ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN - A global medical humanitarian organization has withdrawn from a hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, a month after unknown gunmen raided the facility’s maternity ward and “systematically" killed 16 women.
Doctors Without Borders, known by its French acronym MSF, announced its decision Monday, noting that the May 12 “horrifying” assault on the Dasht-e-Barchi hospital in the Afghan capital remained unclaimed, nor has there been any information about the perpetrators or motive.
A midwife working for MSF, two young children and six other people present at the time of the attack were also killed.
The statement explained MSF has run the maternity ward at the hospital since November 2014 and provided free-of-charge maternity and neonatal care. It said the humanitarian mission was “deeply concerned” that similar attacks targeting its staff and patients may be repeated in the future.
“We were aware that our presence in Dasht-e-Barchi carried risks,” said Thierry Allafort-Duverger, MSF’s general director. “But we just couldn't believe that someone would take advantage of the absolute vulnerability of women about to give birth to exterminate them and their babies.”
Five of the slain women were in labor and were minutes, or at most hours, from giving birth, according to MSF.
In a previous post-attack statement, MSF had called for an investigation into the bloodshed to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Afghan officials at the time vowed to investigate the attack thoroughly, but they have since not discussed the probe’s fate.
From the outset, the government blamed Taliban insurgents for plotting the carnage, while others suspected Islamic State terrorists were behind it.
The Taliban denied its involvement and instead strongly condemned the attack, as well as government officials, for pointing fingers at the Islamist insurgent group.
The United States publicly blamed Islamic State for the violence, saying the terror group was opposed to Washington’s efforts aimed at peacefully resolving two decades of conflict between the Taliban and other Afghan groups.
The ill-fated Kabul hospital is located in the western part of the city where most of the residents are from the Hazara community.
The historically marginalized minority Shi’ite group’s gatherings and worship places have routinely come under attack. Islamic State has claimed credit for plotting almost all recent bombings on the community.
“This attack cannot be classified as a tragic, isolated incident, as the Hazara population living in the area has been subject to a series of attacks, as have various aid organizations,” MSF said.
The aid group lamented the end of its operation, saying it was a “necessary but painful” decision. It noted that its maternity ward in the hospital was serving a population of more than 1 million people who already face limited access to health care.
"With almost 16,000 deliveries in 2019, the Dasht-e-Barchi maternity ward was one of MSF’s biggest such projects worldwide,” the statement said. “By pushing MSF to end its work in the hospital, the assailants have also left women and babies without access to essential medical care in a country where maternal and neonatal mortality remain high.”
While the security conditions have forced MSF’s withdrawal from the hospital, the organization said it was looking into ways to support local initiatives aimed at improving access to health care in the region.
MSF said that more than 70 of its personnel and patients admitted into its health care programs in Afghanistan have been killed over the past 16 years. They include the killing of 42 patients and medical staff in an airstrike the United States military mistakenly carried out against an MSF hospital in the northern Afghan province of Kunduz in October 2015.