Kabul hospital attack: “They came to kill the mothers”

The attack on the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 12, 2020 lasted for hours—described as a “four hours of hell”—and while some doctors, staff, and patients were able to find shelter in safe rooms, many were helpless in the face of the assailants.  (Photo: Frederic Bonnot/MSF)

In the days following the May 12 attack on Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, it has become clear that what happened that day was a deliberate assault on a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) maternity ward with the purpose of killing mothers in cold blood.

“I went back the day after the attack and what I saw in the maternity demonstrates it was a systematic shooting of the mothers,” said Frederic Bonnot, MSF’s head of programs in Afghanistan. “They went through the rooms in the maternity, shooting women in their beds. It was methodical. Walls sprayed with bullets, blood on the floors in the rooms, vehicles burnt out and windows shot through.”

Official numbers indicate that 24 people were killed and at least 20 more injured in the attack, a large majority of them patients. MSF, who has been supporting the facility for six years, has been able to confirm that 26 mothers were hospitalized at the time of the attack. Eleven women were killed, three of them in the delivery room with their unborn babies, and five others were injured. Ten managed to find shelter in safe rooms along with many health workers. Also among the dead are two young boys and an Afghan midwife working with MSF. Two newborn babies were wounded, one of whom was transferred to another hospital for emergency surgery after being shot in the leg, as well as three Afghan MSF staff members.

The attackers, whose overall number is as yet unknown, stormed the hospital through the main gate just after 10:00 in the morning. There were other buildings and wards closer to the entrance, but according to MSF staff present at the moment of the attack, the assailants moved straight to the maternity ward supported by MSF. What ensued was four hours of hell—that is how long the attack lasted, while patients and staff alike searched desperately for shelter.

“During the attack, from the safe room we heard shooting everywhere and explosions too,” said Bonnot. “It’s shocking. We know this area has suffered attacks in the past, but no one could believe they would attack a maternity. They came to kill the mothers.”

The maternity ward was staffed by 102 Afghan MSF colleagues working alongside a handful of international staff. In the chaos of the attack, accounting for patients and the staff in the hospital became extremely difficult, as people were running for their safety and many others were hastily referred to other hospitals.

“This country is sadly used to seeing horrific events,” said Bonnot. “But what happened Tuesday is beyond words.”

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