Saturday,22 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)
Saturday,22 September, 2018
Issue 1265, (8 - 14 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

MSF accuses US of war crimes in Afghanistan

Did American forces deliberately attack a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan? The international aid group thinks so, and is campaigning for an independent international inquiry, Amira Howeidy reports

Al-Ahram Weekly

Lajos Zoltan Jecs was sleeping in the safe room of the Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontiers) trauma hospital in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in the early hours of Saturday when he was awoken by the sound of a loud explosion.

Since the Taliban movement overran the town the week earlier this month, the sounds of bombs and explosives from NATO and Afghani forces — who recaptured Kunduz — and the Taliban weren’t unusual, but remained relatively distant. This one was different and close.

Jecs, a nurse based at the hospital since May, witnessed a series of aerial bombing raids by American forces on MSF’s hospital from 2:08 am until 3:15 am. 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, according to MSF President Meini Nicolai.

The strikes killed 22 people who were in the hospital: 12 MSF staff and ten patients, including three children. Six patients who were in no condition to escape were burned alive in their beds, including one, Jecs saw, dead on the operating table.

Back in the office, in chaos and packed with wounded patients and MSF staff, Jecs described how one critically injured MSF doctor was placed on the office table for emergency surgery, but couldn’t be saved.

“The whole situation was very hard. We saw our colleagues dying,” he said. “Our pharmacist, I was just talking to him last night and planning the stocks, and then he died there in our office.”

Only four days before the attacks, MSF had provided the exact GPS coordinates of the hospital to NATO coalition and Afghan military and civilian officials to prevent the hospital from being hit during the intense fighting. According to MSF, this is routine practice for the organisation in conflict arenas.

That US forces so precisely targeted areas in the hospital has both enraged and shocked the international group, which announced its departure from Kunduz as a result. And as it became clearer that the US government was responsible for the attacks, MSF accused it of violating international humanitarian law.

“Until proven otherwise, the Kunduz attack amounts to inexcusable violation of international humanitarian law. We are working on presumption of a war crime,” said Joanne Liu, international president of MSF.

The Pentagon’s initial take to the attack described it as a “tragic incident” without claiming responsibility, amid reports that US forces were under threat from the hospitals’ vicinity by the Taliban. Two days later, the top commander of American and coalition forces in Afghanistan, General John F Campbell, said Afghan forces requested the US air strike on the hospital, denying earlier claims that US forces were under threat.

Said Campbell, “An air strike was then called to eliminate the Taliban threat and several civilians were accidentally struck.” He said the attack was carried out by an AC-130 gunship, which is an airforce special operations aircraft.

MSF’s Liu rejected attempts to brush aside the attack as a mistake or inevitable consequence of war, even if the US was only responding to the Afghan's request for air support from the American forces.

The aid group’s hospital in Kunduz was opened in 2011 and is the only facility of its kind in the northeast region of Afghanistan. Over the past four years it has provided free high-level life and limb-saving trauma care. MSF says that in 2014 alone, 22,000 patients received care at the hospital and 5,900 surgeries were performed.

Because MSF treats all people, regardless of their political affiliation, it was subject to accusations by members of the Afghani government who claimed the hospital was used by the Taliban for military purposes. MSF said it was “disgusted” by use of the accusation to justify the attack.

“These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present,” MSF general director Christopher Stokes said.

The attack is the worst of its kind for the aid group since it started work in Afghanistan in 1980. MSF is now campaigning for an international independent investigation, announcing on Wednesday that it will seek an investigation by the International Humanitarean Fact Finding Comission, a Bern-based body established in 1991 out of the Geneva Conventions which form the core of international humanitarian law (IHL) and regulate the conduct of armed conflict.

The IHFFC is not a court and restricts itself to investigating allegations of IHL violations -after the consent of the parties involved- and offers recommendations without delivering a verdict. Neither the U.S nor Afghanistan are signatories to the IHFFC which means the investigation can proceed only if they issue seperate declarations of consent.

In a press conference on Wednesday, Liu, MSF's president, said that the organization's objective is to establish facts about the incident and the chain of command and clear up the rules of operation for all humanitarian organizations that operate in conflict areas.

In July, Reuters reported that Afghan Special Forces raided the hospital in search of a suspected Taliban operative being treated there.

The hospital’s location put it on the frontline of fighting between the Taliban and the Afghani government for months, even before the group overran Kunduz earlier this month. But it was never subject to any form of attack from the warring parties. The July raid was viewed as a rare escalation on the government’s part, prompting the hospital to refuse new patients at the time.

MSF described the then-raid as a demonstration of a serious lack of respect for the medical mission, which is safeguarded under international humanitarian law.

After Saturday’s bombing and MSF’s departure from Kunduz, the city’s inhabitants have nowhere to go for medical care, with the nearest hospital two hours away by car.

“We have a situation here. This isn’t just an incident; it’s a severe situation because the foundation of our work has been attacked,” MSF President Nicolai told MSNBC this week.

“This goes wider than MSF. Who of us is able to work and assist a victim of conflict under such circumstances?”

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