Afghanistan: Working together after the chaos in Kunduz
“That first evening there was continuous bombardment and shooting so we had to rush to the bunker and we stayed there all night, without any sleep. Patients were not able to reach the trauma unit at that stage, on account of the non-stop fighting in the streets…”
Fighting in the city of Kunduz in northeast Afghanistan ended on 8 August. During the clashes, Médecins Sans Frontières / Doctors Without Borders (MSF) transformed its office space into a temporary trauma unit to treat the wounded.
That unit is now closed and on 16 August all patients were transferred to the nearly finished Kunduz Trauma Centre that MSF had been building since 2018.
The local community still requires trauma care. A medic in MSF’s Kunduz team describes their experience during the fighting and the work that is going on today. They begin by describing the first day after fighting erupted in Kunduz city…
“We got news of multiple victims arriving in the unit, but we could not get there because there was fighting in the street between where I was staying and the unit.
Our colleagues were asking for our help very urgently because they had a patient who had a gunshot wound in his chest and stomach who needed to go to surgery very soon and they needed assistance for that.
“As the fighting had receded at that moment, I ran with the surgeon across the road. When we got into the unit it was crammed.”
A moment came when the guns were quieter and it was possible to move – three of us ran to the other side of the road to the operating theatre.
The patient had just lost their pulse, so we started chest compression while the anaesthetist was looking for an airway. I cut two holes in the chest - to make sure blood could drain out and to allow the lungs to expand; meanwhile, another colleague was trying to stop the bleeding below the sternum.
We could tell pretty quickly that the bullet had probably hit part of the heart, and it rapidly became clear that there was no way that we could save him.
Multiple gunshot wounds
That was the start of our day of hell. And the first moment of our team being completely overwhelmed.
There were a lot of other victims who came in and had to go to surgery: a lot of gunshot-wounded coming in; a lot of people injured by bomb blasts; and a lot of people caught in the crossfire.
It was a very long day. Many of our staff also could not reach the trauma unit. The night-shift staff worked through the day.
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Some would take naps and sleep while others worked so we could keep staff going from morning and into the night.
At about 6:30am the next morning an ER doctor called me on the radio, saying: “I need your help, now”.
As the fighting had receded at that moment, I ran with the surgeon across the road. When we got into the unit it was crammed.
Four patients urgently needed emergency surgery – at the same time. We started doing life-saving surgery on two patients, and meanwhile we were doing everything possible to keep the other two alive.
The two who were waiting survived, and we could proceed to operate on them too. In the end, one patient died, but three survived, which is still quite impressive – they all had very severe gunshot wounds and bomb blast injuries.
While waiting for space to open in the operating theatre, all the while trying to keep the other two alive in the emergency room, we still needed to assist other patients who had come in and needed care.
We tried to assist them in between working on the emergency cases. So this was a heavy day to get through.
Increase in patients
After the fighting had started to lessen, we began to see more patients coming in. Many of them had already received some sort of emergency treatment.
When an injury had happened to them, they had gone to the nearest hospital where they could be taken care of and the medical people there did what they could.
We are seeing an increase of patients being referred to us from provincial hospitals, where patients had multiple surgeries. And they end up in our ER.
Quite often we go into surgery and realise that there are not many options for us to take – there is not much more we can do to try to save this person. We’re still trying though; trying to stabilise; trying to get things in order with some surgery.
Moving to the new hospital
Here in Kunduz, the rebuilding of our hospital has been going on for quite a while. The community has been waiting for the hospital to open up.
Two weeks ago we transferred the patients from our temporary clinic to the hospital for the first time. This is new. It is a huge step to open the hospital, although it is not finished yet.
What we see in terms of patients coming is shifting from the very active gunshot and bomb blast injuries.
Now mostly we see complications with the war wounded who need follow-up from previous treatment and now also road traffic accidents, which are increasing sharply as society opens again.
Everyone here drives on their motorcycles without a helmet; when they fall, they suffer head traumas, which is not the best thing for us to treat as we don’t have neurosurgeons, so sometimes there is little we can do.
Making it work
In the Kunduz Trauma Centre, we’re doing our medical work while the construction is still going on. But the speed at which all the construction team and others are fixing things is quite amazing.
“That’s how it feels for the moment – all the teams really helping each other, together, trying to just make it work”
They have a real approach of solving problems. We saw a stretcher-bearer going to get a patient and having problems passing the stretcher over the uneven ground because there’s too much rubble.
In no time, there were people putting concrete over the rubble. It’s quite incredible how all the construction teams are helping so hard to fix all the problems the medical staff encounter.
We have the same support from the team who are responsible for the hospital compound. One of them is always on a bicycle, cycling from one department to the other, fixing things incredibly rapidly.
Same for supply, you just see medical items and supplies suddenly appearing at the front step of the departments and a bit later there’s another doorstep bearing gifts of other packages for us to treat our patients.
You also have the recruitment – we’re increasing again. We have exams for staff going on and we’re hoping to start recruiting mental health officers, which is something that we badly need.
And that’s how it feels for the moment – all the teams really helping each other, together, trying to just make it work.”
The Afghanistan crisis
Our medical teams have continued to provide care to the people of Afghanistan throughout the current crisis.
Now, as the clashes stop, there are mounting concerns about the availability of medical supplies and other humanitarian assistance for a healthcare system that has been on the brink of collapse for years.
Throughout the crisis, MSF has continued to provide life-saving medical care to people caught in the chaos. In five locations across Afghanistan, our teams are treating emergency trauma cases, supporting people with chronic conditions and welcoming new life into uncertain times.