One of the gunmen who killed 10 charitable health workers in northern Afghanistan hitched a ride with the medical team shortly before the murders, the sole survivor of the attack told The Associated Press on Saturday.
"God was good to me," the team's surviving driver, Safiullah, said in an interview punctuated by long pauses and tears for his slain colleagues.
On Aug. 5, the day of the attack, the medical team stopped to give three men a lift — a common courtesy in the rugged, remote area. Soon after, 10 members of the International Assistance Mission — six Americans, three Afghans, one German and a Briton — lay dead.
It was a tragic finale to the team's more than two-week mission covering about 100 miles (160 kilometers) — much of it on foot and horseback — through the Hindu Kush mountains, giving vision and other medical care to impoverished villagers in Nuristan province.
Several times during the interview, 28-year-old Safiullah, clad in jeans and a dark green shirt, stopped to collect himself or wipe away tears that welled up in his eyes. He recounted how the team was rushed by gunmen shouting "Satellite! Satellite!" — a demand to surrender their phones. He explained how the attackers spared his life, then forced him to walk for hours through a forest before releasing him.
Safiullah, seated on gold cushions propped up on red carpeting at his home in Kabul, said the team picked up three pedestrians on their return trip back to Kabul. They climbed atop one of the three four-wheeled drive vehicles. After the team was stopped by a swollen river, two of the men went on their way. The third man "quickly disappeared," Safiullah said in his first media interview since he was released by Afghan authorities this week.
Team leader Dr. Tom Little, an optometrist from Delmar, New York, and another team member waded into the river with long sticks to find a shallow place for the vehicles to safely cross, he said. After successfully crossing, the team stopped to ready themselves for their long trip back through Badakhshan province and onto the Afghan capital.
Then came the attack.
Among the 10 gunmen was the third pedestrian who had a patchy beard, Safiullah said, touching three parts of his own face to describe the only places where the man's facial hair grew.
One gunman shot Little after hitting him in the head with the back of an AK-47 rifle. Another threw a grenade at one of the vehicles, killing two female members of the team who were hiding inside. Then they shot the team's Afghan cook, who had used luggage to barricade himself under the car that was attacked and burned, Safiullah said.
The attackers then murdered the rest of the group — except Safiullah, who raised his arms in the air and recited verses from the Islamic holy book Quran as he begged the gunmen for his life.
'They were militants'
Safiullah speculated the gunmen might have shot the team's Afghan cook, who was lying under the vehicle because they thought he might have had a satellite phone. Safiullah said they might have killed a second Afghan, a guard employed at International Assistance Mission since 2007, because he was wearing a head scarf wrapped in a style that made him look like a bodyguard.
After the killings, the gunmen loaded Safiullah with weapons and luggage and took him with them on a seven- or eight-hour walk through a forest.
The attackers took his wedding ring and $50 in cash from his pocket, but Safiullah said the gunmen were not local thieves.
"They had made a plan," Safiullah said. "It was a very organized group. They had leadership. They were well-organized. They were militants."
Safiullah said he believed the commander — a man he described as a "tyrant with a cruel face" — was Pakistani because he yelled "Jaldee! Jaldee!" — a word used in several regional languages that means "hurry up." It is more commonly used in Pakistan and India than Afghanistan.
Safiullah said he believed the rest of the gunmen were from Nuristan province because while they understood Dari and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan, they conversed in Pashaye, a local dialect used only in parts of the northeast corner of the nation where the attack occurred.
He said the gunmen were physically fit. He recalled that one, a tall pale-faced man, wore commando-style garb. Another, he said, was clad in yellow Afghan-style clothing.
"If it's 100 years later and I see them, I'll know them," he said.
Living with tragedy
Were the attackers linked with the Taliban, which claimed responsibility, or with the Hizb-i-Islami group that operates in the area under the leadership of warlord and former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar?
"What is different between Hizb-i-Islami and the Taliban?" he asked. "Both are killers."
Asked if planned to go back to work for the mission, Safiullah paused in silence and struggled to answer.
Safiullah's father, Mohammad Rahim, who worked for International Assistance Mission in the past and knew Little for 30 years, said Little was the foundation of the Christian organization. "It will take a while for IAM to stand on its feet," he said.
Safiullah, who lives in a neighborhood where goats mingle with schoolchildren as they head home from class, said he knows he needs work, but confessed he wasn't sleeping at night. He said he asked police investigators not to release videotape of his questioning because he feared for his life.
"Psychologically, I am not well," he said, lowering his eyes.
"My concern is about my life," he said, adding he planned to leave Kabul at least temporarily to try to get over the ordeal. "I'm not feeling safe."
'Never forget this'
During his trek with the gunmen, the group began walking toward a flashing light, he said. There, they met up with another group that seemed to know the attackers. They asked Safiullah if he was a Muslim, his father's name, how many children he had and why he worked for foreigners.
"I have children and have to feed my family," said Safiullah, who has a wife, three sons and one daughter.
Before they let him go, the gunmen warned Safiullah to never work again for foreigners, the Afghan government or join the Afghan National Army.
One of the gunmen kicked him so hard that he fell down. Even though they told him to leave, Safiullah said he feared they would hunt him down and kill him. Still, he took off running in shoes with worn soles. Safiullah said he was exhausted from the ordeal and had not eaten in two days. He rested by a large rock and then met up with a shepherd. The older man, who let Safiullah briefly ride on a donkey, took him to his house in Naw village.
By then, Afghan authorities were investigating the crime. Police came to the village and took him back to the scene of the killings.
Safiullah said he helped police load the bodies into the two four-wheeled drive vehicles that still could be driven.
Flooding forced the party to spend the night in another village before they could escort the bodies to Kuran Wa Munjan district of Nuristan province where they were flown by helicopter back to Kabul, Safiullah said.
"In the history of my life," he said. "I will never forget this."