NY Aid Worker Slain in Afghanistan

Optometrist, 9 others shot to death upon return from three-week trip to remote villages

By David B. Caruso
|  Saturday, Aug 7, 2010  |  Updated 2:17 PM EDT
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An aerial view from a US helicopter in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Friday, July 16, 2010. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

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The New Yorker who led a medical aid team fatally attacked by militants in Afghanistan was no weekend warrior when it came to charitable work.

Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, moved with his family to Afghanistan in the late 1970s and stayed to operate vision clinics and eye hospitals through the Soviet invasion and shelling of Kabul, and a long civil war.

The family endured the rise of the Taliban regime in the 1990s, when foreign aid workers were routinely harassed and threatened.

Through it all, Little and his wife raised three children in Afghanistan and essentially made it their home.

"He was a remarkable man, and very committed to helping the people of Afghanistan," said David Evans of the Loudonville Community Church, who accompanied Little on one of his more remarkable missions — a 5,231-mile road trip to deliver the medical team's Land Rover vehicles from England to Kabul in 2004.

"They raised their three girls there. He was part and parcel of that culture," Evans said.

Ten members of Little's medical team, including six Americans, were shot to death this week as they returned from a three-week trip to remote villages in northern Afghanistan.

A spokesman for the Taliban told The Associated Press that its fighters killed the team because it was "spying for the Americans" and "preaching Christianity."

Doctors, nurses and logistics personnel were among the dead. They were affiliated with several aid groups, including the International Assistance Mission, which has been operating in Afghanistan since the 1960s.

Little had been making such trips to Afghan villages for decades, offering vision care and surgical services in regions where medical services of any type are scarce.

The work has long been fraught with risk, but Evans said Little was a natural for the job. He spoke the language, knew the local customs, and had the patience and diplomatic skills to handle sticky situations.

"I never saw Tom lose his cool," he said. "I'd want to strangle someone. Tom would sit and have a cup of tea with them. He had that combination. He was driven and always trying to get something done ... a firm resolve, and yet he wasn't confrontational."

While the Littles visited their house near Albany occasionally and had connections to churches in upstate New York, Kabul was their primary home, even when the country was perilous for foreigners.

In an interview with the weekly newspaper Metroland in 2004, Little described having been repeatedly harassed by Taliban fighters while on family picnics. His wife, Libby, told the Times Union of Albany that Taliban officials had slapped her in the face.

The Littles left Afghanistan in August of 2001 when the Taliban began expelling foreign aid workers, intending to stay away for a year, but Little was back within months of the U.S. invasion that year to help rebuild the medical clinic where he worked.

In interviews, he was been asked time and again about the danger, and why he chose to stay through often harsh conditions. He often explained that the family had come to feel kinship with the Afghan people.

"It seemed dishonest and shameful, almost, to say goodbye to our friends and patients here who couldn't leave," he told National Public Radio in 2003.

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