Photo/IllutrationTetsu Nakamura, right, works on a construction project in Afghanistan in December 2012. (Provided by Peshawar-kai)

  • Photo/Illustraion

A search for rare butterflies led Tetsu Nakamura on a decades-long crusade that saw him providing medical care to patients and refugees in Pakistan and swinging a mattock against parched earth in Afghanistan.

The Japanese doctor never stopped dreaming of the day when lush farmland would bring stability and security to the lives of people stricken by violence and war.

But Nakamura never fulfilled his life’s ambition.

The 73-year-old doctor was killed in an apparent ambush on a road in Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on Dec. 4. Five others, including his driver, were also killed, according to local authorities.

Nakamura’s colleagues are having a hard time coming to terms with the tragedy. They cannot fathom why anyone would kill a person so beloved and respected for his pursuit of improving the lives of those less fortunate.

Nakamura had founded Peshawar-kai, a nongovernmental organization, in his hometown of Fukuoka to provide medical care to refugees and help rebuild infrastructure in the war-torn region.

The group recently printed its newsletter dated Dec. 4 and set copies on the table in the office.

The newsletter featured words written by Nakamura: “I hope this work will lead us to a new world.”

It also included his resolution for the new year.

“With the high-spirited fresh stream of the Kunar River smashing up in pure white in mind, I am determined to work as hard as I can in the coming year,” he wrote.

Mitsuji Fukumoto, a spokesman for the organization, held a news conference at the office after Nakamura’s death was confirmed.

“To be honest, I cannot believe it,” he said with a pained look on his face. “I can’t help but feel mortified.”

Fukumoto, 71, described the work of Nakamura and how valuable he had become to locals in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

He referred to irrigation canals that Nakamura built in drought-ridden areas of Afghanistan that now bring water to 16,500 hectares of farmland.

“Without Tetsu Nakamura, this work could not have been done,” Fukumoto said.

Nakamura worked for more than 30 years in Afghanistan, despite the constant threat of danger.

Fukumoto said, “Gaining trust from local people was the best security.” And indeed, the locals looked at Nakamura with a sense of awe, he said.

The spokesman said it was “inconceivable” that someone would want to ambush and kill the doctor.

Fukumoto said the group would continue its activities to carry on the “will of Dr. Nakamura,” but he acknowledged that it will be difficult to expand the irrigation project after losing a pillar of the organization.

Nakamura’s widow, Naoko, told reporters that she was always concerned about the danger surrounding her husband’s activities.

“I’ve always wanted him to stay home, but he made a commitment to this work. One day, he would suddenly come home, and then he would suddenly leave again. It was like that all the time,” she said.

“I knew that such a tragedy could happen someday. Still, I feel so sad.”


Several Asahi Shimbun interviews with Nakamura over the years show a man dedicated to humanitarian causes after an unlikely start.

Nakamura visited Pakistan for the first time in 1978, accompanying a mountaineering expedition team from Fukuoka as its doctor.

However, the reason he joined the trip was not for humanitarian support but to satisfy his childhood curiosity about insects.

“I might be able to see some rare butterflies,” he said he thought at the time.

He had been repeatedly asked about what prompted him to pursue his lifelong activities in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And each time, he would give a bashful reply: “It wasn’t that I wanted to help the poor from the beginning.”

The pursuit of his humanitarian goal in life strengthened with each village the expedition team visited in Pakistan.

When locals heard that a doctor was in their village, they surrounded Nakamura and asked for a medical examination.

But Nakamura could only provide temporary health checks, and that bothered him.

“The more I was welcomed in the villages, the more I felt a sense of guilt and frustration,” he recalled.

Nakamura established Peshawar-kai with his comrades in 1983. The following year, he took up a position at a hospital in Peshawar in northern Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan to treat leprosy patients.

The organization’s members expanded their activities and started providing support, including medical care, to Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Later, the group’s focus shifted from Pakistan to Afghanistan.

Nakamura opened a clinic in Afghanistan in 1991.

In 2000, Afghanistan was ravaged by a terrible drought, and the shortage of clean water and food caused death tolls to spike.

Nakamura told the residents there: “Just stay alive. I will cure your disease later.”

He started digging a well to secure drinkable water for the impoverished population.

In 2003, he started the project to build the agricultural waterways. But he didn’t just bark orders.

Nakamura taught himself how to draw up blueprints for the irrigation system, and he operated heavy machinery by himself.

To help the locals themselves maintain and manage the system, Nakamura adopted traditional techniques.

He modeled the water-intake system after the Yamadazeki weir in Asakura, Fukuoka Prefecture, which was constructed in 1790 and remains in operation.

Looking back on his years as a student at Kyushu University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences, Nakamura said with a smile, “When I graduated, I never imagined I’d be doing river work in Afghanistan.”

For Nakamura and his comrades, the work in Afghanistan has been fraught with danger, especially after the U.S.-led invasion following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. The security situation collapsed as U.S.-led forces battled the Taliban and al-Qaida.

In 2008, a 31-year-old staff member of Peshawar-kai was kidnapped and killed by an armed group. The organization closed most of its clinics in the country and the Japanese staff returned home.

But Nakamura stayed.

“Rebuilding starts with agriculture, not with military affairs,” Nakamura often said.

In recent years, he worked in partnership with U.N. organizations and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to spread his accumulated know-how throughout Afghanistan.

“I will keep working for 20 more years,” Nakamura recently told people close to him.

(This article was written by Ryo Sasaki, Gento Shibui, Eishiro Takeishi and Masatomo Norikyo, correspondent.)