Volunteer hospitals a lifeline in Afghan war

2015-08-19 17:55
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Kabul - At 02:00, Italian medic Luca Radaelli peeked out of the white gate of the Emergency Hospital, a trauma centre for civilian war victims in Kabul.

"I am extremely busy. It's a real mess inside," he said, and vanished back inside the compound, where more than 90 victims, mostly women and children, were brought after a truck bomb in the Afghan capital.

He lost two patients that night, he recalled later. A total of 15 civilians were killed and more than 250 injured.

The Italian non-profit hospital began operating in northern Afghanistan's Panjshir Valley in 1999. The Kabul facility opened in 2001, turning a former Soviet-built kindergarten into a trauma centre.

Sittings behind a high whitewashed wall, it has a well-trimmed garden that often turns into an emergency response unit during the increasingly common large intakes of casualties.

There is the smell of fresh paint and clatter of workmen finishing a new, third operating room. Nearly every bed is occupied and some patients are in makeshift rooms due to the construction.

"We had 146% more war victims in 2014 than 2010. Seven months into this year, we are already more by 30% than 2014," said Radaelli, the medical co-ordinator of the Afghanistan project.

'Fighting is worsening'

In July, they treated a record 362 war victims in the Kabul centre.

"The situation is unstable. Fighting is worsening. And it is [affecting] more among the civilian population now," said Radaelli, who heads a staff of 1 500 people, including 40 foreigners.

Abdul Rahim, 60, was visiting his 8-year-old nephew at the intensive care unit. They are from the south-eastern province of Paktika.

"He was playing with his cousins near the road. He found a bomb and started playing with it. They hit it with a stone, not knowing what it was, and it exploded," Rahim said.

The boy had lost his right hand, and part of his face. Doctors were not sure whether he would be able to see again. He was breathing through a pipe.

Nearby was 5-year-old Huma, injured by bullets in Paktia province.

"An Afghan army convoy struck a roadside bomb. The soldiers started firing indiscriminately. Two bullets hit her, as she was playing in the yard not far from the highway," her grandmother Hawal Bibi said.

Last month, her youngest son, a 12th-grade student, went missing one evening.

"He was always at the top of his class," she said. "We found his body in the mountains after eight days."

Huma, 5, lost one kidney and part of her stomach and pancreas. "Thankfully, the lungs were untouched. But there is still one bullet left inside," said Roberto, an Italian nurse.

Number of children increasing every year

"The number of children, like Huma and Naeem, are increasing every year," he said.

Conflict-related violence has taken a particularly heavy toll on women and children this year, according to the United Nations.

Between January and June, the number of women civilian casualties increased by 23%, children by 13%, compared to the same period last year.

The International Committee of the Red Cross and Medicins Sans Frontieres run similar trauma centres in different parts of the country.

Critical support is needed more than ever.

"The wounds are worse than ever due to the use of roadside bombs and mines, and what is getting worse than the wounds is the time it takes to reach the hospital," Radaelli explained.

"People sometimes reach here after three days. If someone has an infection due to bullet or a dirty wound and they carry it for three days, we face a lot of complications."

'They always fire indiscriminately'

In Kandahar's 440-bed Mirwais general hospital, run by the Red Cross, one-quarter of a million people received treatment last year.

In April, Ahmad Zai, 35, arrived with his injured son and brother, from Daichopan district of restive Zabul province.

They were injured by artillery in their village, which has now become a battleground.

"A rocket landed in my house and seven people were injured - three women and four children. Two children were serious, so we brought them here," Zai said.

"Afghan troops don't know what they are doing. They always fire indiscriminately. The fighting is worse this year."

Shrapnel entered the right eye of his 11-month-old son and into his brain. He was unconscious for three days.

"We were able to save him, but he will never be able to see with his right eye," a doctor said.

"And the shrapnel is going to be embedded in his brain forever. If you try to remove it, it may do more damage to his brain."

The withdrawal of foreign combat troops, as well as decreasing international aid to Afghanistan, have Radaelli and others worried about being able to do their work as the war escalates.

"This is the moment when everybody leaves. In Italy, you won't hear about Afghanistan for weeks, until someone blows himself up in Kabul, or if an Italian guy dies here," he said.

One wall of the hospital features a poster sponsored by several relief and development organisations.

"Do not forget Afghanistan," it implores. "The world is gradually forgetting."

Read more on:    afghanistan

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