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Opinion: Afghan eyesight, another casualty of war

A pioneer of "eye camps" in the Afghan countryside was killed, hindering aid efforts to which he devoted his life.

Afghan man
An Afghan has his eyelids pulled apart as US soldiers of the 984th Military Police Company, from Fort Carson, Colorado, take images of villagers' retinas near Kalagush in Nuristan province on Feb. 14, 2010. Nuristan is where 10 medical workers were murdered in August 2010. (Kim Jae-hwan/AFP/Getty Images)

BOSTON — This summer, the world was riveted by the murder of 10 medical workers on the banks of a river in northern Afghanistan. When I first read the news, I was saddened to see the name of a man I knew, Tom Little.

I had interviewed Tom via Skype at the end of 2008, when he and his wife were at home in Kabul. It was not a long conversation, but enough to glean some stories about his 30-plus years in Afghanistan, during which the Littles raised three daughters and provided eye care to the country’s poorest citizens. I intended to write a story about Tom Little’s work, and had been thinking of checking back in with him. His death struck me, as it did so many, as a pointless tragedy.

Over the last month, there have been many articles and tributes to the expedition members. Their deaths underline the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, particularly the growing penetration of Taliban in relatively quiet areas in the north. The loss also imperils an ambitious effort to rebuild Afghanistan’s medical infrastructure, particularly in eye care. And it deprives Afghans in cities and remote villages alike of the chance to be free of preventable blindness.

The medical workers were assassinated in August during their journey back from mountainous Nuristan Province, where they had been providing the locals with eye care, dental work and other medical services. This was an expanded version of the “eye camp,” a service that Tom Little’s organization, the International Assistance Mission, has provided rural Afghans since 1966. During an eye camp, a team of opticians, nurses and other medical workers set up shop in a remote province, dispensing eyeglasses, removing cataracts and performing other basic but critical procedures that allow people to regain their sight.

“The rural areas are a whole different world,” Little told me last year. “Some might call it primitive. Many people never leave their villages.”

Eye camps serve Afghans who live beyond the reach of urban hospitals or even rural clinics — some 70 to 80 percent of the population. The need in these regions is vast — preventable blindness affects up to 2 percent of the Afghan population, according to the World Health Organization. Cataracts are a common affliction, even among the young. So too is trachoma, a bacterial infection that causes painful scarring on the inner eyelid and eventually destroys the cornea. Small wonder that the eye camps were frequently mobbed with people seeking treatment.

Tom Little led many eye camps to Nuristan, and had been invited to return by tribal elders. The success of these expeditions, and the safety of their participants, rested on the strength of Little’s relationships with local Afghans. Connie Frisbee-Houde, a photographer and family friend who accompanied an eye camp in 2005, shared her thoughts on the Little family shortly after I interviewed Tom in 2008.

“They’ve formed incredible relationships with the Afghans,” she said. “If they had picked up and left when times got bad, what kind of example would that have been? The need hadn’t left, so they felt it was important for them to stay. Because of how they treated them and what they were doing for them, the Afghans saved their lives on many occasions.”