Distressed staff and patients unable to understand why they were targeted in a US bombing raid (MSF)
How could a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan that had sent its GPS coordinates to officials to avoid being targeted in an aerial attack be bombed not once but repeatedly allegedly by US forces? The shocking attack on civilians killed 19 people, staff and patients and included 3 children. Those who were immobile stood no chance of escaping the inferno and burnt to death in their beds. The incident followed conflict between the military and the Taliban after the latter took over the city in a surprise offensive as part of their Operation Azm (meaning Resolve). US sent in back-up in the form of Special Forces and began aerial attacks on insurgent positions.
According to a Medecins Sans Frontier/ Doctors Without Borders (MSF) statement dated 3rd October 2015,
“MSF had provided the GPS coordinates of the trauma hospital to Coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials as recently as Tuesday 29 September, to avoid that the hospital be hit. As is routine practice for MSF in conflict areas, MSF had communicated the exact location of the hospital to all parties to the conflict.”
MSF also point out the following,
“from 2:08 AM until 3:15 AM local time today, MSF’s trauma hospital in Kunduz was hit by a series of aerial bombing raids at approximately 15 minute intervals. 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.”
As Dr Janssens of MSF clearly points out, “in all conflicts where MSF works, we never take sides.” The hospital however appears to have previously been the target of “a violent intrusion by armed members of Afghan Special Forces” in July, disturbing enough to warrant the release of an official statement condemning the behaviour and drawing attention to “an unacceptable breach of International Humanitarian law”. It is unclear what response if any was received in reply or if any ill feeling may have been harboured towards staff?
A Recent human rights report from Human Rights Watch (March 2015) on Afghanistan highlighted warlords and militia as “notorious human rights abusers” and questioned the support they receive from US and Afghan governments. Media tends to play down such reports, focusing mainly on abuses linked to insurgents.
This incident makes it even more important to check whether the GPs information passed to Coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials reached the appropriate persons so that this information could be fully recorded and acted upon by those involved in bombing campaigns.
“One of the darkest days in our history”
What is also deeply disturbing is that according to Jason Cone, Executive Director for Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières stated in a skype interview with PBS,
“at the outset of the attack we made contact with various contacts at the Joint Chairman’s office to reiterate that the attack was unfolding and that it was unfolding around our compound and inside and we conveyed that information in real time and saw nothing change.”
Why then did the US continue to bomb the hospital when contacts were informed at both Washington and Kabul level?
Cone was also asked by PBS whether staff were aware if Taliban had entered the compound and were firing from there (which was alleged in some reports) and if staff had witnessed this? He replied,
“we were not under threat in any way. As I had said earlier we were in complete contact with all sides of the fighting, they accepted that this was a facility that was treating anyone that was wounded and what I can tell you is as far as our staff know, the gates of the hospital were closed all night so that no one that’s not staff a patient or a caretaker was inside the hospital when the bombing happened. It’s also important to keep in mind that according to military law an injured person in the hospital is considered a non-combatant whatever side they may have fought for before. In any case bombing a fully functional hospital can never be justified.”
Full video interview with Jason Cone can be seen here,
Abdulqahar Balkhi a Twitter account spokesperson affiliated with the Islamic Emirate (Afghan Taliban) tweeted that the actions of the US constituted a “war crime” in his opinion. He pointed out that the incident at Kunduz hospital had occurred, “despite not a single Mujahid being admitted/treated in the hospital due to the prevailing military condition”. Taliban had paid a short visit to a hospital soon after their arrival in the city, photos of which had been posted on social media but left soon afterwards without incident according to statements given to media. They had also released a statement calling for NGOs and other workers to carry on as normal (within the limits of a conflict zone) and issued a phone number for workers to ring should anyone have concerns. This appears to be in sharp contrast to the visit in July by Afghan Special Forces. The Taliban later issued a statement condemning the aerial attack (see “Links section”)
The MSF statement on the hospital intrusion can be read in full below,
Staff operating at Kunduz, (Image Michael Goldfarb)
Afghanistan: MSF condemns violent armed intrusion in hospital in Kunduz
(On 3rd July 2015 MSF issued the following statement)
Kabul – Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) condemns the violent intrusion by armed members of Afghan Special Forces in the organisation’s trauma centre in Kunduz, Afghanistan. The incident is an unacceptable breach of International Humanitarian Law, which protects medical services from attacks.
On Wednesday 1 July at 14:07, heavily armed men from Afghan Special Forces entered the MSF hospital compound, cordoned off the facility and began shooting in the air. The armed men physically assaulted three MSF staff members and entered the hospital with weapons. They then proceeded to arrest three patients. Hospital staff tried their best to ensure continued medical care for the three patients, and in the process, one MSF staff member was threatened at gunpoint by two armed men. After approximately one hour, the armed men released the three patients and left the hospital compound.
