Kabul hospital attack: “They came to kill the mothers.”

An MSF nurse tends to a newborn inside Dasht-e-Barchi maternity ward in West Kabul, December 2019.
Afghanistan 2019 © Sandra Calligaro/MSF
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In the days following the May 12 attack on Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, it has become clear that what happened that day was a deliberate assault on a Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) maternity ward with the purpose of killing mothers in cold blood.

“I went back the day after the attack and what I saw in the maternity demonstrates it was a systematic shooting of the mothers,” said Frederic Bonnot, MSF’s head of programs in Afghanistan. “They went through the rooms in the maternity, shooting women in their beds. It was methodical. Walls sprayed with bullets, blood on the floors in the rooms, vehicles burnt out and windows shot through.”

Official numbers indicate that 24 people were killed and at least 20 more injured in the attack, a large majority of them patients. MSF, who has been supporting the facility for six years, has been able to confirm that 26 mothers were hospitalized at the time of the attack. Eleven women were killed, three of them in the delivery room with their unborn babies, and five others were injured. Ten managed to find shelter in safe rooms along with many health workers. Also among the dead are two young boys and an Afghan midwife working with MSF. Two newborn babies were wounded, one of whom was transferred to another hospital for emergency surgery after being shot in the leg, as well as three Afghan MSF staff members.

The attackers, whose overall number is as yet unknown, stormed the hospital through the main gate just after 10:00 in the morning. There were other buildings and wards closer to the entrance, but according to MSF staff present at the moment of the attack, the assailants moved straight to the maternity ward supported by MSF. What ensued was four hours of hell—that is how long the attack lasted, while patients and staff alike searched desperately for shelter.

“During the attack, from the safe room we heard shooting everywhere and explosions too,” said Bonnot. “It’s shocking. We know this area has suffered attacks in the past, but no one could believe they would attack a maternity. They came to kill the mothers.”

The maternity ward was staffed by 102 Afghan MSF colleagues working alongside a handful of international staff. In the chaos of the attack, accounting for patients and the staff in the hospital became extremely difficult, as people were running for their safety and many others were hastily referred to other hospitals.

“This country is sadly used to seeing horrific events,” said Bonnot. “But what happened Tuesday is beyond words.”

MSF first worked in Afghanistan in 1980 but suspended operations between 2004 and 2009 after the killing of five staff in Badghis province. In 2019, MSF had seven projects in six of the country's provinces and provided more than 100,000 outpatient consultations, assisted more than 60,000 deliveries, and performed almost 10,000 surgeries. MSF does not accept funding from any government for our work in Afghanistan, instead relying entirely on donations from the public.