The death of Karen Woo – by the man who survived

The first eyewitness account of the killing of 10 aid workers in Afghanistan has shed light on their final moments.

They were resting in the shade of trees, exhausted but relieved that they had managed to get their vehicles through a swollen river when the attackers appeared. From nowhere, men began shouting orders and firing over the medical team's heads.

Tom Little, a doctor who had dedicated 40 years of his life to helping the Afghans, called out "What's happening?" before a blow to the head with an AK-47 rifle sent him reeling to the ground. As he struggled to get up, he was fatally shot in the chest. One by one, the nine other members of his team were executed as they tried in vain to shield themselves from bullets and grenades.

For the first time, the lone survivor of the killing of 10 members of the International Assistance Mission (IAM) – which included the British doctor Karen Woo – has described the horror of their last moments.

Dr Woo, a "vibrant, energetic and dedicated" 36-year-old who was due to marry this week, had ignored pleas from friends and family, determined that the essential nature of the work outweighed the perils. Her body and those of six Americans, two Afghans, and one German, were found in the Koran Wa Munjan district of Badakhshan on 6 August.

The driver, called Safiullah, revealed that it was an act of kindness – a lift to strangers – that would lead to the murders. At his home in a district of Kabul, the 28-year-old spoke hesitantly as he recounted the events that have left him traumatised, in fear of his life and unable to sleep. While suspicion initially fell on him, he has now been released by the Afghan authorities after questioning.

Frequently breaking down in tears, the father of four paused constantly as he remembered his colleagues. "God was good to me," he explained simply.

The IAM team had spent the previous two weeks covering about 100 miles – much of it on foot and horseback – through the Hindu Kush mountains, bringing medical care to impoverished villagers in Nuristan province. The day before they were killed, the team was guided back by locals to their vehicles, so they could start the final leg of their trip home.

They soon stopped to give three men a lift, a charitable courtesy in the rugged and remote area. Two of the men set off on their way when the vehicles were blocked by a river, while the third "quickly disappeared", Safiullah explained.

Dr Little, the team leader, and another member waded into the waters to find a shallow place for the vehicles to cross safely. A short while later, they were resting in a forested area in the narrow valley, preparing themselves for the long trip back through Badakhshan province and on to the Afghan capital.

Suddenly ten gunmen shouting "satellite, satellite" – a demand to surrender their phones – appeared and the driver recognised the third pedestrian from earlier. They seemed to be motivated, skilled and organised militants, some wearing commando-style gear, he said.

After killing Dr Little, the gunmen turned their attention to two of the three female members of the team who were hiding inside one of the vehicles and threw a grenade at it, killing them both. Then they shot the team's Afghan cook, who had used luggage to barricade himself under the car. As the gunmen murdered the rest of the group one by one, the driver begged for his life, raising his arms in the air as he recited verses from the Koran. Safiullah believed their commander – a "tyrant with a cruel face" – was Pakistani because he yelled "Jaldee! Jaldee!", or hurry up, a term more common over the border than in Afghanistan. But the rest of the gunmen seemed to come from Nuristan province because they conversed in the local dialect Pashaye.

Asked why the gunman did not spare his fellow Afghans, the driver speculated the cook might have been targeted because they thought he had a satellite phone and the second man, a guard, had been wearing a head scarf similar to a bodyguard.

"They had made a plan," Safiullah recalled. "It was a very organised group. They had leadership. They were well-organised. They were militants. If it's 100 years later and I see them, I'll know them."

The killers took his wedding ring and $50 from his pocket before loading him down with weapons and luggage for an eight-hour walk. On a radio, one of the gunmen reported back: "Everything's finished. We killed them."

After being met by another group, the driver was interrogated about his faith, family and why he worked for foreigners before a gunman kicked him to the ground and told him he was free.

Fearful they would hunt him down and kill him, he initially clung to one of the gunmen's legs before eventually running for his life. Exhausted and having not eaten for two days, he was resting by a large rock when an older shepherd offered to take him back to his house in the Naw village, where the authorities found him.

Back at the scene of the murders, the young driver helped police load the bodies of his former colleagues into the two remaining four-wheeled drive vehicles to start their journey back to Kabul.

"Psychologically, I am not well," Saifullah admitted. "My concern is about my life. I'm not feeling safe." Lowering his eyes, he continued: "In the history of my life. I will never forget this."

He said he did not know whether he could go back to helping Western aid agencies: his attackers had warned him not to have anything to do with foreigners or the Afghan authorities.

While the killings were initially blamed on a robbery, the Taliban claimed the credit for them, insisting the workers were trying to convert people to Christianity, a statement IAM strenuously denied. Dirk Frans, executive director of the NGO, has since said IAM believes its workers were victims of "an opportunistic ambush by a group of non-local fighters".

The murders have been described as the worst attack on aid workers in 30 years and a shattering set back for those attempting to bring aid to the country. They came at a time when civilian deaths have jumped 31 per cent in a year and the number of Nato troops killed has passed the 2,000 mark.

The senior military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus, may have last night added to the confusion over Western policy in Afghanistan by saying it was still unclear whether President Barack Obama's deadline to start pulling out troops next year could be met.

In a television interview designed to bolster support after a recent poll found that seven out of 10 Americans did not believe the war would end successfully, General Petraeus said he had seen "areas of progress" but battling the Taliban was an "up and down process".

He said he would give his "best professional military advice" to Mr Obama about the July 2011 deadline, adding: "I think the President has been quite clear in explaining that it's a process, not an event, and that it's conditions-based. It would be premature to have any kind of assessment at this juncture about what we may or may not be able to transition."

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

SAP Project Manager

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

£600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

£65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

Commonwealth Games

David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star