October 26, 2015; Associated Press
“Under International Humanitarian Law hospitals in conflict zones are protected spaces. Until proven otherwise, the events of last Saturday amount to an inexcusable violation of this law. We are working on the presumption of a war crime.”—Dr. Joanne Liu (President, MSF International), October 6th, 2015
The Associated Press reports that a day before an American gunship attacked the Doctors without Borders (aka Médecins sans Frontières, or MSF) hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, a senior Green Beret officer recorded in writing that the U.S. forces had discussed the hospital with MSF’s country director.
“MSF report that they have personnel in the trauma center,” said the October 2nd report by a senior Green Beret officer, but he added that the trauma center was under the control of insurgents. The hospital’s coordinates were sent to “all friendly forces,” the report went on, and one objective for the next day was to “clear the trauma center” of enemy forces.
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
But in the days before the bombing, “an official in Washington” asked Doctors without Borders “whether our hospital had a large group of Taliban fighters in it,” Tim Shenk, MSF spokesman, said in an email. “We replied that this was not the case. We also stated that we were very clear with both sides to the conflict about the need to respect medical structures.”
The combination of the two reports suggest strongly that the U.S. forces knew this was a functioning hospital before they attacked it, and this would make the action a violation of the international rules of war. The Pentagon, on the other hand, has maintained that the U.S. would never have intentionally fired on a medical facility.
Doctors without Borders officials say the hospital was not under Taliban control and that no gunmen were operating from within the compound—but another local hospital under the control of Afghanistan’s health ministry had been overrun by the Taliban when insurgents seized the city. (Available evidence suggests it is unlikely that the one had been confused for the other: Both the Green Berets and Air Force personnel understood that the MSF hospital was a protected medical facility, according to records seen by two of AP’s sources.)
Doctors without Borders has said it was frantically calling Kabul and Washington during the attack, trying to make the U.S. aware of what was unfolding as patients died in their beds. Presumably, the gun camera video from the plane would show whether anyone was firing from the hospital. The U.S. government has yet to make it public.—Ruth McCambridge