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Remembering Tetsu Nakamura, Japanese Doctor Who Spent Decades Working In Afghanistan


We're going to take the next few minutes to remember a remarkable life - a Japanese doctor who spent decades helping people in Afghanistan. Tetsu Nakamura was slain by gunmen earlier this week. Today his family flies into Kabul to collect his body. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports from Islamabad.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Nakamura, a 73-year-old doctor, was killed on Wednesday alongside five of his colleagues when gunmen ambushed their car. To locals, he was better known as Uncle Murad, and he wore distinctive clothing of the Pashtu men he worked among in eastern Afghanistan. As news spread of his death, many mourned him.


HADID: Afghan activists held vigils. They held up his image emblazoned with the words, sorry we couldn't protect you. An airline painted Nakamura's face on a plane. A musician penned a song.

AFRASIAB KHATTAK: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Nakamura had also worked in Pakistan decades ago, and a Pashtun activist here, Afrasiab Khattak, wrote a poem in remembrance.

KHATTAK: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: "With tears in my eyes, I grieve the guest who was in my heart," says Khattak. He adds, Nakamura was a great humanist.

KHATTAK: He had devoted his life to improve the conditions of war-stricken Afghan people, particularly the peasants. His death is mourned by millions of Afghans and also Pashtuns in Pakistan.

HADID: Nakamura had been in eastern Afghanistan for decades. He arrived in the region in 1984 to treat refugees and people suffering from leprosy. He helped build a 70-bed hospital and several clinics, but he later told the Japanese broadcaster NHK it wasn't making enough difference. This is Nakamura speaking through a translator.


TETSU NAKAMURA: (Through interpreter) As a doctor, nothing is better than healing patients and sending them home. A hospital treats patients one by one.

HADID: For that, he needed to help people eat better food and drink better water, so he helped villagers dig wells. He drew on all Japanese methods to channel a 25-mile canal. It transformed a vast stretch of desert into forests and wheat fields. He said...


NAKAMURA: (Through interpreter) But this helps an entire village. I love seeing a village that's been brought back to life.

HADID: He was accoladed for his work. And recently, the Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, granted him honorary citizenship. His death was widely condemned, and Afghan officials say they'll hold a service for him at the airport. Many had demanded a state funeral for a man who once said he loved seeing a village brought back to life.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.