Michael Utter was hopeful when he read Saturday that formal talks on the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan may begin soon.
"Since the Soviets invaded at Christmas in 1979, wouldn't it be great to have peace there this Christmas?" he asked. "My fondest hope is to see an end to the suffering there."
For five months now, he has spent about 16 hours a day thinking about that suffering.
Nonprofit Medical-Care Group
He is executive director of International Medical Corps, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides medical care for sick and injured people in Afghanistan.
The nonprofit group was established about a year ago by Dr. Robert R. Simon, an assistant professor of emergency medicine, assistant director of residency in emergency medicine and director of the procedures laboratory at UCLA. Since June, the International Medical Corps has operated out of a house in Brentwood that was donated to the group to use for offices for a year.
"IMC was formed because of a vacuum," Simon said.
The vacuum was created, he explained, when an Afghan doctor who had left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979 returned in 1983 to find medical facilities destroyed--except for those in the major cities where Soviet troops are stationed--and nearly all of the 1,500 Afghan doctors executed or imprisoned. "When that was publicized, a number of American doctors and nurses wanted to help, and I wanted to set up a medical/surgical clinic," Simon said.
To do that, he explained, he had to slip through rugged mountain passes on foot and under cover of darkness, accompanied by Afghan resistance fighters carrying medical and other supplies. The 36-year-old bachelor and the 13th of 16 children born in the United States to a Lebanese immigrant is believed to be the first American physician to enter Afghanistan after the invasion.
He also financed the trip.
"I contacted a number of organizations like the Red Cross," he said, "but they refused to help me set up a clinic. The charters of these organizations state that they can't go into a country where the government won't allow them."
Some organizations suggested that Simon contact the government set up by the Soviets. But he figured that would be fruitless, even though his clinic would treat anyone from resistance fighters to "Soviet soldiers, if they were brought to us." The Afghan doctor had reported systematic bombings by the Soviets of rural medical clinics and hospitals, and the Soviets had ordered all of the international relief agencies, including the International Red Cross, out of Afghanistan.
This didn't faze Simon.
"He got so involved that he sold his house in Malibu to have enough money to open the first clinic, stock it with supplies for the better part of a year, and even start a second and third clinic," Utter said.
Utter's main job since he and his secretary, Patti Nottoli, became the only two full-time IMC employees last June, is fund raising, and that hasn't always been easy. About 2,000 individuals made donations, but so far, corporations and foundations have not.
"The problem is that what we are doing looks controversial to some people, so it's difficult for them to grasp and relate to. I think there is a lack of perception of the reality of what is going on there and the significance of it," he said.
KABC Radio talk-show host Dennis Prager, who is on the IMC board of directors, sees what's going on in Afghanistan as genocide. A 1984 Helsinki Watch report on Afghanistan estimated that 1 million Afghans have been killed since the Soviet invasion.
In the spring issue of Prager's newsletter, Ultimate Issues, he wrote an article titled, "Afghanistan: How Good People Can Ignore a Holocaust."
"It's a key point from the perspective of a Jew," said Prager, who was director of a Jewish institute for seven years and wrote a textbook on Judaism.
"I always thought that ignoring the Jewish Holocaust was a function of anti-Semitism," he said, "and while I still think there is an element of that, Cambodia in the '70s and now Afghanistan prove to me that by and large, no matter where a genocide takes place, most people go on with their lives as if nothing is happening.
"It's very important to me that the Jewish community act on this, take it on as a cause, because it maintains our moral credibility about our motto: Never again. Presumably, that means 'never again' for everybody."
Prager worked out a program to be sponsored by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust Studies on Dec. 15 at 7 p.m. in the center in West Los Angeles. Called "Eyewitness to Genocide: An American Doctor in Afghanistan," it will feature Prager, Simon and some slides taken by Prager's wife, Janice, who just returned from Pakistan, where she helped set up an Afghan women's medical clinic. She is a registered nurse.