The journey from the cradle to the grave lasted only a few hours for some Afghan babies at the 100-bed Maternity Hospital in the Dasht-e-Barchi area of Kabul.
In one of the most brutal attacks in the recent past, the hospital, which is operated by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in a predominantly Hazara-Shia neighbourhood, was attacked by the Islamic State terrorists on Tuesday, killing 24, including newborns, mothers and medical staff. The group has previously also targeted areas populated by minority groups. In March, a gurdwara in Kabul came under attack, in which 25 people were killed.
“While pregnant women and babies, in one of life’s most vulnerable states, were seeking healthcare, an unknown number of attackers stormed the maternity ward through a series of explosions and gunfire, lasting for hours,” the MSF said in a statement issued after the attack.
“The first few hours after the attack started, were very very difficult,” said Dr Bina Najeeb, head of department and paediatric cardiac surgeon at the French Medical Institute for Children (FMIC), one the few hospitals specialising in childcare in Kabul. “This is not the first time a hospital has been attacked in Kabul. This is one of the worst conflict scenarios, but what was truly worse was that this was a maternity hospital with mothers and their children.”
“When a lady delivers a baby, it is hard for her to move for 20-24 hours. She is physically exhausted. And here, we saw mothers in labour trying to escape gunmen shooting at them and their babies,” he said, the emotional toll of the previous 48 hours heavy in his voice.
MSF also shared that while the attack was under way “one woman gave birth to her baby, and both are doing well”. The images of the aftermath shared by the medical non-profit organisation showed bloodied floors next to the hospital cribs for newborns. “I have been working in Afghanistan for nearly two decades, and this is definitely the most brutal attack I have seen,” Dr. Najeeb said.
Many of the children injured during the attack and brought to the hospital are being treated by Dr. Najeeb and his team. Some of them were unidentifiable because they only had small tickets on their hands with the names of their mothers. “We had to launch an immediate campaign to help search for their parents and families within communities,” the doctor said. As of Saturday afternoon, six of the 19 babies still remain unidentified in Kabul hospitals.
The sheer brutality of the attack shocked Afghans who had been expecting a reduction in violence during the sacred month of Ramzan, and owing to a deal signed between the U.S. and the Taliban in a bid to end the 19-year-long conflict. While the Taliban has denied responsibility for the attack, the Afghan government has blamed the growing nexus between the IS and the Haqqani Network, a close ally to the Taliban, for the increasing violence.
“Evidence shows that the Taliban are in a celebratory mood for massacring ‘Shias’ in a maternity hospital in Kabul,” Vice-President Amrullah Saleh tweeted. “We have the IS chief evil for South Asia Abu Omar & chief evil for Khorasan Aslam Faroqi in our custody. Dots are connected. Neither the Taliban hands nor their stained consciousness can be washed of the blood of women, babies & other innocent [people] in the latest senseless carnage.”
For many Afghans, the mounting casualties have added to the growing frustration against the Taliban. “Whoever did this, I would say animals are better than them. They continuously prove that they are not following God’s way, or the prophet’s way,” said Balqes Ehsan, a civil activist from Kabul. “Our religion is not safe because they attack our Masjids and kill our religious scholars, our education is not safe because they attacked my university and I came close to losing my sister,” said the young activist, a graduate of American University of Afghanistan, which was attacked by the Taliban in 2016. “And now, our children and mothers are not safe because now they attack our hospitals.”
The attack is likely to throw a wedge into the much-delayed intra-Afghan peace talks. The Afghan President has already suspended the Taliban prisoner release, a trust-building gesture to start the talks, and announced that an offensive would be launched against the group.
“You cannot sign peace deals with those killing babies and their mothers. The two things cut each other like fire and water,” Mr. Ehsan said. “We had put a heavy stone on our hearts to try and forgive the Taliban for their past and start to talk about peace for the future. But they don’t seem to want to cooperate.”
(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)