“We are shocked by this incident,” says Dr Bart Janssens, MSF’s Director of Operations. “Since it opened in 2011, Kunduz Trauma Centre has been a place where all patients can receive free medical and surgical care safely. This serious event puts at risk the lives of thousands of people who rely on the centre for urgent care.”
MSF’s centre is the only facility of its kind in the whole north-eastern region of Afghanistan providing high level life- and limb-saving trauma care. In 2014, more than 22,000 patients received care at the hospital and more than 5900 surgeries were performed. MSF has been able to provide this care in such a volatile environment by ensuring its medical activities are recognised and respected by the community and all parties to the conflict.
MSF has a strict no weapons policy in all its facilities. The threats to MSF personnel and patients and the inability to provide medical care in a safe environment, forces us to temporarily suspend activities at Kunduz Trauma Centre. We have requested urgent meetings with the Ministers of Defence and Interior to seek official assurances that our medical work will be respected and such an incident will not occur again.
“In all conflicts where MSF works, we never take sides,” says Dr Janssens. “Our doctors treat all people according to their medical needs and do not make distinctions based on a patient’s race, ethnicity, religious beliefs or political affiliation. Any injured or wounded person in need of urgent medical care will receive it at MSF’s trauma centre in Kunduz.”
President Obama has apologized to President Ashraf Ghani for Kunduz attack, see statement below,
(Image via Vice News)
Apologies are issued by the US government for what they term “collateral damage” but these incidents of death by aerial bombardment and drone strike are repeated over and over again. As victims are finding it is almost impossible to obtain justice and offenders close ranks and its extremely difficult to access evidence and key information from any investigation. Inquiries are far from transparent.
Earlier incidents of US targeting civilians and US hostages from the air
Then soldier Ethan McCord came across children in Baghdad targeted by Apache helicopter (Blog Archives)
This is not the first time such concerns have been raised. I was Excutive Producer for an Oscar nominated documentary “Incident in New Baghdad” made famous when Wikileaks released footage of a US Apache helicopter firing on locals, journalists and children in Iraq. See link,
“Incident in New Baghdad: Open letter to US soldiers and critics of Ethan McCord”
Bowe Bergdahl narrowly escaped a US drone strike whilst in Taliban captivity (Image, Blog Archives)
Then Bowe Bergdahl a US soldier captive of the Taliban in the border areas of Afghanistan Pakistan for several years, narrowly missed being hit in a US drone strike. Some of the insurgents holding him were killed. See below,
“Activists and Afghan Taliban slate Guantanamo and did US attempt to drone Bowe Bergdahl”
Drone victims Dr Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto, hostages with al- Qa’ida, killed by US (Image, Sky)
We must not forget either that alongside many local victims which I have covered in numerous articles, the US managed to kill several western hostages by drone, Dr. Warren Weinstein, an American held by al-Qa’ida since 2011, and Giovanni Lo Porto, an Italian national who had been an al-Qa’ida hostage since 2012.
“Drones: Why we should question White House Statement on droning of western hostages”?
Dr Ehsan Usami killed in the hospital where he worked
Returning to the Kunduz attack, as the New York Times reported, one doctor seemed to sense something bad was coming, Dr. Ehsan Usmani wrote the following on his Facebook,
“A thousand curses on you Ashraf Ghani and Stanekzai that you bloodied and covered in dust the people of Kunduz with your blind bombings,” he wrote, referring to the Afghan president and Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, the minister of defense. The Afghan military has also been using helicopter airstrikes to target the Taliban, but sometimes misses and hits civilians.
“Spit, spit, spit, spit on your faces,” Dr. Usmani wrote and then, more desperately: “Hey people, share this message that since this afternoon the bombers of the dirty and unclean government have been killing, maiming and wounding the innocent people of Kunduz.”
As Cone stated in his PBS interview, MSF will not accept their friends and colleagues being written off as “collateral damage” and I support them fully on that. The US and allies must be held accountable for their actions against civilians. The Telegraph reported,
“the UN head of human rights has said the attack may amount to a war crime. ‘The seriousness of the incident is underlined by the fact that, if established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime,’ said Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein.
Any investigation into the attack must be transparent. To echo Cone, it is not enough to give only the conclusions of an inquiry, those affected and the public want to see the contents and justice for the victims.
“Unspeakable”: An MSF Nurse Recounts the Attack on MSF’s Kunduz Hospital
Afghanistan: MSF Demands Explanations After Deadly Airstrikes Hit Hospital in Kunduz”
“Afghanistan: Taliban accuse “barbaric American Forces” of alleged war crimes after aerial bombing of Kunduz hospital”
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights/WOT and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.