HIGHLIGHTS

  • As head of the hospital’s leprosy-control unit, Nakamura explored the area’s rural hamlets and threw himself into addressing the absence of any kind of medical care.
  • Nakamura wrote about these frontier experiences in Japanese newspapers and books, confronting readers with positive images of Muslims that ran counter to stereotype.
  • Since 2000, he has been helping villagers in drought-stricken areas to restore and improve their water supply. Today, some 250,000 villagers in more than a thousand locations draw life-saving water from Nakamura’s wells.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his passionate commitment to ease the pain of war, disease, and calamity among refugees and the mountain poor of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.”

 CITATION

The people of mountain Afghanistan rarely hold the world’s attention for long. Even when they are drawn into the intrigues and bloody conflicts of big powers—as they repeatedly have been—the rest of the world soon averts its eyes when the fighting dies down and there is nothing more to see but rubble and refugees and the region’s enduring poverty. Dr. Tetsu Nakamura of Japan is someone who does not avert his eyes. He has devoted himself to this austere region and nearby Pakistan for nineteen years.

Born in Fukuoka City in 1946, Nakamura studied medicine at Kyushu University and, after 1973, began his medical practice in Japan. His youthful passion for mountain climbing drew him to the rugged high ranges of eastern Afghanistan. The warmhearted people he met there lived wholly beyond the reach of modern medicine. This led him in 1984 to volunteer with the Japan Overseas Christian Medical Cooperative Service at Mission Hospital Peshawar, near the Afghanistan border in northwest Pakistan.

As head of the hospital’s leprosy-control unit, Nakamura explored the area’s rural hamlets and threw himself into addressing the absence of any kind of medical care. Meanwhile, a war fed by the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan raged across the border. Nakamura organized emergency health centers for the Afghan refugees streaming into Pakistan and, inside Afghanistan, set up mobile clinics in the war zone. During these early years, he immersed himself completely in the lives of his companions, learning their languages and accepting their perils. Moving with the mujahideen, he earned a reputation for bravery that he carries up till now. When the Taliban later established its authority in Afghanistan, Nakamura won their confidence too and operated clinics in territories under their sway.

Nakamura wrote about these frontier experiences in Japanese newspapers and books, confronting readers with positive images of Muslims that ran counter to stereotype. His publications and speaking tours in Japan helped him raise money to support his endeavors and gradually to expand them. In 1998, he built the 70-bed Peshawar Medical Services Hospital to serve as his base. Here and in four satellite clinics, Nakamura and his team of Japanese and local doctors and staff now provide comprehensive low-cost medical services to over 150,000 patients a year, including victims of a devastating regional drought. The United States invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 infuriated Nakamura. He raised more than three million dollars to distribute wheat and cooking oil to starving families in Kabul whose food supplies had been cut off by American bombing.

Nakamura’s long years in the region have taught him that medical services and emergency aid alone cannot alter the basic equation of poverty. Since 2000, he has been helping villagers in drought-stricken areas to restore and improve their water supply. Today, some 250,000 villagers in more than a thousand locations draw life-saving water from Nakamura’s wells. He is linking his new irrigation project to a thorough program for community revitalization and self-sufficiency.

When he is not on the move, soft-spoken, fifty-six-year-old Nakamura lives with his staff at the hospital in Peshawar. He avoids international aid-givers and seeks no government assistance, preferring to rely on twelve thousand loyal donors. He takes no money for his own services, however, and supports himself and his family by periodically practicing medicine in Japan.

In his harsh beloved hills, Nakamura strives to transcend politics, religion, and ethnicity and to practice mutual dependence. For all of us, he believes, this is the key to peace. It is, he says, a “spirit that must be built in our hearts.”

In electing Tetsu Nakamura to receive the 2003 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding, the board of trustees recognizes his passionate commitment to ease the pain of war, disease, and calamity among refugees and the mountain poor of the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands.

 RESPONSE

Your Excellency President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow awardees, ladies and gentlemen.

It is a great honour for me to have been selected as recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Peace and International Understanding this year. At the same time, I am impressed by this recognition of warm sympathy from friends in Asia. I understand this award is not for my own achievement, but also for that of the 300 local Afghan and Pakistani staff of the Peshawar-kai Medical Services, the Peshawar-kai head office staff and the 12,000 Japanese Peshawar-kai members who have been supporting our work for the past 20 years.

In the past 20 years, we have faced almost all possible conflicts and distresses in the Asian region: religious conflicts; restriction of states; the conflict of ethnic majority vs. other ethnics; tribal strife; contradiction between rural and urban areas; the struggle of rapid modernisation versus traditional society; the expanding gap between rich and poor; and the contradictions between so-called “modernized advanced nations” and developing nations.

Even under such a situation, different people were able to co-operate with each other, probably because we have respected “life” and have made every effort to seek common ground as human beings. Although this was not always easy, and sometimes great patience was needed, my experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan tells me it is possible to find this common ground, and to strengthen it by working together in mutual respect. I am convinced that we have something to share as human beings by understanding the differences among each other, even in diverse Asian regions. War is not the solution.

Under the recent climate where the international community approves the exercise of state violence without hesitation, as seen in many developed countries, Asian brothers who are in a vulnerable position are denied the opportunity to open their mouths, and thinking citizens are forced to be silent. It is unbearable to lose our own identities, to be deprived of human pride and peaceful lives. Despite the problems of kaleidoscopic politics and transient international attention, we shall continue to share life’s joys and sorrows with the local people in Afghanistan and Pakistan,in addition to acting as witnesses to their condition.

I hope that our small contributions to this corner of Asia will become a sacrificial building block for symbiosis and harmony, transcending any established positions and prejudices.

Thank you very much.

 BIOGRAPHY

Who would have thought that beetles and butterflies would lead a Japanese doctor to his life’s work? As a boy, Tetsu Nakamura developed a passion for insect collecting in the mountains of Kyushu Island. He continued his hobby through adulthood, even traveling to eastern Afghanistan in 1978 to confirm for himself that insects in Japan share the same ancestry as those in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

There Nakamura found much more than the fragile creatures of his dreams. Word got around that a doctor was in the area. The sick and the dying from Pakistan’s hardscrabble foothills begged for medical attention. Sadly, Nakamura could not do much for them. The medicines he had were reserved for use by his climbing party. “As a medical doctor, that was regrettable,” he says. “This remained in my mind for a long time.”

Back in Japan, Nakamura was haunted by the faces of the people he could not help. In 1982, he jumped at the chance to go on a medical mission to the Pakistani border city of Peshawar. Afterwards, Nakamura returned to the area again and again, helping to build a seventy-bed hospital in Peshawar and three satellite clinics in Afghanistan, where he also mobilized Afghan villagers to dig deep wells to mitigate the dearth of periodic droughts. Today, some quarter of a million people draw water from these very wells. A more ambitious project, now underway in Afghanistan, is a sixteen-kilometer canal system to pipe water from the upper reaches of the Kunar River to the Sheiwa district in Kunar Province. When completed, the system will irrigate two thousand hectares and allow 150 people to return to previously parched settlements.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)