Inside the Kunduz hospital attack: ‘It was a scene of nightmarish horror’
by Emma Graham-Harrison and Dr Kathleen Thomas, The Guardian
Sunday 10 April 2016 12.00 EDT
As the attack planes returned again and again, and the hospital collapsed and burned, MSF staff inside the hospital, in Kabul and in the United States put in frantic calls to contacts in the US military from Afghanistan to Washington DC. They appeared to have no effect. As the attack wound down, a representative of Nato’s Resolute Support mission in the Afghan capital sent a text to the charity saying: “I’ll do my best, praying for you all.”
By then at least 30 people were dead or dying, some burned beyond recognition; others were killed on the operating table. Dozens more were horribly injured.
Dr Osmani was the senior doctor in the unit the night the fighting started and decided to stay with us, camping out in the hospital throughout the week. He had nothing with him except the clothes on his back, not even a toothbrush. His family were extremely worried for his welfare. He had a constant flow of phone calls checking on him, probably asking him to leave. We all knew that at times, our hospital was in the middle of the rapidly changing front line – we could feel it. When the fighting was close – the shooting and explosions vibrated the walls. I was scared – we were all scared. When a loud “BOOM” would sound a bit closer to the hospital, we would all drop to the floor away from the large windows that lined the ICU walls. We also tried to move the patients and large (flammable) oxygen bottles away all from the windows, but the layout of the ICU prohibited doing this effectively. I worried constantly about the exposure from those windows – yet never thought to worry about the exposure from the roof.
By the end of the week we were physically, mentally and emotionally exhausted. There were moments when a sense of hopelessness overwhelmed us. Dr Osmani expressed these sentiments on the final day, following a tragic incident where a family trying to escape Kunduz was caught in crossfire, killing several children at the scene, then two more dying in our ER and OT. The remaining children were being treated with severe injuries, he stated: “the people are being reduced to blood and dust. They are in pieces.”
But tomorrow never came for most of those patients. Nor did it come for most of the ICU staff working that night. When the US military’s aircraft attacked our hospital, its first strike was on the ICU. With the exception of one three-year-old, all the patients in the unit died. The caretakers with the patients died. Dr Osmani died. The ICU nurses Zia and Strongman Naseer died. The ICU cleaner Nasir died. I hope with all my heart that the three sedated patients in ICU, including our ER nurse Lal Mohammad, were deep enough to be unaware of their deaths – but this is unlikely. They were trapped in their beds, engulfed in flames.
The plane hit with alarming precision. Our ER nurse Mohibulla died. Our ER cleaner Najibulla died. Dr Amin suffered major injuries but managed to escape the main building, only to then die an hour later in the arms of his colleaguesas we desperately tried to save his life in the makeshift operating theatre set up in the kitchen. The OT nurse Abdul Salam died. The strikes tore through the outpatients department, which had become a sleeping area for staff. Dr Satar died. The medical records officer Abdul Maqsood died. Our pharmacist Tahseel was lethally injured. He also made it to safety in the morning meeting room, only to die soon after. He bled to death. Two of the watchmen, Zabib and Shafiq, also died.
Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies. They died painfully, slowly, some of them screaming out for help that never came, alone and terrified, knowing the extent of their own injuries and aware of their impending death. Countless other staff and patients were injured; limbs blown off, shrapnel rocketed through them, burns, pressure-wave injuries of the lungs, eyes and ears. Many of these injures have left permanent disability. It was a scene of nightmarish horror that will be forever etched in my mind.
Every day the hospital is a burnt-out shell is a day that could have seen dozens of lives saved and hundreds of patients treated. What will the survivors and future injured patients of Kunduz do? Who will save the lives of all the people needing complex trauma care? Who will put their crumpled bodies back together? I can only force my mind to move on before I fall too far into that bottomless dark pit of loss.
You know, the only reason things like this get any attention at all is that MSF is rich and well connected. Your United States government bombs people, ordinary people just like you and me, into scraps of meat every day based on nothing but a imagined profile without evidence or a court of law.
There is not a candidate in this election who has declared opposition to this policy.