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Kabul's 'Emergency' Hospital Fought Taleban, Air Strikes to Stay Open - 2001-12-24

While major aid agencies were leaving Afghanistan after terrorists attacks on the United States, one agency was negotiating to return. "Emergency", an Italian medical organization, has hospitals in Cambodia, Sierra Leone and northern Iraq, but its officials say that nowhere was it more difficult to set up a hospital than in Afghanistan under the Taleban. The emergency hospital in Kabul is like no other in Afghanistan. It's a modern facility, providing free treatment for all emergency patients - from war injuries to car crashes.

Italian surgeon Gino Strada is one of the doctors who founded Emergency seven years ago. "It should be like this all the time," he says. "You shouldn't provide third world services - or you should stay home. If this facility isn't good enough for my daughter or my sister, then it's not good enough for the Afghans, who have the same rights as my daughter or my sister. It's quite strange the overall atmosphere in the hospital is quite joyful, when you treat people with kindness, every kind of dialogue is possible."

In November, despite the heavy U.S. air strikes, most of the patients being treated at Kabul's Emergency hospital were landmine victims and most of them were children. Most are too sick to talk.

Hamed is the oldest. Even though he is 15, he couldn't resist picking up a brightly colored object near his home and trying to open it. It was a mine and it blew up in his hands. His arm is fractured, he has wounds in his leg, and he has lost fingers on both hands.

"I stood and fell and stood and fell three times and then they brought me to this hospital," he explains. "I try not to think about my lost fingers, there's no point thinking about things you have lost."

But that's not an option for Gino Strada. This morning he failed to save yet another child who stepped on a landmine when playing on the street. "Dr. Marco and I operated on thousands of landmine victims, and I can hardly remember three or four combatants. All the rest are civilians. [A landmine is] not a weapon, it's a form of terrorism against the civilian population. People are maimed or killed by landmines today that were laid months or even years ago," the doctor says.

The Emergency Hospital in Kabul was completed last November and then sat idle for five months while the Taleban refused to grant permission for it to open. Dr. Gino, as he prefers to be known, was a tough negotiator and found himself paying the price. Shortly after the Taleban allowed him to open the hospital, they tried to take it over.

"They wanted to run the hospital, to appoint the staff. None of this was acceptable," he says. "It took two to three months of negotiations before we could open in April, to shut it down on May 17 after an armed aggression by the religious police of the Taleban. They climbed the walls armed with Kalashnikovs; they beat staff, national and international, and arrested three national staff. For us this was not compatible with keeping the hospital open."

Dr. Gino shut the hospital and withdrew the international staff from the country. He says this step was necessary to protest the Taleban's attack on the one medical facility in Afghanistan offering patients free treatment, medicine and meals. "We kept negotiations ongoing [so we would be able to reopen]. They were still ongoing on September the 11," he says.

After the September 11 attacks in the United States, Dr Gino told the Taleban he was willing to re-open the hospital immediately. At that time, the United Nations and the Red Cross were flying their staff out.

He is scathing about the decision of the aid agencies to leave Afghanistan. "I think it will remain a shame for many humanitarian aid agencies, the U.N. the first, because they left this country between September 12 and 13. It was a political decision taken at a high level in New York. There was one day when they should have come back to Afghanistan it was September 12," Dr. Gino scolds.

Dr. Gino was in Pakistan at the time of the attacks and wanted a seat on the U.N. plane flying in to Afghanistan to evacuate its staff. He says that U.N. officials refused, for security reasons and because, they said, it would "look contradictory."

Instead, Dr. Gino and his staff undertook a dangerous five-day journey over the Hindu Kush mountains, by jeep and on horseback, to get back into Afghanistan. They reached the Northern Alliance front lines in the Panjshir Valley, and Dr. Gino spent weeks there negotiating with the Taleban to let him and his team cross the front lines back into Kabul. This was at the same time as those front lines were being bombed by the United States.

The negotiations finally bore fruit a month later. Dr. Gino and his staff made it back to Kabul on November 8.

Within two days the hospital re-opened, when the air strikes were at their fiercest. Two days later the Taleban fled Kabul.

The Emergency Hospital continues to treat all patients, including Taleban prisoners. If peace comes to Afghanistan, the Emergency Hospital will stay to help landmine victims. But Dr. Gino will be off in search of another war zone where people need a doctor's care.