan Province when he was among the 10 aid workers ambushed in the woods and killed.
Another was Dr. Karen Woo, a 36-year-old surgeon from Hertfordshire, England, who specialized in women's health. She had blogged about being a tomboy who loved "sexy dresses and high heels," as well as her passion to help Afghan people.
Friends, relatives and colleagues remembered the two members of the ill-fated mission on Saturday as fervent humanitarians, dedicated to their cause despite their knowing its risks.
Mr. Little was the coordinator of the National Organization of Ophthalmic Rehabilitation Eye Care Program in Afghanistan, overseeing hospitals and clinics, teaching optometry and administering care in the most rural of areas.
"He consciously put his life on the line for his beliefs," Mr. Little's brother, John Little, 62, said in a telephone interview from Florida. "He had had so many close calls before. He wasn't fearless, but he was at peace with danger."
Mr. Little and Dr. Woo had been working with International Assistance Mission, which describes itself on its Web site as an "international charitable, non-profit, Christian organization, serving the people of Afghanistan." A government inspection team had approved the group's projects and financing in June, the Web site said.
Six Americans, a Briton, a German and four Afghans were working with the group's mission to Nuristan at the time of the attack although the group has not confirmed that its workers were the ones attacked.
Dr. Woo, who was engaged to be married to a man who was also working in Afghanistan, was finishing a documentary about the health system in Afghanistan, and had founded the charity Bridge Afghanistan with Firuz Rahimi, a journalist for the BBC World Service.
"She wanted to go and show the life behind the violence," Mr. Rahimi said. "She was a very kind, and a very determined person. She was somebody who wanted to make a difference."
He first met Dr. Woo at a fashion show two years ago in London to benefit Afghan women. Although Dr. Woo was a runner and a former ballet dancer, before she left for Nuristan, she confided in Mr. Rahimi that she was concerned about the physical demands of the trip.
Mr. Little offered similar details to the congregation at Loudonville Community Church in upstate New York when making his presentation there last month.
"Tom and Libby's heart was always dedicated to reach those who had not had access to care, and to share the hope of their faith in the process," Pastor Mike Conley said. "But they were very careful and knew about the sensitivity of sharing their faith in that region. They expressed their faith in practical ways."
The Taliban, which claimed responsibility for the attack, accused the aid workers of proselytizing. But the group's director, Dirk Frans, said that although the group was Christian, its policies prohibited proselytizing.
David Evans, 57, a longtime friend of the Little family, and the former director of world missions at Loudonville Community Church, said that Mr. Little was never deterred by the violence around him.
"When the eye hospital was destroyed by a rocket attack," Mr. Evans said, recalling a time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, Mr. Little had this reaction:
"He said, ‘Let's go out to pick up the bricks, one by one, and let's rebuild,' " Mr. Evans said.
Mr. Little was known for his calm demeanor, said Mr. Evans, who accompanied Mr. Little on one mission in Afghanistan. "Tom was very patient in dealing with people," he said. "We dealt with government officials, and day after day we would have cups of tea to get where he wanted to get to provide for the poor."
For years, Ms. Little was a teacher at an international school in Kabul, assisting her husband when she could, Mr. Evans said. She was recovering from knee surgery and did not make this latest trip back to Afghanistan, John Little said.
Tom and Libby had been high school sweethearts at Ichabod Crane High School in Valatie, N.Y., and Tom's father, Henry O. Little Sr., was a noted ophthalmologist in Kinderhook, N.Y. Tom Little worked in his father's office, learning the trade, but studied theology in Toronto before doing medical relief work in Afghanistan.
"He learned from the seat of his pants," John Little said. "He probably knew more about eye disease than most doctors in the field."
In 2007, John said, Mr. Little earned a degree in optometry in Boston so that he could teach the latest techniques in Afghanistan.
The couple's three daughters, Molly, Nelly and Kattie, who grew up in Kabul and for parts of high school attended boarding school in India, have followed their parents' lead in one way or another, John said. Kattie is a doctor in Texas, John said. Nelly worked in Afghanistan for a nongovernmental organization overseeing the 2005 elections, and Molly works for the United Nations, most recently in Iraq, John said.
Connie Frisbee Houde, a freelance photographer who went to high school with Libby Little, visited them several times in Afghanistan.
"With a great deal of humor, the Littles recounted tale after tale of inspiring life and death incidents," Ms. Houde wrote in her blog in 2005. "How during the Russian occupation they had to flee Herat with their three small children to avoid capture or being ‘disappeared' by the Russians; or how in the early '90s, they spent months living in the basement of their house and driving two hours around the outskirts of the city to avoid the factional fighting at the front lines so they could continue to provide eye care to the needy."
This undaunted spirit marked the group's other leader, Dr. Woo. She wrote poignantly of her life in Afghanistan in her blog, in which she juxtaposed warm and humorous stories of ball gowns, pedicures, and kittens with the horrors of war zones and kidnappings.
In June, when she learned that two friends of a colleague had died in a plane crash in Afghanistan, she wrote in her blog of her own life and mortality in a war zone:
"Nothing in life is for sure, nothing that you see today will always be here tomorrow," she wrote. "All of these people come to Afghanistan of their own volition, they come knowing that they may pay with their lives, the black humour is rife, a good way to keep the apprehension low, to keep calm and carry on. Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national.
"We count those that matter to us. We say that we are prepared for the loss whatever that may be but is it ever possible to be so? To be so prepared is that at polar opposites to the decision to be there in the first place, that somehow, it will never be me or anyone close to me."