Medical charity MSF urges US to pay Afghan hospital victims

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A leading medical charity that suffered massive losses when U.S. helicopter gunships mistakenly struck its clinic in the northern Afghan city of Kunduz is criticizing the United States for failing to pay compensation to the wounded and families of the Afghans killed in the assault last October.

Doctors Without Borders says Washington should “urgently address” the issue — even as the Afghan government prepares to rebuild the hospital with millions of dollars donated by the U.S. military.

The U.S. military has, in fact, paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to wounded survivors and relatives of those killed in the Kunduz attack, with payments of $6,000 for each person killed and the wounded receiving $3,000.

However U.S. officials have said the payments were not compensation, but condolence gestures, and representatives of the victims have said the payments were inadequate to make up for their losses. The payments that Doctors Without Borders is urging Washington to make are separate from that, the charity said.

The organization, known by its French initials MSF, has decided — at least for now — not to resume operations in Kunduz, where it ran the only trauma hospital in an increasingly violent part of the country, said Guilhem Molinie, the MSF representative for Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said the sustained attack was a mistake caused by human error. After a months-long investigation, the United States dismissed allegations by MSF that the incident amounted to a war crime, and exonerated all involved of any criminal action.

President Barack Obama apologized for the attack, which was one of the deadliest assaults on civilians in the 15-year war in Afghanistan.

But while the Pentagon report, released on April 29, said no criminal charges had been leveled against U.S. military personnel for mistakes that resulted in the attack, about 16 American military personnel, including a two-star general, were disciplined.

A dozen survivors interviewed by The Associated Press since the Oct. 3 assault on the MSF hospital — which treated wounded Taliban and government fighters alike — are convinced the bombing was no accident. They have said that the attack was sustained and focused on destroying the main hospital building. Doctors Without Borders has said it provided the GPS coordinates of the Kunduz clinic to all parties in the conflict in Afghanistan.

The Afghan government has accepted $5.7 million from the U.S. Department of Defense to rebuild the Kunduz facility. According to the U.S. military spokesman in Afghanistan, Brig. Gen. Charles Cleveland, construction could begin on the same site later this year.

“The money has been transferred to U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and military engineers have begun assessing the site as they work on designs for the new facility,” he said.

That work should be finished by September, he said, adding that an Afghan company would be contracted to build the infrastructure and the U.S. would not be equipping it.

Meanwhile, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ordered that the hospital be rebuilt on the same site as the MSF clinic that was destroyed, said Wadidullah Majroh, director of international affairs at the Ministry of Public Health in Kabul. The president’s office did not respond to requests for further information.

Molinie, the MSF representative in Afghanistan, told the AP that the medical charity was not involved in discussions on the rebuilding of the clinic and received no funds from the U.S. or the Afghan government.

As a condition for resuming activities in Kunduz, MSF sought guarantees there would be “no military interference or use of force against MSF medical facilities, personnel, patients and ambulances,” Molinie said.

But no guarantees have been offered so far.

The organization also wanted agreement from Afghan authorities, the U.S. military and all combatant groups fighting in Afghanistan that “MSF staff can safely provide medical care to people based on medical needs, without discrimination, and regardless of their religious, political or military affiliations,” he said.

“We have not yet made a decision on resuming medical activities in Kunduz,” Molinie said.

“It is extremely difficult to understand why adequate compensation has still not been offered to the families who have lost their sole breadwinner and to victims whose injuries are so severe they will struggle to earn an income,” Molinie added.

He stressed that the Kunduz “victims feel disregarded and insulted,” and that the issue of compensation payments “needs to be urgently addressed by the U.S.”

The MSF hospital was attacked by a U.S. Air Force special operations AC-130 gunship during a firefight as U.S. advisers were helping Afghan forces retake Kunduz from the Taliban, who had captured the city on Sept. 28 and held it for three days.

Afghan officials, including the then-acting defense minister and the national security adviser Mohammad Hanif Atmar said at the time the hospital was being used as a base by Taliban fighters. No evidence has emerged to support the assertion.

MSF’s policy of treating combatants on all sides of a conflict has drawn criticism from some in Afghanistan who say that by treating Taliban fighters, Doctors Without Borders enables them to return to the battlefield. The United Nations has said the vast majority of casualties from the war in Afghanistan — 11,002 killed and wounded in 2015 — are caused by the insurgents.

Those killed in the Kunduz airstrike were all Afghans, including hospital staff, patients and caretakers, mostly relatives of patients. Another 27 staff were wounded. The hospital was incinerated and MSF immediately ceased operations in Kunduz. Some staff were subsequently transferred to Kunduz’s government-run hospital.


Associated Press writer Karim Sharifi contributed to this report.