'I just feel so angry. So angry' says Mother of murdered aid worker

The mother of aid worker Gayle Williams is struggling to make sense of her murder, she tells Kim Sengupta
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The Independent Online

Pat Williams flew to Kabul for her daughter's funeral yesterday. She will stay in the modest house that Gayle had made her home, and from which she set out last Monday before being gunned down on a quiet street as she walked to work.

"I am feeling very sad of course, but it will be good to see for myself how Gayle lived, what her life was like, who her friends were," said Mrs Williams. "It will be something I can bring back with me, maybe something I can hold on to for the future." She had agreed to talk with The Independent at her flat in London, in between packing for a journey to Afghanistan that she had never expected to be making in this way.

The Taliban said in a statement that they had executed Gayle because she was preaching Christianity among Afghan Muslims. Her friends, and her colleagues at the UK-registered charity Serve Afghanistan, say that, in reality, she was an aid worker working with children who had lost limbs to the landmines and bombs, and that she was victim of the insurgents' strategy to drive foreigners out of Afghanistan.

"It was such a waste of a life. All my daughter was trying to do was help others," said Mrs Williams, a small woman of 69 with a quiet dignity, shaking her head. "Who benefits by her death? No one at all."

She added: "I am sure Gayle did not think in a million years that she was offending anyone. She used to tell me that she wasgetting so much satisfaction from what she was doing, how nice and friendly people were ..."

The 34-year-old was the fourth aid worker to be killed in Afghanistan in the past two months. All four have been women. Her murder in the heart of the capital has underlined risks to the foreign community working in the country. But Gayle had not considered herself unduly vulnerable. She lived in an ordinary neighbourhood without any security guards, determined to build on her familiarity with Afghan people and culture.

Her sister Karen, who flew from South Africa this week to be with her mother in London, recalled: "She had made plans to come to England to do a master's degree in a few months time, she had the future all planned out, she was so full of ideas.

"I just feel so angry at the people who did this, so angry. If I ever met them I would just ask, 'What have you achieved by doing this?' "

The family have strong Christian principles and Pat Williams cannot bring herself to hate her daughter's killers. "They are misguided people. They had probably been told all the wrong things ... So many Afghans have been shocked by what happened to Gayle," she says, showing with appreciation a bouquet of flowers received from her daughter's colleagues. Gayle is to be buried, in accordance with her wish, in the Christian cemetery in Kabul. "She chose that not because she thought she was in danger but because she was always going to go back to Afghanistan, she was devoted to that country," said Karen. "When the opportunity to work there came, she just jumped at it. I was going through her things this morning and I found an exercise book where she had jotted down her thoughts. She was so excited that she just bought her ticket for Afghanistan."

There is no doubt that Gayle was driven by her Christian beliefs in her work in a country where religion is a highly sensitive issue, and where Muslims converting to Christianity face a death sentence under law.

In an email to a friend, Gayle wrote: "God has an amazing plan for this country and even though things so often look hopeless we can focus on Him knowing that He is able to see His plans and purposes fulfilled in Afghanistan."

Mrs Williams said: "Yes, we are a Christian family, although I am a Baptist and my daughters belong to other churches. It helps me to think that Gayle is with our Lord and she was blessed because of what she was doing. She died doing God's work.

"But that does not mean that she was openly preaching Christianity out there. I know she was very careful not to say or do things which would upset people."

Karen, who is married with two children, heard of her sister's death in a phone call from her husband. He called the hospital where she works as a nurse. "I left immediately and spent the rest of the day organising my flight. I hadn't seen Gayle for two years because she was travelling so much. She was meant to be coming to see us next year ..."

Mrs Williams was, likewise, a nurse before she retired. Gayle studied biokinetics and occupational health at South Africa's Zululand University before returning to London to work with disabled and deprived children.

Both the sisters were born in Zimbabwe, when it was still called Rhodesia. The family moved to South Africa after Ian Smith's declaration of independence, and then to England, settling in Middlesborough.

Mrs Williams recalled: "Gayle was always going to go and work somewhere unusual. I remember even when she was young she would watch the news on television, see what was going on in Bosnia and ask 'Who are helping those poor people?' She said that is the kind of thing she wanted to do when she grew up."

After university, Gayle went to work with Afghan refugees in camps in Pakistan. The work, she told her family, was often emotionally draining but she was developing an empathy with the refugees and had started learning Dari and Pashtu.

Gayle moved to work in-country with Serve Afghanistan two years ago, at a time the situation was getting increasingly dangerous, with the insurgency increasingly in evidence.

Gayle was stationed in Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban in the deep south Pashtun belt. The insurgents had been beaten back by Nato forces, but that did not stop killings from starting in the city, targeting those considered to be enemies of fundamentalist Islam: women who had dared to enter public life, civil servants, and, in a new development, aid workers.

Gayle and her colleagues wereliving under almost siege conditions, and then, six months ago, were suddenly evacuated back to Kabul.

Gayle told her friends what had happened: an Afghan colleague had been kidnapped and murdered, a Western woman taking part in charity work had disappeared, and then cars started turning up outside the offices of aid groups, with men inside them watching comings and goings. Gayle wrote in an email: "We have been told our office was under surveillance but no one could be held or charged due to insufficient evidence."

Then came a warning from UN security officials that armed men had entered Kandahar with the aim of kidnapping foreigners. The decision was taken to relocate Serve Afghanistan staff to the capital.

Pat and Karen only learnt of those latest developments in Kandahar after Gayle's death. "I suppose she didn't want us to worry," said Karen. "But even if we had known I don't think we could have stopped her from what she really wanted to do. She had travelled across Iran by herself, she was used to taking risks."

However Gayle was feeling the strain of living in a situation where one had to be continually wary. Her friend and colleague Mike Lythe, the head of Serve Afghanistan, described how much she enjoyed being able to relax during a brief walking trip in Tajikistan: "She told us how wonderful it was not to worry about things like keeping herself covered in public or having to take different routes to work every day."

A memorial service for Gayle will be held in London next week. The family have requested that instead of flowers, donations may be sent for the welfare of deprived Afghan children.