Jalalabad has become a place where nothing that happens is a surprise. To the south of the area that took the life of my esteemed friend Tetsu Nakamura is Spin Ghar (in the local Pashtu language it means White Mountain), which lies on the border with Pakistan. Tetsu-sensei taught me the name of the mountain, and I gave the name to a stray white cat that comforted me during the harsh days I spent in Peshawar.
Tetsu-sensei was fascinated by butterflies and mountains, and this is what took him to Pakistan in the first place. “I wouldn’t say that I wasn’t serious, but I didn’t think I would end up doing something like this!”
He told me that at our first meeting. It was 31 years ago on December 8, 1988 (a Friday, a holiday in the Islamic world), three weeks after I entered Peshawar. By then, his PIMS clinic with the Japanese flag and dove logo was already well known. Even though I knew Tetsu Nakamura was there, for reasons I’m not proud of I was unable to pay a courtesy call.
The statute of limitations has expired, so let me reveal what those circumstances were.
I had been sent by the Japanese government to a new UNICEF Afghan office to be opened in the Pakistan border town of Peshawar, where an estimated 3.5 million Afghan refugees were living, as a kind of trial of civilian support in a conflict zone. Foreign staff were not able to stay in Afghanistan itself, where conflict still raged, and Soviet troops that had ruled over Afghanistan for 10 years were set to withdraw the following February, and the main task was to support the repatriation of refugees. The office was like an emergency front line base.
At the time, Tetsu-sensei had a critical opinion of so-called national-level support, so as I was departing, I was directed from somewhere not to call on “a certain so-and-so Nakamura.” I accepted this instruction but said with as much sarcasm as I could muster, “It’s a small world and it’s possible I might run into him, so in that case I assume it would be OK to say hello?” With that, I set off for Peshawar.
Then, as now, Peshawar isn’t a place that too many people visit. In the late 1980s, all Japanese who went there paid a courtesy call on Dr. Nakamura within a few days for orientation, but I refrained from doing so, although I wanted to.
Eventually, Tetsu-sensei came to the large brick house with garden that I had found. “I was worried,” he said.
I said that I had been unable to visit him because of the undertaken I had given. He slapped his knees and gave a deep laugh. “I came to see you. I’ll write you a certificate.”
He seemed to have a liking for coffee. Coffee wasn’t easy to come by in Peshawar in those days and I ground the precious coffee beans I had brought from Japan. By sunset, we had finished two large pots, but still the talking was far from done—about Afghanistan, about refugees, about Pakistan and the rules of tribal societies; outside intervention, East-West conflict and the involvement of the Arab world; the complicated make-up of the anti-communist guerrilla factions called Mujahideen and the balance between them; and the lives of the people, health and education. From that day to the present, I realize, Dr. Nakamura’s basic idea of peace has not shifted 1 millimeter, not even a micron.
Thereafter, we would meet every day, whenever time permitted, at his office and also at his home. Later I took care of female Japanese staff who had showed up without warning as volunteers. I donated the diagnostic equipment I had bought for my work. On occasion, I attended to female patients. I ate his wife Naoko’s home-cooked food. Those days in Peshawar wouldn’t have been possible without Tetsu-sensei.
From the latter part of August through November, the daytime temperature rises above 45 degrees, and in August in particular there are days when it tops 50 degrees. What’s more there is high humidity, and back then there were daily power cuts. Dr. Nakamura and his family went home every summer. “You’ve no idea what it’s like in here midsummer when it goes over 53 degrees!” I once snapped at him.
But he remained calm, smoking away. There were over 500,000 local Pakistanis, an estimated 1 million or maybe 1.5 million Afghans in numerous refugee camps near Peshawar. “Everyone is living in the same environment,” he would say.
The security situation in Peshawar in those days was unstable. “You must have a gun.” “I’ll lend you a pistol.” “A stun gun is essential.” I was shown all sorts of weapons by kindly people. When I went to consult with sensei, he said nothing, needless to say.
Under the circumstances, especially given the unstable security situation, an order to withdraw the UN presence was issued. The naïve helper that I was, I didn’t know what to do. The local people, the refugees who needed help, the local staff would all be staying, so why should it just be me to flee? I didn’t feel like leaving, I was at a loss. But Tetsu-sensei was calm. “You can rent the house of a local member of staff.”
When I think about those Peshawar days, I can hear the voice of Tetsu-sensei. And although we hadn’t met for several months up until the time of his death, there was no distance between us. Yet now I feel such emptiness and I want to shout: why, why, why, why did you have to die?
I returned to Japan after two years. Thereafter I sometimes attended his lectures. Then, in 1988, I was assigned to the WHO’s disaster relief section and I was again working on Afghanistan now under Taliban control. I went to Kabul and different areas of Afghanistan; it was different from Peshawar and even more tense.
But my work would have been impossible without that experience of Peshawar. The tribal chiefs and elders who ruled each place were unlike the mujahideen bosses I had dealt with in Peshawar, who had experience of interacting with foreigners over the distribution of aid and weapons. By contrast, the bosses of these armed groups had never set foot outside Afghanistan. It was like the 16th century, I thought. Would this have been what it was like to meet with Oda Nobunaga and Takeda Shingen?
I had few opportunities to see Dr. Nakamura, when I heard from him around the time I contacted him with the news that I had been appointed to head the new Japanese Red Cross Kyushu International College of Nursing in Fukuoka Prefecture. He got in touch to say that he wanted to see me. As there no longer any restrictions on my meeting with him, once more sensei came to see me.
Handing me a bundle of handwritten manuscripts, he asked me what I thought. It was no different from the old days as, speaking plainly and in detail he explained what was necessary before medical treatment—food, nutrition, water and time for the family. All of that had to precede medical care, he said. That night, I avidly read the draft of “Isha, ido wo horu” (A Doctor Digs a Well).
In almost no time I was asked to investigate the Yamada dam on the Chikugo River, which served as a reference for flood control in Afghanistan. In this way, Tetsu sensei had turned into a civil engineering expert who could also offer medical care. At the lectures he gave each year in Fukuoka Prefecture and elsewhere, it became the pattern that instead of showing photos of sick people, he showed photos of the Marwarid irrigation canal and reported on the greening of the Gamberi desert.
Coming from the same prefecture as Dr. Nakamura, I was helped by him many times. On July 11, 2001, I planned a lecture to commemorate the opening of what is the only international nursing college, which he gave, although he was worried about his son who was very sick in bed with a malignant tumor at the time. In 2012, I also asked him to speak as the centerpiece of the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the Fukuoka Red Cross Blood Center.
Furthermore, in 2010, after I became college president, he agreed to take part in a special project I planned for the 25th Conference of the Japan Association for International Health to be held in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the founding of the university. In February that year, a dialogue between the documentary writer Hisae Sawachi and Tetsu-sensei was held under the same title as the book “Hito wa ai suru ni tari, magokoro wa shinzuru ni taru—Afugan to no yakusoku” (Human beings are worthy of love, sincerity starts by believing—the promise to Afghanistan). The discussion was a rare gem.
Ah, Tetsu-sensei. Why were you targeted? Did you know?
Those Peshawar days that I sometimes would recall. Will I have to seal them off, now that you are gone?
Tetsu Nakamura sensei. I pray for your happiness and all the other things one prays for, but these aren’t the words I want to be speaking.
But rest in peace, please.
(Originally posted in Japanese on 9 December 2019 Translated by Jonathan LLOYD-OWEN )