KABUL – Sharif Shah, a surgeon, had just retired after performing two surgeries at a hospital in a central Afghanistan province when he woke up to loud gunshots mixed with guttural shouts of men and women.
Shah quickly ventured out to a scene of horror, playing out in the hospital that had come under attack from Afghan special forces, searching for suspected Taliban patients at the health facility run by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA) in an insurgent-controlled area of Maidan-Wardak province.
The deadly attack on July 9 was one among the latest in a series of growing incidents of violence targeting humanitarian and health services in the war-torn country where, according to a UN agency, at least 77 aid workers have been killed, injured or abducted so far in 2019, compared with 76 in all of 2018 and 72 in 2017.
Recalling the night of horror that forced the surgeon to stop performing his duties, Shah said the Afghan forces ordered all the doctors, health staff, patients and their attendants to gather in the hospital corridor.
“Only female and male patients with new surgeries were not moved from their beds,” the surgeon told EFE.
He said the rest of the people were made to sit down, with their hands tied behind their backs and faces turned towards a wall.
The soldiers then took all 10 hospital employees, 13 patients and their attendants to a hospital room for questioning that lasted for over two hours. They were mostly asked about suspected presence of injured Taliban patients in the clinic, said Shah.
At the end of it, hospital in-charge Dr. Wahidullah, security guard Sultan Mahmoud and pathologist Muhammad Yaseen were rounded up and taken away with their heads covered in black clothes.
The government forces asked the people not to come out until their helicopters had taken off or else they would be shot at, said the surgeon.
“After the choppers flew away, we started searching for our absent colleagues. At the daybreak, we found the bullet-ridden bodies of our two colleagues (the security guard and the pathologist) only 25 meters away from the hospital,” said Shah, still recovering from the grief at the lost of his colleagues.
An attendant, who was out in a washroom, was also shot dead during the raid along with a Taliban member, said Shah, describing the attack as one of the most “terrible incidents” he had encountered in his 14-year career.
The whereabouts of Wahidullah are still unknown and it is presumed that he is in the custody of the special forces. But his employer and his family have not heard from him since he was arrested.
“I have been caught in crossfire several times (earlier), and taken high security risks to serve the most vulnerable people. But finally, was this the reward I deserved,” Shah asked, lashing out at the government for the attack.
“How do you feel when the soldiers, who are supposed to protect you, come to kill you,” said a sobbing Shah who has decided not to go back to his job now.
The surgeon, who has previously served in some the most violent regions of the country, said he was still recovering from psychological trauma after seeing bullet-perforated bodies of his colleagues. “I can’t work anymore. My patience has given up.”
The surgeon blamed both warring sides, insurgents as well as the government, for such attacks against aid groups in Afghanistan where, according to the World Health Organization, 65 incidents of violence against hospitals were recorded in the first half of 2019.
The violence has forced 144 health centers to shut down in a country that has one the poorest health indicators in the world.
There are only three doctors and five beds available for every 10,000 people in Afghanistan while access to quality primary healthcare remains uneven across the country, and nearly a third (31 percent) of the population of Afghanistan needs to travel more than five km to receive basic health services.
And the violence targeting foreign aid groups has only worsened the situation and further impacted access to basic health facilities in the country.
“All parties to the conflict should respect international humanitarian laws… under no circumstances should aid workers face violence,” Khalid Fahim, Program Director of SCA, told EFE.
Fahim stressed that both government and Taliban fighters were involved in violence against their facilities and employees.
Days after the attack on the health center in Wardak, Taliban militants forced the Swedish non-profit to close dozens of its clinics because the aid group had failed to protect civilians, including its own staff. The health centers were later allowed to resume.
The attack and the subsequent temporary closure of the facilities triggered concerns among other humanitarian workers in Afghanistan.
“Continued use of violence by all parties involved in the conflict especially against healthcare and education facilities is a serious violation of the international humanitarian law. This should stop,” Bashir Khaliqi, head of a coordinating agency of 154 non-profits in Afghanistan, said in a statement.
According to UN-Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 21 aid workers have been killed, 28 injured and 28 abducted in the first half of 2019 in Afghanistan.
Besides, Taliban militants in April ordered International Committee of the Red Cross and World Health Organization not to operate in the country, over “security concerns” and “suspicious activities” of their representatives.
“We are seeing a marked increase in violence against healthcare and humanitarian organizations in 2019 where the total number of incidents this year have already exceeded all of 2018, impacting civilians and their access to basic services,” OCHA’s press office in Kabul told EFE.
“International humanitarian law obliges all parties to protect humanitarian aid workers, health workers and infrastructure; where this has not been the case, incidents need to be investigated and the perpetrators brought to justice.”
Afghan Defense Ministry, which has been blamed for the attack on SCA health center, said aid workers and groups have never been a target of government forces.
“Our job is to protect our compatriots and their all public infrastructures such as schools and hospitals, not to target them,” Zubair Arif, deputy spokes person for the ministry, told EFE.
“We assure national and international humanitarian entities that we are fully committed to their security and safety but sometimes unfortunate incidents happen because of the complexity of war.”