WASHINGTON / KABUL - He came to Afghanistan as Dr. Tetsu Nakamura in the 1980s to help treat leprosy patients in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. His body is leaving Afghanistan as “Kaka Murad” or Uncle Murad, revered by millions of people across the country who feel indebted to his three decades of humanitarian work in the war-torn country.
On Wednesday, Nakamura was on his way to work with five members of his aid organization, Peace Japan Medical Services, when his car came under attack by unidentified gunmen in Jalalabad, the capital of eastern Nangarhar province.
He and his staff were shot and killed, with Nakamura dying of his wounds on the way to Bagram Airfield, a U.S. military base in northern Afghanistan, local Afghan officials said.
Life's work in Afghanistan
Nakamura, 73, had dedicated most of his adult life to working in Afghanistan, trying to save lives at times as a physician and at times as a mason, building water canals for people affected by drought.
“You’d hear a child screaming in the waiting room, but by the time you got there, they’d be dead,” Nakamura told NHK TV, Japan’s national broadcasting organization, in October.
“That happened almost every day. They were so malnourished that things like diarrhea could kill them. ... My thinking was that if those patients had clean water and enough to eat, they would have survived,” he added.
Japanese Afghan citizen
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani bestowed upon Nakamura an honorary Afghan citizenship in October, and earlier this year residents of Nangarhar province campaigned on social media for him to become the mayor of Jalalabad city.
“This morning a terror attack against the reconstruction hero of Afghanistan, Japanese Afghan Dr. Tetsu Nakamura, resulted in his injury. His deep wounds unfortunately led to his death,” Ghani tweeted in Pashto earlier this week.
Ghani offered “our deepest condolences” to Japanese Ambassador to Afghanistan Mitsuji Suzuka, as well as to the families of the Afghans who were killed in the attack.
On Friday, Ghani met with Nakamura’s family in Kabul, the presidential office said.
#SorryJapan has been trending on Afghan social media networks with officials, activists and Afghan citizens expressing sorrow over Nakamura’s death and apologizing to Japan for not being able to protect him.
“#Nakamura I can’t stop my tears. My heart cries for you, my heart aches so much. I can’t forget you, you were the true servant of this land,” Basir Atiqzai wrote on twitter.
Bilal Sarwary, a former BBC reporter in Afghanistan, said Nakamura had great affection for the people of Afghanistan.
Sarwary tweeted he remembered “the joy and jubilation” on Nakamura’s face “after inaugurating the water canal. His friendly hugs with Gul Agha Shiraz and his laughter of joy shows his deep love for Afghanistan.”
Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of Afghan intelligence and Ghani’s running mate in September’s presidential elections, said the crime against Nakamura would not go unpunished.
Nakamura has become “a hero of compassion for all Afghans. He was an uncle for east Afg before. There is no way his murder will remain a mystery for ever. No way. He is too big to be cremated or buried. This high profile crime won’t go unpunished. We promise,” Saleh wrote on Twitter Thursday.
Candlelight vigils have been held in several provinces in Afghanistan. Locals named a roundabout after Nakamura in Eastern Khost province with Kam Air, a local Afghan airline, putting Nakamura’s portrait on an Airbus 340 to pay tribute to the slain aid worker.
WATCH: Afghan Activists Hold Vigil in Honor of Slain Japanese Doctor
Afghans living in the Washington, D.C., area are planning a candlelight vigil Saturday.
No group has immediately claimed responsibility for the attack against the group. The Taliban denied responsibility for it, but Afghan officials and civil society activists have blamed the insurgent group for it.
On Friday, a group of activists held a protest in Kabul in front of Pakistan’s Embassy to condemn the terror attack and criticize Pakistan’s alleged support for the Afghan militants.
Pakistan has not immediately reacted to the protest.
“Afghans will never forget his services for this country,” Rahimullah Samandar, a civil society activist, told Reuters. “The whole nation will love him and keep him in their memories.”
‘I couldn’t ignore Afghans’
Nakamura was born in western Japan. He was a physician by profession and left his country in 1984 to work at a clinic in the Pakistani city of Peshawar. He treated Afghan refugees displaced by war and suffering from leprosy.
He eventually opened a clinic in Afghanistan in 1991. He found the health problems in Afghanistan overwhelming for his clinic and instead found another way to combat them: irrigation canals.
In 2003, borrowing tactics from Japan’s irrigation systems, he swapped his doctor’s tools for construction gear. He began building an irrigation canal to help address the drought issue in eastern Afghanistan. He and local residents spent six years completing the construction of a canal that has reportedly changed the lives of nearly a million people.
“As a doctor, nothing is better than healing patients and sending them home,” and providing water to drought-stricken areas did the same for rural Afghanistan, Nakamura told NHK TV.
“A hospital treats patients one by one, but this helps an entire village. ... I love seeing a village that’s been brought back to life,” he added.
Since the construction of the irrigation canal, more than 16,000 hectares (about 40,000 acres) of desert has been reportedly brought back to life.
Nakamura was fluent in both Dari and Pashto, the two main languages spoken in Afghanistan.
“I couldn’t ignore the Afghans,” Nakamura told NHK TV.
VOA’s Mehdi Jedinia and Rikar Hussein contributed to this story from Washington. Some of the materials used in this story came from Reuters.