November 2011: A 12-year-old patient sits in his hospital bed during rounds at the MSF trauma hospital in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan. He suffered a fractured pelvis after being struck by a taxi (MSF)
Medecins Sans Frontier/Doctors Without Borders are calling for an independent, transparent investigation.into the horrific US bombing of their hospital in Kunduz, northern area of Afghanistan which killed 22 patients and MSF staff. MSF stated on their Facebook page, “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.”
Initially reports said U.S. forces were under attack and called in the airstrikes for their defense. However Army Gen. John Campbell, the chief of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon on Monday that “the Afghan forces called in for fire to support them because they were under direct fire.” (Both MSF and Taliban denied strongly the presence of insurgents in hospital grounds).
Jon Williams reporter for the BBC reported a change in the story from US officials tweeting,
Had been reports US Special Forces under fire in vicinity of
#Kunduz hospital at time of attack. GEN. Campbell says not under direct fire.
2011: The front gate at the newly opened MSF trauma hospital in Kunduz- There is a strict no weapon policy inside the hospital to ensure all patients can receive free medical and surgical care safely
Gen Campbell stated that Afghans were in jeopardy taking fire from enemy positions and fired upon. Air support was called in, AC130 cannon that targeted the hospital are only used by Special forces. The changing story is disturbing particularly given the reported tensions between the Afghan Special Forces and hospital staff where they reported the ASF for entering the hospital, firing guns and behaving in a threatening manner which I covered in an earlier story, see link,
“Kunduz hospital had complained of threats from Afghan Special Forces in July, a full and independent investigation into bombing is essential.”
What checks are carried out when partners call for airstrikes or are requests for help taken purely on trust? What if someone had a vendetta against an organization and the power to have them destroyed? The bombing of Kunduz has echoes of two earlier incidents, this is not the first time the US has bombed hospitals but an investigation must ensure all precautions are taken to ensure its the last.
US bombing of hospitals in Vietnam and Iraq
US bombing of Bach Mai hospital on December 22 in 1972
(Image, Talk Vietnam)
David Ross, organizer at Veterans for Peace told me about an incident where the US bombed a hospital in Hanoi during the Vietnam war which some historians suggest was a way of bringing the war to an end. He stated,
“the Bach Mai Hospital was deliberately targeted and bombed to show the Vietnamese that we would show no mercy in our pursuit of victory. Our media, however, dutifuly reported it as an “accident” when it got to where they could no longer declare that it was a “communist lie.” Obama wants gun control because of senseless killing, he should start with the military. With a government like ours, I will keep my guns thank you very much.”
Ross recalls his own experience of coming across the aftermath of a bombing in Vietnam.
“I was very close to an arc light (B-52) bombing. (Bet they still don’t coordinate things worth shit.) The ground actually heaved. When we got in there the earth was turned upside down, some casualties didn’t have a mark on them – just dead. Others had their lungs ripped right out of their mouths, others just kind of turned into “jelly on sticks.” Pieces all over the place. Bad day for “Charlie,” bad nightmares for the rest of our lives. “Go to hell.” No, you and me buddy – we have already been there and anyone who hasn’t been can’t even begin to imagine.”
US lawyer Jerry Elmer, author of, “Felon for Peace: The Memoir of a Vietnam-Era Draft Resister” states that the bombing of civilians as part of the Christmas bombing could never be justified as a “cruel necessity” as written by Conservative British Member of Parliament and Defense Minister Jonathan Aitken, in his biography of Nixon. Elmer argues that such actions (in this case carpet- bombing of civilian areas) are morally and ethically wrong, he recalls,
“during the Christmas bombing, as throughout the war, the United States flatly denied that we were bombing civilian targets. This was an out-an-out lie. We bombed schools, hospitals, and civilian population centers. Indeed, carpet bombing is uniquely well suited to targeting civilians who, in military parlance, present less “hardened” targets than do military facilities.
To take but one specific example, during the Christmas bombing — on December 19 and again on December 22 — B-52s bombed the Bach Mai Hospital in Hanoi. At 1150 beds, Bach Mai Hospital was the largest civilian hospital in the DRV. We substantially damaged or destroyed the entire hospital. This was not an isolated example, either. The Bach Mai Hospital had been previously bombed by the United States on June 27, 1972; many other hospitals in the DRV were destroyed during the Christmas bombing.”
