Written by Nikki Dy-Liacco
Illustrated by May Tobias-Papa
The people of mountain Afghanistan rarely hold the world’s attention for long. Even when they are drawn into the intrigues and bloody conflicts of big powers—as they repeatedly have been—the rest of the world soon averts its eyes when the fighting dies down and there is nothing more to see but rubble and refugees and the region’s enduring poverty. Dr. Tetsu Nakamura of Japan is someone who does not avert his eyes. He has devoted himself to this austere region and nearby Pakistan for nineteen years.
Born in Fukuoka City in 1946, Nakamura studied medicine at Kyushu University and, after 1973, began his medical practice in Japan. His youthful passion for mountain climbing drew him to the rugged high ranges of eastern Afghanistan. The warmhearted people he met there lived wholly beyond the reach of modern medicine. This led him in 1984 to volunteer with the Japan Overseas Christian Medical Cooperative Service at Mission Hospital Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border in northwest Pakistan.
As head of the hospital’s leprosy-control unit, Nakamura explored the area’s rural hamlets and threw himself into addressing the absence of any kind of medical care. Meanwhile, a war fed by the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan raged across the border. Nakamura organized emergency health centers for the Afghan refugees streaming into Pakistan and, inside Afghanistan, set up mobile clinics in the war zone. During these early years, he immersed himself completely in the lives of his companions, learning their languages and accepting their perils. Moving with the mujahideen, he earned a reputation for bravery that he carries up till now. When the Taliban later established its authority in Afghanistan, Nakamura won their confidence too and operated clinics in territories under their sway.
Nakamura wrote about these frontier experiences in Japanese newspapers and books, confronting readers with positive images of Muslims that ran counter to stereotype. His publications and speaking tours in Japan helped him raise money to support his endeavors and gradually to expand them. In 1998, he built the 70-bed Peshawar Medical Services Hospital to serve as his base. Here and in four satellite clinics, Nakamura and his team of Japanese and local doctors and staff now provide comprehensive low-cost medical services to over 150,000 patients a year, including victims of a devastating regional drought. The United States invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 infuriated Nakamura. He raised more than three million dollars to distribute wheat and cooking oil to starving families in Kabul whose food supplies had been cut off by American bombing.
Nakamura’s long years in the region have taught him that medical services and emergency aid alone cannot alter the basic equation of poverty. Since 2000, he has been helping villagers in drought-stricken areas to restore and improve their water supply. Today, some 250,000 villagers in more than a thousand locations draw life-saving water from Nakamura’s wells. He is linking his new irrigation project to a thorough program for community revitalization and self-sufficiency.
When he is not on the move, soft-spoken, fifty-six-year-old Nakamura lives with his staff at the hospital in Peshawar. He avoids international aid-givers and seeks no government assistance, preferring to rely on twelve thousand loyal donors. He takes no money for his own services, however, and supports himself and his family by periodically practicing medicine in Japan.
In his harsh beloved hills, Nakamura strives to transcend politics, religion, and ethnicity and to practice mutual dependence. For all of us, he believes, this is the key to peace. It is, he says, a "spirit that must be built in our hearts."
In electing Tetsu Nakamura to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes his passionate commitment to ease the pain of war, disease, and calamity among refugees and the mountain poor of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.
Winner. 10th Cardinal Sin Catholic Book Awards, 2016 – Youth and Children Category
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