More details are emerging about the attack by a US gunship on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan in the early hours of Saturday, October 3, 2015 that resulted in 22 deaths (so far), at least 37 injured, 33 missing, and resulted in the closing of the only major hospital that served a wide area. After talking with the people who worked at the hospital and live in the area, the Los Angeles Times provides a detailed chronology of the events of that night. The Washington Post has another account that complements it, using as its main sources the US and Afghan military.
A security guard said that there was perfect calm that night, with the hospital treating 105 patients (that included a few Taliban fighters) just before they heard the sound of a warplane at around 2:00am that was immediately followed by an attack on the main building.
Obama said the facility was “mistakenly struck.” But he and other senior officials have left key questions unanswered, chiefly, how American troops on the ground and aboard an AC-130 gunship failed to realize that they were repeatedly bombarding a hospital, one of the best-known landmarks in a city of 300,000 people.
The Nobel Peace Prize-winning medical charity — also known by its French name, Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF — established the hospital in August 2011 in a compound formerly occupied by a textile company. The campus of low-slung, whitewashed buildings occupies an area roughly the size of two football fields and is surrounded mostly by empty land, except for a few houses across the road to the east.
As is standard practice in the conflict zones where MSF operates, the group had passed on the hospital’s GPS coordinates to military officials in Kabul and Washington multiple times, most recently about four days before the bombing.
As the attack began Saturday, the group again contacted the U.S. and Afghan military personnel with whom they had shared the hospital’s location, said Jason Cone, MSF’s executive director in the United States.
“We were under the impression that it was being passed up the chain of command,” Cone said.
Yet the bombing went on for at least 30 minutes more.
The bombings occurred at about 15-minute intervals and lasted about an hour, MSF staff members said. The main building, housing the intensive-care unit and emergency rooms, appeared to be the target of the strikes; surrounding buildings sustained less damage.
About half an hour after the airstrikes stopped, sometime after 3 a.m., staff members slowly ventured outside and began to absorb what had happened.
Jecs peeked into the ICU and saw “six patients were burning in their beds.”
Omer, an Afghan doctor who had been in an adjacent building, saw the main hospital building charred black, with fires burning inside. Patients and nurses had suffered severe burns, he said.
“It was a horrible moment,” he said. “I couldn’t save my own colleagues.”
“One of our doctors died on an improvised operating table — an office desk — while his colleagues tried to save his life,” MSF International President Joanne Liu said.
Survivors tried to carry the wounded and dead out of the compound. Among those killed were three children who had been admitted the previous evening, after they and their parents had come under fire in their vehicle as they tried to drive out of the city.
It is important to recognize the extreme bravery and dedication of the MSF staff to continue to work in such a dangerous area.
Two days before the hospital bombing, Amnesty International said the Taliban posed a grave threat to civilians. The group said it had been receiving reports of “mass murder, gang rapes and house-to-house searches” by Taliban fighters. Most other international groups, including the United Nations, removed staff from Kunduz as the Taliban advanced.
On Thursday, Doctors Without Borders officials defended their decision to remain in the area. They said they had regular contact with Taliban officials and had received assurances of safety.
“The very reason you have a trauma centre is to be able to operate on war victims, and you want to be able to operate in these kinds of conditions,” [Christopher Stokes, executive director of MSF] said. “We had been given guarantees. We had given all the coordinates to all of the parties. We had not received a specific request to leave. . . . We were still receiving a lot of civilian casualties, including women and children.”
A security guard said that five days earlier, the Taliban had captured the city and marched in victoriously, making the hospital staff nervous because of their reputation for “storming civilian homes, raiding the offices of local and international aid agencies and abusing residents”.
“We were scared,” said Suhrab, the security guard. “Everyone was concerned about what the Taliban would do to us.”
That afternoon, Taliban fighters reached the hospital gate. Suhrab was among a group of MSF staffers who greeted them at the entrance.
“We opened the door, but they said they didn’t have permission to go inside,” he said. “They told us to go back in, that it wasn’t safe, and that we should continue doing our jobs.”
MSF staff in Kunduz said that several wounded Taliban fighters were brought to the hospital during the course of the clashes, but without weapons. They would be handed over by colleagues at the front gate and, like other patients, received occasional visitors, including Taliban elders.
“A few times some of their elders would come inside to visit patients and meet with doctors,” said Rahimullah, an Afghan doctor at the hospital, who, like many Afghans, has only one name.
“They assured us, ‘No one can harm you, you will be safe here,’ so we were confident. Everyone was feeling safe inside the compound.”
Hospital officials said that they did everything possible to make people aware that they were a hospital.
Hospital officials had previously stated that they had given Afghan and coalition troops the GPS coordinates of the buildings. Those coordinates pinpointed the front steps to the emergency room, officials said Thursday. Two 6-by-9-foot flags with the organization’s red and white logo also were draped across the roof, they said.
U.S. officials have said that an AC-130 “gunship,” which is used to support American Special Operations troops and can fire a range of ammunition, carried out the raid. It is not immediately clear whether the crew of the fighter craft, which uses infrared technology at night, could distinguish the markings on a flag.
As Martin Schram writes, the US government has repeatedly changed its story, trying to curtail the damage as new information contradicted their earlier rationalizations.
For four days in October, the Pentagon’s top generals and civilian bosses frantically shifted verbs, tenses and explanations like frenzied truckers grinding their gears on a perilous mountain road with no guardrails.
Careening through twists and turns, climbs and plunges, the generals and their bosses struggled to keep their runaway rigs rolling through an endless fog. Worse yet, this was a fog of their own making. And they knew they only made it worse every time they misspoke.
So it was that, for four days in October, we were bombarded by a blizzard of official lies. But we don’t yet know whether we were the only ones being deceived. Were America’s top generals and their civilian bosses also being misled by their subordinates?
Perhaps this was the week when the Pentagon’s top brass was caught in a rare command updraft — a blizzard of lies that may have swept out of Afghanistan and right up America’s military chain of command.
The uproar is so great that even the American NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove has said the he personally supports calls for an independent investigation.
The US government has agreed to provide compensation to the victims and their families, one of the ways it tries to mute criticisms. But it remains to be seen if the US government will allow an independent investigation or continue to stonewall in the hope that this will go away.