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'Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies... They died painfully, slowly'

Dr Kathleen Thomas gave an emotional account of the Kunduz hospital bombing in Dublin this week.

Our colleagues didn’t die peacefully like in the movies. They died painfully, slowly, some of them screaming out for help that never came, alone and terrified, knowing the extent of their own injuries and aware of their impending death.
Countless other staff and patients were injured; limbs blown off, shrapnel rocketed through their bodies, burns, pressure wave injuries of the lungs, eyes and ears.
Many of these injuries have left permanent disability. It was a scene of nightmarish horror that will be forever etched in my mind.

— AUSTRALIAN DOCTOR KATHLEEN Thomas, who penned the above account of the US bombing of the hospital she worked at in Afghanistan, gave an emotional speech about the attack in Dublin this week.

Clearly still coming to terms with the bombing of the Medecins sans Frontieres clinic in Kunduz, to the north of the country, she told the audience at the Royal Irish Academy:

This is clearly a very emotional journey for me to recount. I still have follow-up, yeah, for sure. But this is the first time I’ve talked about it publicly.

42 people, including Thomas’s friends and colleagues, were killed in the attack in October of last year – sparking global outrage and forcing President Barack Obama to make a rare apology.

The bombing came as US special forces were deployed to Kunduz alongside Afghan forces in order to recapture the northern city from the Taliban.

Despite no fire coming from the hospital, an AC-130 gunship turned its enormous firepower on the target, pummelling it repeatedly over an extended period.

The charity has branded the strike a war crime. Dr Thomas, in her Dublin speech, said the raid left patients burning in their beds – with some victims decapitated and others requiring amputations.

However a report into the air strike by the Pentagon, which was published in April, said the troops involved in the raid would not face war crimes charges.

Head of the US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, said an investigation had found those involved made a series of mistakes and hit the clinic in error, while arguing that the troops were under battle stress.

Since the hospital was not deliberately targeted, the bombardment did not amount to a war crime, the general insisted. The 16 personnel found to have failed in their duties would face suspensions or reprimands rather than a court martial.

34 Source: MSF

Impartial treatment

Of the 42 people killed in the horrific attack, 24 were patients.

Answering questions from audience members at her talk, Dr Thomas said it was imperative that medical staff and hospitals were protected during conflicts.

There was simply no other way to ensure victims of war – including children and vulnerable members of the community – could receive impartial treatment.

“When I was looking at going to Afghanistan I had a lot of friends in the Australian armed forces and they were all shocked that we would treat Taliban,” Thomas said.

“They just couldn’t understand why we would do that or why we would treat both sides.

“But I think that what was key for them to understand was that this is essential for MSF’s security strategy.

“If they don’t treat both sides one side will be really pissed off and will not accept their presence. Treating both sides is essential to ensure that both parties are happy with what we can provide for them.

It’s an intricate part of the security strategy. If we didn’t do that I don’t think we could exist in many of these contexts, certainly not in Kunduz.

Once the fighters came to the hospital and their uniforms were removed “to me they were just a patient,” she said.

Most of the time when I was working there I couldn’t differentiate between them.

The charity had strict rules that no weapons were allowed inside the hospital building, Thomas explained. Generally, the facility’s impartiality was respected by both sides.

She told the audience:

When you’re a doctor and you’re treating the patient as a patient and you see their loved ones whether they’re on one side or another come in and you tell them, sad news, that your loved ones are going to die – then the reactions are the same.

MSF2 The aftermath of the bombing Source: MSF

Forced to close 

Witnesses told MSF that the main central block of the security facility housing the intensive care unit was targeted precisely, with nearby buildings unscathed – and that many patients burned to death in their beds.

The hospital – the only health facility in the province – was forced to close. MSF says it still hasn’t made a decision on resuming its work there – and that it can’t put teams back to work “without first having strong and unambiguous assurances from all parties to the conflict that this will not happen again”.

Meanwhile, eight months after the attack, the medical charity says it has still received no official answer from the US on whether it will consent to an independent investigation.

“At the same time, since the beginning, we have said that we cannot be satisfied being left only with a military investigation by a  military force who carried out the attack,” a spokesman for the charity said in a statement.

“We also have requested independent investigations for attacks on our hospitals in Yemen and Syria, but we see no movement on that front either.

“There is a clear resistance from states to any kind of international and independent accountability mechanism.

This is hardly reassuring.

With reporting from AFP. 

Read: The US is struggling to explain how it bombed an MSF hospital >

Read: Obama promises investigation into US hospital airstrike that saw “patients burn to death in their beds” >

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