As Emma Daly points out in her article “Crimes of War: Immunity from Attack”, the Fourth Geneva Convention on Warfare states clearly, “civilian hospitals organized to give care to the wounded and sick, the infirm and maternity cases, may in no circumstances be the object of attack but shall at all times be respected and protected by the Parties to the conflict.”
Both Kunduz and Fallujah experienced difficulties with Special Forces before being bombed.
In some cases hospitals in conflict zones have had an uneasy relationship with Special Forces as seen both in Kunduz and previously Fallujah in Iraq prior to being bombed. As the Internationalist reported in 2004,
“Special Forces stormed the Falluja General Hospital. They rounded up all the doctors, pushed them face down on the floor and handcuffed them with plastic straps behind their backs. With the hospital occupied, those wounded by the U.S. aerial bombings headed to the Falluja Central Health Clinic. And so at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, November 9, U.S. warplanes bombed that clinic as well, killing 35 patients, 15 medics, 4 nurses, 5 support staff and 4 doctors, according to a doctor who survived (The Nation, 13 December). U.S. fire also targeted an ambulance, killing five patients and the driver.”
MSF also reported the aggressive behaviour of Afghan Special Forces detailed in a press release in July 2015.
“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.”
As Internationalist pointed out, “the hospital (in Falluja) was selected as an early target because the American military believed that it was the source of rumors about heavy casualties,” when the U.S. attacked Falluja in April, wrote the New York Times (8 November). “It’s a center of propaganda,” a senior American officer said.
MSF at the hospital at Kunduz put out repeated statements declaring its independent position. The Taliban paid a brief visit to a hospital following the take-over of the city and as reported in Vice News had not caused problems for the staff. They had posted photographs of their visit on social media which may have angered state authorities. MSF had posted recent figures on patients highlighting the increase in numbers due to present conflict and pressure on facilities with staff working long hours overtime. A Facebook posting by a doctor also showed his feelings just a short time before he was killed in the bombing, As New York Times reported, Dr. Ehsan Usmani stated,
“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.”
MSF has released a statement responding to General Campbell’s new information,
“Today the US government has admitted that it was their airstrike that hit our hospital in Kunduz and killed 22 patients and MSF staff. Their description of the attack keeps changing—from collateral damage, to a tragic incident, to now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government. The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff. The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.”
Support for MSF is growing as is the call for media to report responsibly. The Economist for example ran a headline, entitled, “The consequences of the accidental bombing of an aid hospital” the mistake being to always assume a government statement is correct.
US partners in Afghanistan are clearly very unhappy with Taliban advances in Kunduz. Stories have been circulating accusing the militants of looting and gang rape. Taliban deny strongly and state that this is yet another attempt to minimise local support for the group by instilling fear in locals which is why they issued statements trying to reassure NGOs and business to carry on working and they would not be harmed. Taliban spokesman also highlighted a “fabricated” interview in mainstream media by the Big Story where a journalist claimed to have interviewed Mullah Mansour. Taliban state he has never given a direct interview. They also claim it is local militia and police that are harassing locals and sent photos of very young boys that appear to be attached to the police. Once again the tendency is for media to pass off anything Taliban says as “propaganda” instead of carrying out further checks. Recent reports by human rights organizations allege serious human rights abuses by US partners, militia and warlords. Is this what US is supporting in Afghanistan?
Returning to the hospital bombing, David Axe of the Daily Beast explains how the aircraft used to target the compound is exempt from the usual checks required to engage a target. He states,
“gunners in an AC-130 only need to feel that a burst of 25-millimeter or 40-millimeter gunfire is appropriate in order to justify squeezing the trigger. And when friendly troops on the ground are under attack, a gunship crew is more likely to decide to open fire, a former AC-130 pilot told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity.
So the gunship crew over Kunduz, apparently believing insurgents were firing on U.S. advisers, skipped the normal procedures meant to protect civilians and blasted away on what turned out to be a medical facility—for more than an hour.”
“How a US gunship slaughtered doctors”
There are strong indications that this should be treated as an alleged war crime. As Christopher Stokes General Director of Medecins Sans Frontiers states, “there can be no justification for this horrible attack. With such constant discrepancies in the US and Afghan accounts of what happened, the need for a full transparent independent investigation is ever more critical.”
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”.