IN EARLY AUGUST 2010, 10 aid workers were murdered, execution-style, in the province of Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan. Among them were six Americans, two Afghans, a Briton, and a German, all part of a medical mission. It was the deadliest attack on aid workers the country had seen.
Dan Terry, 63, an American humanitarian who, with his family, had called Afghanistan home for more than 30 years, was among the dead.
What compels a person to risk his or her life in a foreign land so riddled with conflict? For Terry it was simple—he was called to a life of peacemaking and service.
A friend of Terry's since childhood, writer Jonathan Larson draws us into Terry's passionate character and the vision he shared with friends in Afghanistan: reconciliation and dialogue. "In the end, we're all knotted into the same carpet," Terry was fond of saying. From a swath of interviews with family, friends, and colleagues, both Western and Afghan, Larson has assembled "oral narratives," sharing with us the exhilarating life of a generous and gentle man, heroic but humble.
The best advice I received as a humanitarian aid worker in Afghanistan was from a leader cut from the same cloth as Terry: "Make no assumptions" and "listen first." We too often accept media caricatures of the other, labels that shut down discourse and clamp off possibility and hope. Challenging this, Terry insisted on the unwavering potential of each person he met. "Categorical 'enemies' have rescued me ... again and again," he once wrote to friends.
This approach, while considered naïve by some and cavalier by others, helped Terry form unlikely but effective partnerships, such as with members of the Taliban, whose code had wrought so much suffering on the Afghan people. He would work with individual Talibs who cared for the well-being of their communities and wanted to help improve lives. In his dealings with Taliban administrators or village leaders, gunmen at checkpoints or subsistence farmers, Terry found the common ground, at times securing the release of hostages or bringing enemies together around a common cause. He believed there was no barricade that could not be crossed, no problem that could not be negotiated.
But not everyone appreciated this. Colleagues criticized him for his alliances with the Taliban, while his superiors grew frustrated by his lack of adherence to proper process and procedure. Here, Larson is nuanced in acknowledging the isolation, even brokenness, Terry felt as the organization he had worked with for years began to distance itself from his unconventional practices. The creative ways of those rooted in prophetic values and driven by community needs have value, but systems that assure accountability and transparency to the donor and those we serve are also necessary. How to marry these without losing one or the other remains the challenge for many aid agencies, in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
In discussing Terry's community-led approach to development, Larson includes significant criticism of military strategies that focus on "winning hearts and minds," consequently blurring humanitarian aid with intelligence gathering. These often involve short-term, quick-fix projects with little, if any, community participation, which can encourage dependency while increasing the danger for actual aid workers.
Terry's approach to peacebuilding was at great odds with the "war on terror" that continues to be waged in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and most recently, northern Africa. In light of ongoing fighting and increasing drone warfare, can we ask ourselves and our leaders if we have done enough to seek a peaceful solution in Afghanistan? As international forces depart, have we engaged the context appropriately and encouraged a dialogue that seeks a shared understanding—some common ground, but also compromise—that could potentially save lives?
If Terry was still with us, he would have some suggestions. Thankfully, the stories that Larson has assembled provide guideposts from a man driven by an unhindered hope in our potential and nurtured by a stalwart faith in a God who loves.
Perhaps Terry's most powerful testimony, applicable to all people, at home and abroad, is captured in the carved words of an unpolished granite tombstone in a Kabul cemetery. It reads, "Above all, clothe yourselves in love." Dan Terry is buried here, but the impact of his life and the message he shared continues.
Mary Kate MacIsaac is a humanitarian communicator seeking solidarity for marginalized communities in places of conflict and disaster, including Afghanistan (where she worked for three years with an international aid organization), Iraq, Palestine, and Haiti.