KUNDUZ, Afghanistan (Christian Examiner) – The more than 80 international and Afghan medical staff working the night shift at the Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) trauma hospital in Kunduz last Saturday did not expect to need to operate on each other. But one doctor died on the top of a desk, an improvised operating table, while coworkers attempted to save him from wounds he sustained while a targeted American airstrike destroyed the hospital around them.
While the building burned, the surviving MSF and Afghan staff attempted to move the surviving patients, of whom there were more than 105 at the time of the attack, to safety away from the building.
Twenty-two people were killed in the attack, including 12 MSF staff and 10 patients, of whom three were children. Thirty-seven people were wounded.
In Kunduz our patients burned in their beds. MSF doctors, nurses, and other staff were killed as they worked. Our colleagues had to operate on each other. ... Today we pay tribute to those who died in this abhorrent attack. And we pay tribute to those MSF staff who, while watching their colleagues die and with their hospital still on fire, carried on treating the wounded.
It did not take long for Doctors Without Borders to demand to know what happened.
In a press briefing, MSF U.S. executive director Jason Cone said the situation was intolerable because of its violation of the safeguards set in place by the international community. "This was not just an attack on our hospital—it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions. This cannot be tolerated," he said.
Though MSF is no stranger to war—since the Taliban attacks on Kunduz since late September, the Kunduz trauma hospital had treated about 400 war wounded—this event marks the greatest number of lives lost to an airstrike. Cone said: "These Conventions govern the rules of war and were established to protect civilians in conflicts—including patients, medical workers, and facilities. They bring some humanity into what is otherwise an inhumane situation."
OBAMA APOLOGIZES FOR TRAGEDY
President Barack Obama made two phone calls today, one to MSF international president Joanne Liu and another to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, to offer his condolences and apologies for the tragic accident that the U.S. has taken responsibility for.
MSF has called for an international investigation into the attack, asking for the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission (IHFFC), created by the Geneva Conventions in 1991, to be activated.
"If we let this go, as if was a non-event, we are basically giving a blank check to any countries who are at war," Liu said in Geneva, according to reporting by Reuters. "If we don't safeguard that medical space for us to do our activities, then it is impossible to work in other contexts like Syria, South Sudan, like Yemen."
According to a briefing by White House spokesman Josh Earnest, the U.S. has launched an investigation to "provide a transparent, thorough and objective accounting of the facts and circumstances of the incident. And that, if necessary, the president would implement changes to make tragedies like this one less likely to occur in the future."
But MSF wants to understand the discrepancy between the U.S. explanation, which changed in the first three days after the tragedy, and the Afghan account of the events, which differed.
Cone specifically asked the President to submit to the international investigation. "We are calling on President Obama to consent to the fact-finding commission. Doing so will send a powerful signal of the US government's commitment to and respect for International Humanitarian Law and the rules of war."
General John F. Campbell, leader of American forces in Afghanistan, gave a statement in which he definitively called the airstrike "a U.S. decision."
Although it is not certain exactly what happened, the consensus at present seems to be that the airstrike, which lasted for more than a half hour and was specific to the hospital building, was approved by U.S. forces.
Afghan forces fighting the Taliban asked for American assistance. Whether the airstrike was believed to be performed in defense of American or Afghan troops, it was conducted against the hospital, where no armed combatants were present.
MSF had previously provided military forces with the GPS location of the hospital.
"A hospital was mistakenly struck," said Campbell, after previously calling the airstrike against the hospital "collateral damage."
"We would never intentionally target a protected medical facility," Campbell said.
Cone said this airstrike has affected more than just the MSF doctors, staff, and patients who were killed and injured. "Tens of thousands of people in Kunduz can no longer receive medical care now when they need it most. Today we say: enough. Even war has rules."