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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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

Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key Stage 1

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Phase Co-ordinator for Foundation and Key S...

Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: SEN Teacher We have a fantastic special n...

Tradewind Recruitment: History Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an 11-18 all ability co-educat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 6 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee