We have committed a war crime: "Patients were burning in their beds"

The U.S. story about the bombing of Doctors Without Borders is contradictory, ever-changing and possibly criminal

Published October 5, 2015 7:56PM (EDT)


Doctors Without Borders says it is under "the clear presumption that a war crime has been committed" after a U.S.-led NATO coalition bombed its hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan.

The aid organization, referred to internationally in French as Medecins Sans Frontières (MSF), asserted that it "condemn[s] this attack, which constitutes a grave violation of International Humanitarian Law."

The U.S. military's version of the story behind the bombing is full of holes, and constantly changing. After launching airstrikes on Kunduz, which has recently seen an insurgency by the Taliban, on Saturday morning, NATO said its bombing "may have resulted in collateral damage to a nearby medical facility."

At least 22 people people were killed in the airstrikes, including 12 staff members and 10 patients, three of whom were children. A minimum of 37 more were wounded. A hospital nurse said there "are no words for how terrible it was," noting "patients were burning in their beds."

Uncertainty dominated Washington's earliest account of the attack. The media echoed this ambiguity, but MSF insisted all "indications currently point to the bombing being carried out by international Coalition forces" led by the U.S. The humanitarian organization stressed that it had "communicated the precise locations of its facilities to all parties on multiple occasions over the past months" and yet, despite this, the NATO bombing of the hospital continued for over 30 minutes, even after MSF "frantically phoned" Washington.

Subsequently, the U.S. and Afghan governments moved away from describing the attack as an accident, a tragic instance of "collateral damage," and proceeded to imply the bombing was intentional. Afghan officials claimed the hospital was being used as a "base" for the Taliban. "The hospital has a vast garden, and the Taliban were there," insisted Kunduz acting Governor Hamdullah Danishi.

MSF was not buying it. The aid organization called the "Taliban base" claims "spurious" and said it is "disgusted by the recent statements coming from some Afghanistan government authorities justifying the attack."

The organization flatly denied that the Taliban was ever fighting from its hospital. "Not a single member of our staff reported any fighting inside the MSF hospital compound prior to the U.S. airstrike," MSF recalled.

"These statements imply that Afghan and US forces working together decided to raze to the ground a fully functioning hospital with more than 180 staff and patients inside because they claim that members of the Taliban were present," MSF stated. "This amounts to an admission of a war crime. This utterly contradicts the initial attempts of the US government to minimize the attack as 'collateral damage.'"

On Monday morning, the U.S. officially confirmed that it carried out the airstrikes on the hospital. Yet its story has changed once again. Now the U.S. says the Afghan military asked it for air support. Gen. John Campbell, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters NATO airstrikes, requested by Afghan forces, "were called to eliminate the Taliban threat, and several innocent civilians were accidentally struck."

Twenty-three clearly constitutes more than "several," but this is not the primary problem with Gen. Campbell's claim. The three accounts of the incident promulgated by U.S. military cannot all be true; they contradict each other. MSF expressed frustration with the mercurial U.S. position. The government's "description of the attack keeps changing," MSF remarked, and Washington is "now attempting to pass responsibility to the Afghanistan government."

"The reality is the US dropped those bombs. The US hit a huge hospital full of wounded patients and MSF staff," the humanitarian organization added. "The US military remains responsible for the targets it hits, even though it is part of a coalition. There can be no justification for this horrible attack."

Other international organizations have condemned the U.S. for the attack. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein stated that, if "established as deliberate in a court of law, an airstrike on a hospital may amount to a war crime."

"This event is utterly tragic, inexcusable, and possibly even criminal," the U.N. chief added. He called for an independent and transparent inquiry into the bombing.

Like the U.N., MSF is also requesting that "an independent international body" conduct an investigation into the attack on its hospital. The organization maintained that the U.S. investigating its own bombing "would be wholly insufficient."

Just days before the bombing, MSF said it was "overwhelmed with wounded patients" amid heavy fighting between the Taliban and the Afghan government. In just two days, it had treated 252 people, including 53 children. The aid group noted its medical teams were "working nonstop to provide the best possible care."

The Kunduz hospital was the only medical "facility of its kind in the whole northeastern region of Afghanistan, providing free life- and limb-saving trauma care," MSF emphasized. The closest large hospital is hours away. Now, Doctors Without Borders, after losing a dozen staff members, is withdrawing from Afghanistan, leaving behind a city full of besieged civilians who will no longer have access to desperately needed medical care.

By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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