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The Danger of Care

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“Why did they attack us?  We were trying to serve people.”

–Khalid Ahmad, age 20, a survivor of the U.S. Attack on Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Kunduz Hospital.

Here in Kabul, we’ve learned that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) reported on December 12th that more people had been killed in the October 3rd U.S. attack on their hospital than had previously been estimated. They now conclude that 42 people were killed, including 24 patients, fourteen staff members and four relatives of patients who were helping with their care. The U.S. gunship fired 211 shells at the MSF hospital over 25 minutes, according to the US military.

Some weeks ago, several Afghan Peace Volunteers and I visited Khalid Ahmad, aged 20, who survived the attack after being severely wounded by shrapnel. Two hospitals close to Kunduz couldn’t handle Khalid’s injuries, and so the relatives rushed him to the EMERGENCY hospital in Kabul where he was recovering from spinal injuries.

Sitting in a wheelchair in the EMERGENCY Hospital garden, looking frail and thin, Khalid Ahmad said he is relieved to be alive. At 2:05 in the morning on October 3rd, when the attack began, he was sleeping in the pharmacy where he worked. When he and the pharmacy manager hurried to see what was happening, they discovered that the ICU was in flames and patients were burning. They quickly headed to the room where four helpless security guards were stationed. Knowing that the U.S. military habitually uses mobile phone signals to target its attacks, they turned off their mobile phones and hid the batteries.

Hoping to escape the attack, the six men made a break for the hospital entrance. As Khalid ran, the U.S. helicopter AC-130 gunship was strafing fleeing survivors. Khalid had made it to the hospital gate when shrapnel knocked him off his feet. Unable to move his legs, and bleeding profusely, he crawled into a ditch for shelter. Lying there half conscious, racked with pain and watching the region’s sole hospital burn, he was convinced he would die.  (Khalid recalls that after the bombing, he saw flares that seemed to fuel the fire, like incendiary petrol, multiplying the effect of the flames. “I’m not sure what they were,” he said, “but they looked like laser flashes.”)

There in the ditch, he wanted to call his father to seek forgiveness for any wrongs he ever did.  With the one hand he could still use, he managed to insert the battery he’d stowed back into the phone and make the emergency call.  His father immediately sent relatives to find him. Khalid remembers hearing the footsteps and then the voices of people who rescued him.

The U.S. military played no role whatsoever, during or afterwards, in attempting to rescue, evacuate or transport victims of the attack.

In the Kabul hospital, Luca Radaelli, who coordinates medical treatment for all of the EMERGENCY NGO’s Afghan facilities, told us that their Kabul hospital was already full when news came through of the attack.  They had quickly opened new wards to begin receiving 91 traumatized survivors from Kunduz.

Luca has worked in Afghanistan for close to seven years. Each year, he and his colleagues have said that the situation is worse than ever before. “And now I’m telling you,” Luca said, “never have we seen so much suffering. Health care systems in the provinces are collapsing. We expend a lot of energy, but it seems more and more like a drop in the ocean.”

His colleague, Michaela, medical coordinator for the Kabul hospital, told us how difficult it has been, emotionally, for all of the staff to know, amid the stress of working in a war zone, that the U.S. military might at any time destroy their facilities, kill and wound their colleagues, and incinerate their patients.  Like the MSF hospitals, this hospital is a politics-free zone as well: they allow no weapons in their facility, accept all who arrive with severe injuries, and they don’t raise questions or suspicions.

It’s crucial for U.S. people to acknowledge, in this context, that killing suspects, anywhere, at whatever distance from any battlefield, and surrounded by however many innocent civilians, is a hallmark of the United States’ drone assassination campaign.

MSF staff continue to demand an independent investigation of the attack on the Kunduz hospital, but the U.S. military insists that its internal investigation has been sufficient.  Its policy on incurring collateral damage, despite universally recognized prohibitions against killing civilians and targeting hospitals, remains unchanged.  Until U.S. citizens decide to care in greater numbers, it is unclear how anything here can change.

After events like the Kunduz attack, the U.S. military generally asserts that protection of civilians is impossible in wartime.  This argument becomes the excuse for so seldom even making an attempt to protect civilians. When the U.S. government chooses to wage war, high principles are cited, vaunting the U.S. responsibility to protect U.S. people from harm.  But the U.S. doesn’t acknowledge that innocent men, women and children will be killed, maimed, traumatized and displaced.  The U.S. government refuses to undertake even a tiny fraction of the ongoing risk that the brave carers, the humanitarian relief workers in Kabul and Kunduz, have taken to protect the safety of people actually in need.

The choice to be perfectly safe or to be fully human now faces every person in the United States and in any country governed by countries waging wars on behalf of their supposed security. “If we care about people,” concludes Luca, “we cannot choose war.”

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KATHY KELLY co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence and has worked closely with the Afghan Youth Peace Volunteers. She is the author of Other Lands Have Dreams published by CounterPunch / AK Press. She can be reached at: Kathy@vcnv.org 

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