On October 3, the US Air Force bombed a hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders in the Northern Afghanistan town of Kunduz. Many of us watched as the official response of US officials changed and evolved nearly every hour, at first distancing itself from any responsibility, then claiming the hospital was used by militants, then claiming it an accident. But it is clear that US officials knew the coordinates of the hospital, and even got a call during the attack, which went on for over an hour, half of which was after the call to government officials. This is why the organization –Médecins Sans Frontières (English name: Doctors Without Borders) is calling for an independent investigation to see what went terribly wrong. We can at least hold out hope that something went wrong to create such a massacre. Doctors Without Borders has insisted that: “This was not just an attack on our hospital, it was an attack on the Geneva Conventions” – which explicitly forbid bombing hospitals, even in times of war. (The Geneva Convention even addresses cases where the hospital is being used “outside their humanitarian function” which was one accusation in the case of Kunduz – but even in such a case, the law explicitly states that warning must be given with enough notice for the facility to be evacuated.)
We now know that 22 people were killed, including 12 Doctors Without Borders staff and 10 patients, 3 of them children. And over 30 others were injured. Dozens more are still missing.
What is just as startling, and as horrifying, is that this isn’t the first time the United States has bombed a hospital in recent years. In 2003 I was in Iraq with a delegation called the Iraq Peace Team, a collaborative project of Voices in the Wilderness (now Voices for Creative Nonviolence) and Christian Peacemaker Teams. The delegation included medical professionals, as well as pastors, journalists, teachers, and grandparents living in Baghdad in protest to the “shock-and-awe” bombing and war. One of the places we camped out was in front of the Al-Monzer hospital in Baghdad. We wanted to be close in order to help volunteer in caring for the casualties. And we also knew that it was a place we should be safe – since bombing a hospital was not only unthinkable, but also a violation of international law. As we camped outside, the ground shook each night and we could hear debris fall from the sky, but we slept without harm at the front entrance of the hospital.
But on the way out of Iraq, we saw what a hospital looks like after it gets bombed.
As we were leaving Baghdad, we travelled along a treacherous desert road to Jordan. Bridges were down, cars on fire. And we hit something in the road that popped the tire of our car and sent it spinning off the road, landing in a ditch on its side. We were all injured, from broken bones to head trauma. We managed to pull everyone out of the car and onto the side of the road. The first car that passed us stopped – and these Iraqi men rescued us. They drove us to a hospital in a little town there in the Anbar Province, a town called Rutba. When we got to the hospital the doctors came out, waving their hands in the air frantically. Then they told us, “You’re country just bombed our hospital. Why would they bomb our HOSPITAL?” They went on to tell us that the bombs destroyed the children’s ward of the hospital, and that the entire hospital was closed, condemned.
I’m sure they could see our desperation, somewhat selfish, wondering what we were to do, where we were to turn now, with the nearest hospital several hours away, and one friend beginning to go into shock from his head injury. I will never forget what happened next. A doctor looked me in the eyes and said, “You do not need to worry. We will still take care of you. We just cannot do it in the hospital since it is closed down now.”
They set up a makeshift clinic, and saved our lives. It is one of the most powerful experiences of my life. When we went to pay them for their services, they refused our money, and insisted that the only thing we could do to repay them is to tell the story of their hospitality, and of the bombing that destroyed their hospital.
So that’s what we have done. 12 years later, the hospital in Rutba is still in ruins. An investigative journalist wrote a book entitled The Gospel of Rutba, about the hospital bombing, and the compassion of those doctors who saved our lives. Greg Barrett, that talented award-winning journalist was able to uncover the truth in spite of the US refusing any responsibility. Five days after the bombing, the Pentagon had issued a statement saying that the US Central Command had no knowledge of a hospital bombing in Rutba. But Greg learned that it was indeed the US military who was responsible for dropping the bombs that destroyed the hospital in Rutba.
I remember one of those doctors telling me: “The US can keep its Operation Freedom. This is not freedom. If this is what freedom looks like, we do not want it.” Martin Luther King said of those in Vietnam: “They must see us Americans as strange liberators.” It is a strange sort of “liberation” that bombs hospitals.
You begin to wonder if we are not inspiring new acts of hatred rather than neutralizing them. The “cure” is as bad as the disease. I heard one veteran say exactly that: “I began to realize that we were not getting rid of extremists, we were creating them.”
Dr. King showed the world that fire doesn’t put out fire. Hatred doesn’t stop hatred. Violence doesn’t get rid of violence. And there is a reason Doctors Without Borders won the Nobel Peace prize. They are heroes. They lost their lives risking their lives to save peoples’ lives. Heroes. And the United States of America bombed their hospital, a place where they treated 22, 000 people last year, the only hospital in the region. This should cause us pause. And protest. It should make us renew our vigilant work for peace – and for an end to the drones, the bombing and the war.
Otherwise we are in great danger–in fighting the terrorists, we have become terrorists.
RLC would love to help Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in the wake of this tragedy. If you donate $50 or more to MSF and email your donation receipt to firstname.lastname@example.org, we’ll send you a copy of Greg’s book, The Gospel of Rutba.