'Horror in bombing of hospital I loved' - Irish doctor remembers 42 patients and staff killed in deadly hospital attack
A year ago this week a relentless, hour-long aerial bombardment destroyed the Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.
More than 200 shells and countless machine-gun rounds from a US Air Force AC130 gunship killed 42 patients and medical staff, and destroyed the hospital. I was the hospital’s medical director for the six months prior to the attack.
I left the post two weeks before the strike. Fourteen of my colleagues died that night, and in the year that has followed grief has taken many forms.
“This is war,” many say, “and people die.” That’s true. But even war has rules.
Today, MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz remains closed. The aid agency is still seeking assurances that its hospitals will never again be an explicit target of war. Hundreds of lives that this hospital would have saved over the past 12 months have been lost, uncounted in the death toll of this attack.
The fighting season started in April, shortly after I arrived. It was the busiest the hospital had been since opening four years earlier. War casualties escalated. There was constant pressure on beds. We treated anyone who needed medical attention, from both sides of the conflict. The vast majority were civilians.
One day, the mother of one of our nurses was brought in. A bomb had landed on their home and a piece of shrapnel had buried itself in her brain. It was inoperable, so we admitted her for palliative care. After weeks in a coma, one day she woke up, surprising us all. Later, she was able to return home.
Another day we admitted a boy with a head injury, an open pelvic fracture and a serious back injury sustained in a road traffic accident. He spent weeks in the intensive care unit, but with intensive support and multiple surgeries, he slowly began to improve. When he woke, we met a determined young man with a wicked smile. It was this smile that I recognised months later in the outpatient clinic. Not yet fully mobile, he was back on his feet using aids.
I was so proud to be part of this hospital, but that’s all gone now. It’s hard to think of those broad corridors that once heaved with energy and determination against the daily chaos of war. Now the building is a burnt-out shell, emptied of life and heaped in dust.
Killed in the attack was Dr Satar, our hugely respected and witty deputy medical director; Tasheel, our energetic pharmacist; Dr Osmani, a joyful young doctor who was always volunteering for extra shifts; and Najeebullah, the cleaner, whose smile transcended any language barrier.
When the fighting swamped the city that week, these men took their families to safety, then made the perilous journey back across frontlines to the hospital to care for all those injured in the fighting.
Hundreds and hundreds came in that week. The hospital swelled to 150 beds. These men were killed as they provided medical care. Survivors of the attack listened to their agonising cries as they bled from blown-off limbs or were burned alive; no one was able to help them or reduce their suffering.
Our patients were sitting ducks, immobilised in their intensive care beds, in the place to which they had come for care and cover from the conflict. This attack was with weapons designed to kill en masse. The injustice of this keeps my grief open, like an infected wound.
In the year that has passed, it has become painfully clear that the attack was just the tip of an iceberg.
By June this year, Physicians for Human Rights had counted 382 attacks on 269 separate health facilities in Syria since the violence there began.
More than 100 hospital bombings have been reported in Yemen since the Saudi-led coalition commenced its airstrike campaign, with its opponents also employing negligent and loose rules of engagement. There have been recent hospital bombings, too, in Iraq, Palestine and Ukraine.
The UN has adopted multiple resolutions calling for International Humanitarian Law to be respected and healthcare to be protected. Yet in both Yemen and Syria, four of the five permanent members of the Security Council remain implicated in some way in these ongoing hospital attacks.
The Russian-backed, Syrian-led coalition is bombing Syria at a horrendous rate. France, Britain and the US are supporting the Saudi-led coalition as they repeatedly bomb hospitals in Yemen.
Governments have it within their power to take meaningful action to stop these attacks. Yet they offer lip-service to the UN resolutions, while ignoring their own role in these
attacks. If health facilities cannot function or are unsafe to attend, the number and severity of victims escalates way beyond the already intolerable levels of these terrible conflicts.
This is why, despite everything, those of us who worked in Kunduz hospital, including those who lived through the bombing, all wish to return to work there.
Working in that hospital, the immense needs of the people were undeniable. A bombed hospital saves no lives.
Dr Declan Barry has been on numerous assignments with Medecins Sans Frontieres – including Afghanistan, Libya and Syria.
MSF is an independent medical humanitarian organisation – see msf.ie and stopbombinghospitals.org