On October 3, at around 2 a.m., an air raid by U.S. Special Forces began targeting the main hospital building in Kunduz, Afghanistan. Several waves of bombing followed, totally destroying the main building of the hospital run by Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The consequences of the attack, a massacre to be precise, were devastating: 30 people were killed — 10 patients, 13 MSF staff members and seven others whose bodies have yet to be identified. Thirty seven people — including 19 members of the MSF team — were injured. Despite repeated requests from MSF for the bombing of the hospital to cease, the air raid continued for over an hour.
On October 27, another hospital in Hayden, Yemen, was bombed by the Saudi-led coalition which is at war with the Houthi militants. This time, it was possible to evacuate the hospital as soon as the first bombs fell, thus avoiding loss of human lives. But the population of 200,000 in Saada province has now lost the only hospital facility available to them.
As well as the intense grief we feel when we lose colleagues and patients in such devastating circumstances, we quickly find ourselves asking “why?” For this very reason, in the immediate aftermath of these terrible events, MSF demanded an independent investigation. When a hospital is destroyed, thousands of people are deprived of vital treatment — a matter of life and death for populations caught up in the midst of conflict.
Ultimately, do the regular armies and Special Forces still consider themselves bound by their commitment to respect medical structures operating in conflict zones? In their various statements, those responsible systematically hide behind explanations such as “collateral damage” and “unfortunate errors” or, perversely, they try to put the blame on the medics treating the injured from the opposing side.
A functioning hospital should never be bombed under any circumstances. For us, it is not just a question of respecting international law and the Geneva Conventions. It is a question of common sense: you don’t bomb a hospital with staff and patients inside.
A hospital is where the most vulnerable, the sick and injured, gather in times of war. It is a place of hope, and a place of humanity in the midst of often deadly chaos. For populations caught up in armed conflict, medical treatment structures offer the reassurance that, should people be unfortunate enough to be in the firing line, they can find treatment; that they can receive medical attention. Attacking hospitals is a barbarous act comparable to the worst atrocities committed in modern times.
The events in Kunduz and Haydan are not isolated incidents. Medical structures have, unfathomably, become an integral part of war zones. From Afghanistan to Yemen, from Syria to Sudan and from Iraq to Somalia, they have become targets. And our colleagues — doctors, paramedics and support staff — often pay the highest price. This isn’t just a problem for MSF, it’s a problem for all healthcare professionals working in countries in conflict, and therefore for millions of people currently living amid the modern theatre of war.
In an increasingly radicalised world humanitarian aid is in danger of being sacrificed over ever more cynical reasons. The end justifies the means, irrespective of any principle or value. So, the level of despair that is driving entire populations to follow the path of exile comes as no surprise.
It’s up to all of us to mobilise and urge politicians, governments and non-state armed groups to respect medical facilities. Together we shout loudly and clearly:
“Stop bombing hospitals!”
(Dr. Tammam Aloudat is the Deputy Medical Director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). He bears witness to the destruction wrought upon civilian healthcare facilities in Afghanistan and Yemen by militaries rewriting the rules of war.)