Afghan security forces rescue victims after the attack on a maternity hospital in western Kabul

How did gunmen kill civilians in a Kabul maternity hospital?

Around 10:00 am, on May 12, gunmen broke into a maternity hospital in western neighborhood of Kabul and opened fire at civilians including newborn babies, pregnant mothers and nurses. The attack left 24 civilians dead and many more wounded.

The Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP), claimed responsibility for the attack.

The Afghan government and some diplomatic missions in Kabul denounced the attack. In the evening of the May 13, President Ashraf Ghani paid a random visit to the hospital and said that he would command the Afghan security forces for launching military campaign against the terrorist groups that kill newborn babies.         

According to figures announced by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Public Health, 24 people including women, children and one midwife and policeman were killed by the attack. The deputy health minister, Waheed Majroh, said on Wednesday, May 13, that 16 others, including women and children, were wounded in the heinous attack and 18 newborns were rescued from the attack to other hospitals.

Atiqullah Qate, head of the hospital, confirmed that 22 mothers, one midwife, and one policeman lost their lives in the attack and 19 newborn babies were transferred to Ata Turk hospital. Some reports say that two other children aged between 10 and 15 were also killed in the attack.

How the attack kicked off?

Eyewitnesses say that around 10:00 am on Tuesday morning, May 12, three armed men broke into hospital from main gate and opened firing and threw hand grenades. The hospital staffs rushed to safe-rooms as they realized the hospital was under attack. It worked and saved many lives.   

The only midwife who lost her life in the attack resisted to leave the maternity room and stayed alongside a mother who was delivering a baby, according to a nurse at the hospital. The midwife was shot dead and burnt into ashes along with vehicle in the compound of the medical facility.

The maternity ward of the hospital is run by the Doctors Without Borders /Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). Denouncing the attack as “senseless act of cowardly violence,” the MSF, in a statement issued on May 13, said operation of the maternity ward was suspended for the time being, but not closed.

Of 22 mothers who were killed, some were shot dead lying in the hospital’s beds, some while escaping the medical complex, and some inside rooms where they had fled to save their lives. The assailants continued killing and looking every corner of the hospital for around four hours.

Eyewitnesses say that the assailants, disguised in police uniforms, made attempts to break into safe-rooms but failed as the hospital staffers refused to open the door of safe-rooms.

Around 80 deliveries were made on daily basis in the maternity ward before the outbreak of coronavirus and lockdown restriction in Kabul. Under lockdown, the maternity ward of the hospital received 30 to 40 pregnant women whose delivery were very urgent.

According to Marzia Amiri, a midwife at the hospital, around 25 to 28 expecting women were referred to the ward for delivery on Monday night. Most of them, however, had left the hospital before the attack had begun in the next morning with three or four mothers, per accounts of the hospital’s head, had fled the ward from window during the attack. Some few others had hidden themselves with the employees inside safe-rooms. The remaining mothers were all shot dead.

According to the hospital’s head, Mr. Qate, the maternity ward was the main target of the assailants since they attacked directly on the ward shooting at anyone whom they face with. He added that around 100 staffs of the maternity ward and 25 to 30 staffers of the general ward were rescued during the attack along with a number of staff members of a different organization who got stuck inside. The death toll would have been much higher, if the staffs had not saved their lives in the safe-rooms, Mr. Qate denoted.

The attack is largely described as unprecedented for its brutality and heinousness which targeted the most defenseless mothers on delivery and children who were just born. Provoking nationwide denouncements, the attack spurred many twitter users in Afghanistan to launch a hashtag campaign on the social media platform on Wednesday, May 13, and expressed their outrage against the incident.

Midwives and nurses, who have survived the attack, are shocked and not able to retell the scene or even remind the details of what happened in Tuesday’s hospital attack in western Kabul.

A nurse, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Kabul Now that they were hidden inside a safe-room—fearing when the attackers would destroy the wall with heavy weapon to kill them inside. She added that a baby was delivered inside a safe-room while clashes were ongoing outside. When the child started crying, the assailants came by the door and introduced themselves as police forces in a bid to deceive them and break into the safe-room.

 “We took her for delivery to a toilet because the safe-room is located there. Inside the safe-room, the doctors helped the childbirth using plastics and tissues without any other equipment. A midwife cut umbilical cord with her hands and clamped it with a string of a head-kerchief,” another eyewitness of the attack was quoted by BBC Persian service as saying of the incident.

Four to five foreign nationals and some MSF staffs were also present in the guest house of the maternity ward came under the attack. A cook working for the guest house said that the assailants tried several times to get in but in vein.  

Head of Barchi National 100 Beds Hospital, who talked to Kabul Now on Thursday, May 14, said a total of 11 newborns have been given to their families after their families were identified and eight babies would be taken to their families. Based on accounts made by staffs of Ata Turk Hospital, only few mothers have survived and most of them are dead.

Hospital suffered heavy losses

The maternity ward of Barchi National 100 Beds Hospital has around 100 staffs and is one of the few best equipped hospitals in Kabul, according to Marzia Amiri. She added that the hospital did not lack anything in terms of sufficient medical equipment, facilities, and other hygienic needs.

“Since the beginning of the year, 5,401 babies have been delivered at the maternity hospital, and 524 babies were treated in the newborn unit and kangaroo mother-care unit for critical care,” the MSF said in a statement. The statement adds that the attack has deprived women and children in the western area of Kabul with a population of more than 1.5 million people.

Most parts of the hospital have been destroyed, said the deputy health minister in a conference held on Wednesday. Head of the hospital, Qate, detailed that the maternity ward was destroyed as the result of bullets fired by light and heavy weapons in clashes between Afghan security forces and the assailants.

On his visit to the hospital, President Ghani said that the government would soon repair the hospital. He promised that the government will provide assistance for victims’ families and those who were wounded in the attack.

Contradicting accounts on number of assailants

Though the Ministry of Interior announced that three gunmen who launched the attack were all shot dead after hours in clashes with Afghan security forces, accounts by the hospital’s head and an MP suggest otherwise.

Kabul Ambulance have transferred a total of 25 dead bodies, including 22 mothers, one policeman, one midwife, and one suicide attacker, said the hospital’s head, Atiqullah Qate.

Speaking at Wednesday’s session of the parliament, MP Mahdi Rasikh, also asserted that only one assailant had resisted for hours against the security forces and killed dozens in the hospital.

On the other hand, the MSF has also said that “an unknown number of assailants” stormed the maternity hospital.

The attack on a maternity hospital came while last public and private facilities—a sport club and private tuition center—came under attacks which killed over hundred people including children. The western neighborhood of Barchi is mostly populated by Hazara Shias.