As gunmen rampaged through a Kabul maternity hospital on Tuesday, shooting new mothers, pregnant women and nurses, labour continued despite the slaughter, with one baby born during the attack, a charity has said.
Twenty-four people were killed, the majority women who had just given birth. They left behind 18 motherless babies, said the Afghan deputy minister of health, Wahid Majrooh, one of the first people to enter the hospital after the attack.
Two women were shot dead in the delivery room and another died beside an incubator shielding her newborn baby who survived.
The gunmen apparently ran directly to the maternity unit, past wards for surgery and internal medicine, after they entered the compound.
“I am still in shock,” Majrooh said. “We are used to seeing dead bodies, but it’s another thing to see a mother delivering a child who has been shot.”
A midwife, a policeman and two children were also among the dead.
One of the victims, Hajar, was about to deliver her second baby when the gunmen burst in. The unborn child was also killed. The grieving family have not yet been able to break the news to Hajar’s six-year-old daughter.
“She still doesn’t know, I have not told her yet,” Hajar’s husband, Mohammad Hussain, told the local TV station Tolo. “We sent her to our relatives’ homes and she is back now. It’s very hard to tell her, it’s very hard for us.”
Médecins Sans Frontières, which ran the maternity unit, condemned the “senseless act of cowardly violence”. In a statement on Wednesday, it said a woman who gave birth during the attack survived, and she and the baby were doing well.
The charity has suspended care at the 55-bed maternity unit, which has delivered more than 5,400 babies this year alone.
After the attack, surviving babies were moved to another hospital, Majrooh said. Before each child left, a team verified its identity, written on tape on its stomach and in a certificate carried by healthcare staff.
DNA testing is hard to access in Afghanistan, so this process was vital to ensure already bereaved families did not risk losing their children.
Fourteen have already been collected by their families, and relatives of the four remaining babies have been in contact and will be reunited soon.
“I had to make sure every child was labelled according to the books. Very brave nurses and midwives helped me identify the babies,” Majrooh said. “Three fathers I spoke to came back to me [after searching for their wife in the wake of the attack] and said my wife is dead, my baby is missing. Today they were able to be reunited.”
Afghanistan is battling a growing Covid-19 outbreak and its health facilities were already overstretched. One maternity hospital that had been turned into a coronavirus centre is being disinfected and returned to its original use to ensure support for pregnant women after the attack, Majrooh said.
The attack was condemned internationally as a war crime, breaking international humanitarian law that protects health workers, hospitals and patients.
“In the midst of a pandemic, Afghanistan needs its medical facilities more than ever,” said Patricia Gossman, an associate Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Those paying the price when armed groups attack medical facilities are not just the patients and medical staff but all Afghans, including children, who are denied essential care when hospitals cannot function.”
The death toll from a bomb blast at a funeral in the country’s east, carried out at the same time, has risen to 32, with more than 130 people injured.
In response to both attacks, Afghanistan’s president, Ashraf Ghani, has ordered security forces on to the offensive against the Taliban and other militant groups, ending a period of reduced military activity.
US-brokered peace talks had been expected to start this year but now seem unlikely to go ahead.