This is what the staff deal with most days at a hospital in the country’s north-west: physical attacks by patients’ relatives; gun-wielding soldiers inside the wards; and verbal assaults and threats of bodily harm against doctors and nurses who are only trying to help.
An Afghan surgeon we’ve met keeps a gun at home for protection, and we understand why.
Assailants recently attacked two female nurses, causing cervical spine injuries. Another nurse responding to a mass casualty event arrived at the hospital to be assaulted and choked by relatives of a wounded patient who were demanding immediate service.
Why does this kind of violence happen in hospitals in conflict zones? There is no easy answer to that question. A patient, relative or combatant could be in pain, confused and stressed, in a life or death situation and an unfamiliar environment. They may well be angry, armed or suspicious about our neutrality. They’re living in a community consumed by conflict. But that does not mean violence, of any kind, against medical professionals is acceptable.
Doctors and nurses, ambulance drivers and paramedics, hospitals and health centres have all come under attack in Afghanistan. This disrupts the delivery of medical care when people need it most. Patients – both civilians and combatants – die because they are prevented from receiving needed care. The disruption can be so severe that the entire system collapses.
'No weapons' signs are routinely ignored at the hospital entrance
The hospital security guards once tried to disarm men entering the grounds with guns and were beaten. When a hospital administrator tried to take away weapons from a security official, the official threatened to kill the administrator. He later apologised but the deed was done.
Even at good hospitals, police officers, soldiers and even civilians routinely threaten doctors and nurses to compel them to provide priority care at the point of a gun.
Even health workers’ families are not safe. A surgeon’s child was briefly kidnapped just a month ago. Another doctor’s child was kidnapped a few months earlier, forcing the doctor to sell his home to pay the ransom. One surgeon and his family were so afraid of the recurrent threats that they simply packed their bags and left.
- Our message to community leaders, fighters and average citizens is clear. It is the same message that our colleagues are using in conflict zones across the world: if you don’t respect and protect the healthcare workers, you will soon find no one left to care for you.
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