THE MURDER of Gayle Williams, an aid worker with the Christian charity, Serve Afghanistan, has reinforced concern about the security of NGOs in the country, and the hostility of the Taliban towards Christians.
Ms Williams, a British South African, was 34 and worked from the charity’s head office in Kabul. She was shot by two men on a motorcycle, as she walked to work on Monday, and died instantly. A Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, said she had been killed because she was “working for an organisation which was preaching Christianity in Afghanistan”.
Serve Afghanistan, which is registered in the UK, defines its purpose as “to express God’s love and bring hope by serving the people of Afghanistan, especially the needy, as we seek to address social, personal and environmental needs”. Ms Williams had worked for two years in Kandahar and Kabul, directing projects to integrate disabled people into mainstream education and to give them a better quality of life.
She had been killed violently “while caring for the most forgotten people in the world: the poor and the disabled. She herself would not regret taking the risk of working in Afghanistan,” a tribute from the charity said. It described Ms Williams as “one of the inspiring people of the world, who truly put others before herself”.
Afghanistan has long been acknowledged as one of the most dangerous places in the world for aid workers, including indigenous partners. Three international aid workers and their Afghan driver were killed in August by gunmen who fired on their convoy. The Foreign Office warns of a continual high threat of kidnap to foreign nationals in Kabul, and advises against all but essential travel to the city.
Ms Williams is known to have heeded all the advice on security arrangements. She is also known not to have been proselytising, which would not have been illegal in the country, but would have brought harassment and arrest.
The case of Abdul Rahman, an Afghan Muslim who converted to Roman Catholicism and refused to recant, was widely reported. He was arrested in February 2006, and then released on the grounds of “mental instability”, and later given asylum in Italy.
The US State Department reports each year on religious freedoms around the world. Its 2007 briefing on Afghanistan said that, while followers of religions other than Islam were supposedly free to exercise their faith, societal pressure meant that “most Christians hid their religion from neighbours and others. As a result, little information was available about this community and the challenges it faced.”
There are 196 local NGOs listed as working in Afghanistan under the umbrella of the Afghanistan NGOs Co-ordinating Board. Some of these are partners to Christian Aid, whose name was a problem during the years of rule by the Taliban. One of the charity’s workers was arrested in the late 1990s because the Taliban considered blasphemous the organisation’s slogan: “We believe in life before death.”
Christian Aid says it “doesn’t hang a sign outside the door” to advertise its presence in Afghanistan. Any perception that NGOs are linked to evangelism or to the US or UK governments is still perceived as dangerous. The greatest obstacle to development in the country is acknowledged to be the growing threat of violence and insecurity.
A Christian Aid spokesman said on Tuesday that the charity had no plans to leave. “Christian Aid has the utmost sympathy for Gayle Williams and her family, colleagues, and friends. We are aware, too, that a growing number of Afghans working for national and international non-governmental organisations are being abducted and killed, which is equally abhorrent.
“The security situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating for the past six months. We have two international staff in the country, and a small team of local workers. Arrangements for their safety are kept under constant review. . .
“We work with local partners where the need is greatest, irrespective of race or religion. This was apparently accepted by Taliban when they constituted the Afghan government, and we were able to work inside the country.”
Ian Gray, the head of humanitarian and emergency affairs at the Christian charity World Vision UK, wrote in a letter to The Independent on Wednesday of the need to clarify the distinction between aid agencies and military forces. “When you have soldiers in uniform delivering humanitarian aid, it is no wonder that the perception of humanitarian groups is changing. . . We constantly face difficult decisions, such as whether to accept a military convoy to enable us to reach vulnerable communities in a war zone.”
He asked for governments “to stop blurring the lines between defence and development”. “More aid workers have been killed in recent years than UN peacekeepers,” he wrote.
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