Not business as usual

By Farhat Mantoo, Head of HR, MSF South Asia

The first thing that you see from the airplaneas it descends is Kabul’s barren landscape – both beautiful and breathtaking. I have mixed feelings as I enter Afghanistan. My family and friends could not understand why I wanted to go to a place which is among the most insecure contexts in the world. The bombing  of Kunduz is still fresh in my memory and the pain has not waned inside MSF as well,but I’m not sure if the external world remembers the loss. I came to Kabul to join the project team for an annual gathering called Field Associative debates. These debates are an integral part of MSF and are intended to feature voices from the field, helping keep MSF’s strategies and direction close to our operational reality.

On my first evening in Kabul, we are extensively briefed on how to conduct ourselves as per local customs, and about MSF’s current work in Afghanistan. There you go! A car bomb explodes nearby, but then everything quickly returns to business as usual; back to your desk or whatever you were doing. I can see the ease with which humans think ‘it won’t ever happen to me’. I also see many messages on my Whatsapp, my friends and family asking if I am okay. I confirm that I am fine and reassure them that MSF puts in place all possible procedures and measures to keep its staff safe.

I have, till now believed that working with MSF means protection and immunity in conflict zones since we save lives, work in hospitals, and have no relation to anyone who may be party to the conflict. However, life shakes the ground beneath your feet every now and then.  On October 3 last year, Kunduz trauma centre was bombed in spite of repeated calls made to the concerned authorities to stop. The bombing did finally halt, but the aftermath left us devastated. We lost 42 patients and staff in this attack.

I meet a surgeon who worked in Kunduz and was present that fateful night. His name is Dr. Esmat. His face has hardened with time witnessing the ordeal of war day in and day out. He shared how a few nights before MSF was receiving a lot of wounded patients. He explained how, an injured family arrived at the hospital,  out of whom two sisters died, and the third, was in shock, her intestine half out. The staff was left in tears, says Esmat, when they heard the child saying, ‘mother, mother I am dying!’ 

She was taken into surgery after which OT staff donated their blood as the blood bank had run dry because of the increase in the number of patients. She was luckily saved, however, on October 3 the hospital came under attack. As he shares his pain, he says, ‘they were our brothers. We couldn’t find anything, only burnt bones and no bodies’.  His eyes are emotionless and calm.  But that night and almost every night since has made him cry. His words and agony overwhelm all of us present in the room. I feel angry, helpless and sad as somebody who is part of MSF, and I can’t even begin to imagine his despair and that of others like him. There are so many unanswered questions. Among those is why were doctors, nurses and patients killed? What wrong did they commit? Some will remain questions for eternity.

The people of this countryare brave. They wake up each morning stringing pieces of their life together, with the hope that tomorrow is a better day. Even in testing times you hear how a mother saved her baby, the only living soul, while the ICU and OT was in flames. I feel this to be a message of hope. Life continues.

With a heavy heart, and mind amazed at the resilience of the people I’ve met, I sit down for a cup of tea. I see a smiling, friendly face watching me. I walk to her and get introduced to Mahtab who worked in Kunduz as a medical translator. I hesitate to bring it up and somebody does the job for me by asking her where she was on the day of the bombing. She had a week off to spend time with her relatives, she says. I see her face turning pale as she recalls the first time she went back to the hospital after the attack. She was greeted by a colleague whose first words were – ’Oh Mahtab, you’re alive!’  She swallows her tears and does not let her grief show for long. I realise how extraordinarily difficult it must be. Even with the emotional pain, Mahtab is working as a translator alongside a psychologist who offers mental health support to the families of the staff that lost their lives. I wonder how she can absorb so much.  My understanding of our work is reinforced- motivated souls like her and Dr. Esmat keep us going at MSF.

Our work in Afghanistan continues but no decision has yet been taken about the future of our presence in Kunduz and the country. It may come across as business as usual, but in our memories it will never be so. We will keep on asking questions to help bring closure to the bereaved families, and the  safety of our staff.I leave Kabul having learnt a lot from my colleagues. Even after all their adversities, the Afghan people have not forgotten how to smile and be hospitable to guests. Thank you Afghanistan, you teach me a lesson which I may have read but not often practiced!

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