Saturday, October 3, 2015

US Airstrike Hits MSF Hospital in Kunduz

Afghanistan / 04.10.2015

Lajos Zoltan Jecs, photographed during his previous
Médecins Sans Frontières placement in Kabul
in 2013. © Andrea Bruce/Noor Images
Médecins Sans Frontières nurse Lajos Zoltan Jecs (photographed above in Kabul in 2013) was in Kunduz trauma hospital when the facility was struck by a series of aerial bombing raids in the early hours of Saturday morning. He describes his experience.

It was absolutely terrifying.

I was sleeping in our safe room in the hospital. At around 2am I was woken up by the sound of a big explosion nearby. At first I didn't know what was going on. Over the past week we'd heard bombings and explosions before, but always further away. This one was different - close and loud.

At first there was confusion, and dust settling. As we were trying to work out what was happening, there was more bombing.

After 20 or 30 minutes, I heard someone calling my name. It was one of the Emergency Room nurses. He staggered in with massive trauma to his arm. He was covered in blood, with wounds all over his body.

At that point my brain just couldn't understand what was happening. For a second I was just stood still, shocked.

He was calling for help. In the safe room, we have a limited supply of basic medical essentials, but there was no morphine to stop his pain. We did what we could.

"We saw the hospital destroyed, burning"

I don't know exactly how long, but it was maybe half an hour afterwards that they stopped bombing. I went out with the project coordinator to see what had happened.
What we saw was the hospital destroyed, burning. I don’t know what I felt – just shock again.

We went to look for survivors. A few had already made it to one of the safe rooms. One by one, people started appearing, wounded, including some of our colleagues and caretakers of patients.

We tried to take a look into one of the burning buildings. I cannot describe what was inside. There are no words for how terrible it was. In the Intensive Care Unit six patients were burning in their beds.
The airstrikes destroyed the hospital operating theatres,
and killed many patients and staff. © MSF.
"...patients, wounded, crying out, everywhere..."

We looked for some staff that were supposed to be in the operating theatre. It was awful. A patient there on the operating table, dead, in the middle of the destruction. We couldn't find our staff.

Thankfully we later found that they had run out from the operating theatre and had found a safe place.

Just nearby, we had a look in the inpatient department. Luckily untouched by the bombing. We quickly checked that everyone was OK. And in a safe bunker next door, also everyone inside was OK.

And then back to the office. Full - patients, wounded, crying out, everywhere.

"We saw our colleagues dying"

It was crazy. We had to organise a mass casualty plan in the office, seeing which doctors were alive and available to help.

We did an urgent surgery for one of our doctors. Unfortunately he died there on the office table. We did our best, but it wasn't enough.

The whole situation was very hard. We saw our colleagues dying. Our pharmacist - I was just talking to him last night and planning the stocks, and then he died there in our office.

The first moments were just chaos. Enough staff had survived, so we could help all the wounded with treatable wounds. But there were too many that we couldn't help.

Somehow, everything was very clear. We just treated the people that needed treatment, and didn't make decisions - how could we make decisions in that sort of fear and chaos?

"I have no words to express this. It is unspeakable"

Some of my colleagues were in too much shock, crying and crying. I tried to encourage some of the staff to help, to give them something to concentrate on, to take their minds off the horror. But some were just too shocked to do anything.

Seeing adult men, your friends, crying uncontrollably - that is not easy.
I have been working here since May, and I have seen a lot of heavy medical situations. But it is a totally different story when they are your colleagues, your friends.

These are people who had been working hard for months, non-stop for the past week. They had not gone home, they had not seen their families, they had just been working in the hospital to help people... and now they are dead.

These people are friends, close friends. I have no words to express this. It is unspeakable.

The hospital, it has been my workplace and home for several months. Yes, it is just a building. But it is so much more than that. It is healthcare for Kunduz. Now it is gone.

What is in my heart since this morning is that this is completely unacceptable. How can this happen? What is the benefit of this? Destroying a hospital and so many lives, for nothing. I cannot find words for this.


