A few months after 9/11, I got together with a group of Afghan refugees living in the U.S. and we did a series of public appearances in New Mexico and Colorado, explaining that not only weren’t the al-Qaeda hijackers Afghans, but that they and their Pakistani and Arab cohorts had already assisted the Taliban in slaughtering tens of thousands of Afghan civilians. We kicked off the tour at the Taos Mountainfilm festival, and then the Afghans continued touring without me.
When they came to Durango, one of the Afghans, a young man named Ateek, told the audience how he had been jailed and tortured by Taliban: They kicked him in the face so hard that his teeth were shattered; that had happened two or three years ago, and he was still in constant pain from his injuries. He had barely finished talking when a man in the audience stood up and introduced himself as Tom Grams, a dentist with a practice in Durango; he told Ateek that he would repair his teeth free of charge.
When the Afghans’ presentation was over Dr. Grams met with Ateek and the two set up a time for the oral surgery. Grams ended up canceling all of his appointments, and working from morning till night for four straight days, until Ateek’s mouth was functioning normally and free of pain.
Through Ateek and his friends Dr. Grams learned more and more about conditions inside Afghanistan; the Taliban were no longer in power, but there was still fighting in the southern and eastern parts of the country, and medical care in the villages where most Afghans live remained almost nonexistent.
By this time I had gotten to know Dr. Grams as well; by coincidence, he had become my dentist, and we quickly evolved into friends. We had a couple of important things in common: a love of wilderness, specifically the rivers, canyons and peaks of the Four Corners area, and an interest in trying to help people in the Third World. I already knew that Tom was someone special, after witnessing his instinctive generosity in helping Ateek; that kind of spontaneous charity is very rare in this coldhearted age we live in, and my Afghan friends were still marveling at it two or three years later.
But when Tom told me he had decided to shut down his highly successful practice in Durango, travel to Afghanistan and open up a free dental clinic in Wardak Province, one of the most volatile and violent parts of the country, that was a whole other level of righteous behavior. Virtually all of the Westerners doing aid work in Afghanistan had pulled out after a series of killings carried out by the resurgent Taliban, and at that time the U.S military rarely ventured into the part of rural Wardak where Tom was headed. Tom was going in on his own, alone.
I thought it was incredible. At the same time, I was worried about him; the last time I had been in Wardak, a couple of years before, there were still mean-looking Arabs, survivors from Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda armies, skulking about, and the vibe in the roadside bazaars was palpably menacing.
As it turned out, I shouldn’t have worried about Tom. The next time I saw him he was back in Durango looking for more dental equipment for his clinic in Afghanistan before returning to Wardak; it was clear that his open-minded open-hearted personality had totally won the hearts of the Afghans, and they had won his. When he talked about the villagers he had been living among his voice took on a different tone and timbre, a kind of golden glow. Even the photographs he had taken, of the village, its inhabitants and the surrounding countryside, were suffused with an affection, a love, that transformed the images into icons. It reminded me of my own reaction to Afghanistan after my first trip with the mujahedin in 1984 (I had traveled across the country three times back in the 1970s, but always in transit, and never with time to really get to know anyone). Even though many of the villages in the Safed Koh mountains had been bombed into rubble by the Russians, and fighting raged everywhere, the people were so warm and friendly, so dignified and fearless, that I found that I couldn’t abandon them. I had planned to make just that one journey, but I ended up returning 31 times, during the Soviet occupation, the civil war that followed, the Taliban era, and the troubled post-9/11 years…
So it was with Tom. Afghanistan became a second homeland for him, a place where he felt sublimely at ease and happy, even though the resurgent Taliban made the country hazardous for foreigners…
It wasn’t Afghanistan that killed Tom; it was Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, the so-called “American allies” who pay for and train the suicide bombers, i.e.d. makers and terrorists who continue to kill American soldiers, foreign aid workers, and the great majority of Afghans who oppose them. The Taliban and Heckmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami are really a proxy invasion force, sent in from fanatical religious schools and training camps in Pakistan to rip Afghanistan apart, destroy its institutions, and turn it into a colony, a safe haven for the atavistic murderers who dream of taking over the entire Islamic world, exterminating Sufis, Shi’as and moderate Sunnis in the process.
People like Tom and his companions on the medical mission are their enemies, because they bring a measure of compassion and selfless assistance to people who have lived with violence and chaos for the last three decades; aid workers and others like them are abhorrent to the psychopathic wealthy sheikhs who fund suffering and slaughter and their minions in Pakistan’s military intelligence service who make it real. When I heard that the head of the death squad that killed Tom and his friends was a Punjabi, a Pakistani, I wasn’t surprised.
Every Afghan I have spoken with about Tom’s murder reacted with horrified disbelief, then bitter grief, and finally rage. “I want to build a big fire and burn them all up, the Taliban, the Pakistanis and Arabs and the crazy mullahs, all of them,” one man told me.
Tom’s finest most splendid monument will be the memories Afghans will cherish, the gratitude, and the admiration for his courage and goodness. In Afghanistan such things endure for generations, in stories told in the villages where he worked, stories that take on the quality of myths and legends, that transform tragedy into triumph. Surely there is no finer memorial on the face of the earth. For my part, I will be mourning his death till the day I die.