At 09:45 yesterday I had just completed the routine safety checks we perform on our armored vehicles before we leave base when I heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire fire nearby. My colleague Phil and I waited a moment in silence, but we heard nothing in addition to the initial few short bursts. We got into our vehicle, left the base and drove two miles to the National Military Hospital where we had work to do. We did not know that the gunfire I heard came from the Afghan Ministry of Justice building which was under attack by Taliban insurgents.
We were diverted from our usual route to the hospital when a secure road that runs from my base to the entrance of the Presidential Palace was closed. Afghan guards at the security control point were placing steel barriers in the road as we drove up expecting to drive through after showing our identification cards. Instead, the guards motioned for us to turn around. I assumed that President Karzai was leaving the Palace, as the route typically is closed when he travels. I did not know that the Ministry of Justice lay on the other side of the Palace grounds, and the guards at the checkpoint were securing the area in response to the nearby attacks.
At the National Military Hospital we parked near the emergency room entrance, where a small crowd of hospital staff had gathered outside. This was unusual. An American nurse mentor told us that the hospital had planned a mass casualty exercise and that they must be executing the drill this morning. A few seconds later, a disheveled four-door sedan rolled around the corner of the building toward the emergency room entrance. Every one of its windows, including the windshield, was shattered, and the front bumper was hanging askew. The paint on the car looked like it had been sand-blasted. I told my colleagues “I don’t think this is a drill” a few seconds before the hospital staff pulled a limp body from the back seat of the sedan.
Several soldiers jumped into a few of the army ambulances parked nearby and sped off. One of our interpreters got a call from his father, who was walking near the Ministry of Justice building when the attack began, with the news that a suicide bomber had detonated himself and his explosives at the ministry before several armed insurgents stormed the building. The Afghan media initially reported that six government buildings had been attacked by militants. Later I learned that insurgents had bombed and laid siege to two national ministry buildings in addition to the department of corrections building.
Yesterday morning, shortly after the attacks began, no one knew exactly who had been struck or what site, if any, would be next. In that tense atmosphere of anticipation and dread, I recalled my emotion on September 11, 2001 when I watched the second of the World Trade Center towers fall, and learned that an airplane had flown into the Pentagon. I remembered feeling flat and helpless that day, when all I could do was watch CNN as the newscasters tried to make some order of the events unfolding.
I didn’t stay at the military hospital very long. My commanding officer called me and ordered all US military medical mentors to leave the hospital immediately and report to the safe US compound adjacent to the hospital grounds. The military hospital is a prominent institution in Kabul and a likely site for attack. US military personnel throughout Kabul were ordered off the streets and onto secure bases, presumably until the scope of the attacks became known. Even though three sites in Kabul already had been assaulted, Taliban spokesmen were telling media sources that several other suicide bombers were roaming the streets of Kabul looking for targets. Most of Kabul went indoors.
Just before I left the hospital an ambulance returned, and the medical staff lifted from the rear a stretcher carrying the limp body of a boy no older than ten. His clothes were tattered and his exposed skin was burnt. He didn’t move. When the medics transferred him to a gurney his body gave no resistance. He simply rolled like a sack of potatoes responding to gravity. He displayed none of the reflex and muscular rigor we expect from a young human being. The Afghans rushed him into the hospital. I’m certain he was already dead.
I have not been completely dead to my emotions while in Afghanistan, but you witness so much poverty and desperation and cruelty here that these scenes become routine. You expect to encounter them most of the days you venture around the country, and the expectation and unfortunate familiarity keep your emotions in check. The scenes can still impact you, but more subtly as you arrive upon them again and again.
For some reason, however, I had a more visceral reaction when I saw that burned, dead boy. I’m a physician and have contacted dozens of human bodies traumatically amputated and gouged and scorched and bleeding. The sight of bodily trauma, no matter how severe, doesn’t bother me. My medical training leads me to approach such patients clinically in order to determine what needs to be done for treatment and intervention. But when I saw that innocent young Afghan boy after Taliban insurgents had murdered him, I felt both anger and an immense sadness welling up within me.
My sadness is for the Afghan people, who must endure the violence perpetrated by madmen, self-proclaimed liberators, who have no qualms killing the very same Afghans and Muslim they are fighting to “free.” It’s no surprise that the Taliban attacked the buildings housing the ministries of Justice and Education yesterday, as the insurgents have no sane concept of or need for the ideals espoused by those agencies. The intellectually and spiritually barren mindset of the Taliban is something to despise. The actions of these men should provoke outrage in anyone possessing even the thinnest veneer of human decency.
I turned to Phil as we walked away from the hospital and said “The people who did this are animals.” They must be stopped.