Kabul, Afghanistan: “They came to kill the mothers”

In the days following the attack to Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in Kabul, it has become clear that what happened in Kabul on 12 May was a deliberate assault on a maternity hospital 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,” says Frederic Bonnot, MSF’s Head of Programmes 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.”

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Afghanistan, attack on mothers and babies
The scene in the newborn nursery in the maternity ward of Dasht-e-Barchi hospital, after a horrendous attack. Afghanistan, 13 May 2020. © Frederic Bonnot/MSF

There were 28 mothers in the maternity ward at the time: 15 of them were killed. Among the victims of the attack were an Afghan midwife who worked for MSF, five babies just hours before being born and two boys aged less than 10 who were at the hospital for routine vaccination. In total, according to the official toll released by Afghan authorities, 24 people were killed and more than 20 were injured.

Two new-born babies were wounded, one of whom was transferred to another hospital for emergency surgery after being shot in the leg, as well as three local MSF staff.

The attackers, whose overall number is as yet unknown, stormed the hospital through the main gate little 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 looked for shelter. “During the attack, from the safe room we heard shooting everywhere and explosions too” says Frederic 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.”

MSF, Doctors Without Borders, Afghanistan, Attack, on women and babies
Archived photo: Zakia with her new-born twins at the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity, West Kabul. © Sandra Calligaro

102 MSF national staff colleagues were working alongside a handful of international staff. In the chaos of the attack, accounting for the patients and the staff present 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,” says Bonnot. “But what happened Tuesday is beyond words.”

MSF first started working in Afghanistan in 1980 but was absent from the country between 2004 and 2009 after the killing of five staff in Badghis province. In 2019, MSF had seven projects in six provinces of the country and undertook more than 100,000 outpatient consultations, assisted more than 60,000 deliveries and performed almost 10,000 surgical interventions. For our work in Afghanistan, MSF does not accept funding from any government. Instead, the organisation relies entirely on donations from the public.