Two Finnish Christian aid workers killed in Afghanistan

Published: July 25, 2014

Herat, Afghanistan
Herat, Afghanistan

World Watch Monitor

Two Finnish women working for a Christian aid charity have been killed by gunmen in Herat, Afghanistan; both had worked in Afghanistan for 16 years, having arrived there together in March 1997.

Two men, travelling by motorcycle, shot two women, who worked for the International Assistance Mission, IAM - while they were in a taxi. No group has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack. Herat is the major city in north-west Afghanistan, and has escaped much of the violence of Kabul, Helmand and the south-east close to Pakistan in recent years.

The IAM has worked continuously in Afghanistan for nearly 50 years, since 1966. The organisation is well known there as an openly Christian aid organisation that works to capacity build in healthcare and socio-economic development.

The charity said on Thursday it was informing relatives that the two Finnish expatriate female staff members had been killed in Herat. Their names were still being withheld at time of publication.

"Our prayers are with their relatives, friends, Afghan and international colleagues," acting executive director Finnish doctor Heini Makila said in a statement.

A close Finnish friend who knew both women told World Watch Monitor that they were experienced aid workers who ‘wouldn’t have disobeyed directives or been in any way careless’ and saw no reason why they would have been a target.

He said the two women had a ‘profound reputation’, and that Afghans would be deeply affected by their loss.

"To say I and the thousands of Afghans and expats who saw their selfless service – to say we are devastated – is a vast understatement. These women have given their lives – now literally – to help and serve the neediest of the needy in the hardest of places. Both women were in their fifties, and have served in Afghanistan for over 15 years. Through a commitment to love the people of Afghanistan, they’d lived through the tumultuous Taliban years and the unpredictable and increasingly dangerous years of the soon-to-end Karzai regime. Helping the most marginalised Afghans – women – through mental health and psychiatry projects, they had forsaken an easy, comfortable life in Finland. Both had spent extended periods of time in Finland to further train to meet more specific needs, as they sought to increasingly train local women to a higher level. One had just returned last week after 18 months in Finland and was so excited to be back in Herat, and to get back to work. With a Thursday/Friday weekend, they had gone early to the bazaar to shop, and were shot by armed assailants as they left in their trusted taxi. Both died of their wounds on the way to hospital."

Another Finnish former aid worker in Afghanistan who knew them well remembered "I met them arriving together on their first day in 1997, and now they’ve died together. They were so full of love for Afghans: no job was too small for them to alleviate the suffering they saw all around them".

Local Afghan friends of the two women immediately also posted on social media that the two deaths were ‘such a waste of life’.

One of WWM’s sources said news reports that IAM was involved in proselytizing was not a belief shared by the many Afghans who knew the charity’s work, including the Taliban.

"Afghans would be the first to stand up and say it is not true. IAM is widely known as a Christian organisation – that is never hidden – which serves the people of Afghanistan…as rare providers of healthcare and other development services, IAM workers are appreciated and respected by many of the Taliban leaders".

The friend added that some Taliban were among the first to offer their sympathy when ten people were killed on 5 August 2010 on an IAM medical mission to Eastern Afghanistan, now dubbed the ‘Badakhshan massacre;’ the first armed attack in IAM history. Two workers killed then had worked in Afghanistan for over 30 years.

Another long-standing Christian ex-field worker in Afghanistan told WWM that only the UN has a larger in-country expat presence than the IAM, the largest Christian NGO and the longest-serving.

After attacks in Kabul on a Community Center used by international workers in April and the murder of three expat workers at the Cure Hospital in April, many faith-based NGOs had withdrawn non-essential staff and families from the country or relocated them around Afghanistan.  

Many planned to come back in August/September after Ramadan and holiday leave, when Afghanistan’s election results would be known. Sources say the expatriate community is unsure if these killings make their work impossible to do.

In a separate attack on the same day, a market bombing has killed at least six civilians and wounded more than 20 people in the Takhar province.

The violence comes at a tense time in Afghanistan. All foreign combat troops are preparing to leave by the end of the year, and votes are being rechecked in a fiercely disputed presidential election to choose a successor to Hamid Karzai.