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Kandahar hospital treats war's many wounds

Washington Post: As the U.S. military focuses on Kandahar this summer, many of the war's stories will play out in Mirwais hospital, which has about half the doctors it needs.
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No one here is surprised by any of it anymore.

Even on the quietest days, you can watch bodies riddled with bullets and shrapnel being delivered or see people with burned faces and broken bones arriving in police pickups and taxicabs — as they have for weeks and months and years.

The new patients are greeted without fanfare at the door of the lime-green Mirwais hospital, Kandahar city's main medical facility and the collection point for war wounded from across southern Afghanistan. They are ferried through the chipped-paint door and the "no weapons" sign, past orderlies pushing mango carts and relatives smoking cigarettes, into surgery with doctors who might be pulling a 24-hour shift. The patients recover under polka-dot sheets in dingy wards next to catatonic roommates wearing oxygen masks who do not have the wherewithal to brush away flies.

"You can adapt to anything," said Mohammad Daoud, the director of surgery.

And that might be what's most remarkable about the Mirwais hospital: It's a place where tragedy has become ordinary and exhaustion feels like calm.

"Sometimes I'm so tired, I can't walk," said Mujibur Rahman, 23, a nurse.

As the U.S. military swings its spotlight to Kandahar this summer, many of the war's stories will play out here. Of the 8,000 surgical patients the hospital treated last year, about half suffered wounds from war — many of them civilians caught in the crossfire of insurgent roadside bombs, NATO airstrikes, Afghan army raids, gunfire on all sides. The hospital is beleaguered but not overwhelmed. Daoud said that it has about half the number of doctors it needs but that it has learned to make do.

There are beds for more than 400 patients and four tan tents outside to handle overflow. In the children's ward, patients sleep two to a bed. The tents were donated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which funds the hospital and provides expatriate doctors to work alongside and train the Afghan staff members. They come from Ethiopia, Germany, Britain and elsewhere.

"I've never seen an American doctor here," said Ali Ahmad Qani, 39, a surgeon who has worked at the hospital for more than a decade.

"I don't want to get myself involved in politics," Qani clarified. Nor do the other doctors. When the wounded arrive, no one asks them whether they are Taliban or civilians. Hospital staff members said they are allowed to go about their business unhindered, unlike other professionals or government officials in Kandahar, whom insurgents regularly threaten and kill.

"A doctor is a person who should help everyone. He should be a balm for all wounds," Qani said.

Too dangerous for supply runs
Fazil Mohammad, 18, was wounded while co-piloting a supply convoy transporting bottled water through the Zhari district of Kandahar province. A bullet pierced the truck's passenger-side door and lodged in his right flank. The driver, Noor Ghani, a friend, laid Mohammad next to the highway as blood leaked from his side. Ghani wasn't familiar with Kandahar city, so he found a taxi to take them to the hospital.

In the second-floor ward the next day, Ghani held up an X-ray to the light coming through the window. The outline of the bullet suspended below Mohammad's ribs was clearly visible. "The doctors decided they're going to leave the bullet inside me," Mohammad said.

"It's too dangerous now to do supply runs. A lot of people are being killed, cars set on fire," Ghani said. "It's really hard for us to judge: Is the problem the Taliban or the other side? Everything is mixed up."

Down the hall, Noor Ali, an elderly man from the Garmsir district of Helmand province, recovered from an operation on his intestine. He was shot while protesting an alleged desecration of a Koran by NATO troops in January. A hospital in Helmand could not handle his injury, and the ICRC transported him to Kandahar.

"The doctors here are trying their best," he said.

His son, Mohammad Anwar, said foreign troops shot his father.

"We don't want them to be in this country," Anwar said. "If they were here to help us and bring security and development, that's okay. If they're just here to give us problems and kill us, to search our houses at night, that's not."

The summer is fighting season in Afghanistan and the busiest time of year for the Mirwais hospital. The doctors there did not offer any opinions about whether the arrival of 10,000 additional U.S. troops in Kandahar was good for the city. Daoud said only, "We expect more patients."

"This is war," Qani said. "And this war is growing."