The U.S. Gunship that Slaughtered Doctors and Patients in Kunduz
The crews of the AC-130, a low, slow plane bristling with guns, don’t have to follow the same rules as those in other U.S. warplanes

The American warplane that apparently struck a Doctors Without Borders clinic in the embattled city of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan on October 3, killing 22 people, was probably an AC-130 gunship — a lumbering, four-engine transport modified to carry a powerful arsenal of side-firing guns.

Maybe the gunship’s crew knew exactly where the clinic was in Kunduz, maybe it didn’t. Maybe there were Taliban fighters nearby, maybe there weren’t.

Regardless, the AC-130 blasted the vicinity of the clinic for more than an hour, repeatedly striking the medical facility. And the U.S. military’s lax rules allowed it to happen.

Packed floor to ceiling with high-tech sensors and radios and boasting a wide range of weaponry including 25-millimeter and 40-millimeter cannons plus a 105-millimeter howitzer, the AC-130 is supposed to be more accurate than other warplanes—and thus safer for innocent civilians in the line of fire.

But the Pentagon's rules for using the gunships actually make them less safe. Eager to take advantage of the AC-130’s firepower, the military actually requires relatively little scrutiny of the target area before a gunship crews opens fire, compared to the much greater restrictions the Defense Department imposes on the pilots of other aircraft types.

Owing to these loose procedures, the AC-130 could actually be one of the most dangerous U.S. warplanes for civilians caught in the crossfire. And yet it’s also the plane that American commanders sent into the chaotic combat in densely populated Kunduz, where U.S.-backed Afghan forces were locked in battle with Taliban fighters who captured the city in late September.

And where Doctors Without Border was working to save people, including children, who’d been injured in the fighting—unaware that their clinic was about to become a slaughterhouse.

Hundreds of Taliban fighters attacked Kunduz in the last week of September, quickly routing a much larger but poorly led Afghan National Army force. Encouraged by their American advisers and backed by U.S. warplanes, Afghan soldiers counter-attacked. Kunduz’s 300,000 residents were caught in the middle without adequate medical care.

Doctors Without Borders, a Paris-based humanitarian organization that’s also known by its French name Médicins Sans Frontières (MSF), sends medical personnel into even the most dangerous war zones. It has been at work in Kunduz for four years. The group said that on September 29 it relayed the exact location of its clinic in Kunduz to the U.S.-led coalition, in order to prevent the facility and its 180 staff and patients from coming under attack.

It’s not clear whether the military got the memo.

At 2:08 in the morning local time on October 3, the first munitions struck the clinic. The blasts continued at 15-minute intervals until 3:15, according to Doctors Without Borders. “The main central hospital building, housing the intensive care unit, emergency rooms and physiotherapy ward, was repeatedly hit very precisely during each aerial raid, while surrounding buildings were left mostly untouched,” the group stated.

“The bombs hit and then we heard the plane circle round,” Heman Nagarathnam, in charge of Doctors Without Borders’ programs in northern Afghanistan, said in the statement. “There was a pause, and then more bombs hit. This happened again and again.”
Owing to these loose procedures, the AC-130 could actually be one of the most dangerous U.S. warplanes for civilians caught in the crossfire.

“When I made it out from the office, the main hospital building was engulfed in flames,” Nagarathnam added. “Those people that could had moved quickly to the building’s two bunkers to seek safety. But patients who were unable to escape burned to death as they lay in their beds.”

Ten patients and 12 staff members died and 37 people were hurt, Doctors Without Borders stated. At least three of the dead patients were children, according to the group. The remaining medical personnel scrambled to get the surviving patients to hospitals in other Afghan cities, in some cases driving hours on rough roads.

On October 4, Doctors Without Borders said it was shutting down its Kunduz operation. “No medical activities are possible now in the ... hospital in Kunduz, at a time when the medical needs are immense,” spokesman Tim Shenk told The New York Times.

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