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'Pure Hell': Afghan Babies Born Into War Lose Their Mothers Just Days Later

Newborn children who lost their mothers during the May 12 attack lie on a bed at a hospital in Kabul.
Newborn children who lost their mothers during the May 12 attack lie on a bed at a hospital in Kabul.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Eleven babies were crying in their incubators at a children's hospital in the Afghan capital, Kabul.

The infants were born just a few days ago into Afghanistan's 18-year-long war, the world's deadliest ongoing conflict.

Most did not even have names. Yet the babies had already experienced a major loss: the mothers of all 11 of them had been killed by gunmen in the hospital.

They were among 24 people, including two newborns, massacred at a maternity clinic in Kabul on May 12.

Three gunmen, disguised as doctors and security officers, stormed the clinic run by Doctors Without Borders (MSF). The clinic is part of the 100-bed, government-run Barchi National Hospital.

During a fierce, hours-long gunbattle with Afghan security forces, the men armed with automatic weapons and grenades indiscriminately gunned down babies, mothers, pregnant women, and medical workers in an incomprehensible act.

The attacked occurred in Dasht-e Barchi, an area in western Kabul that is predominately inhabited by Afghanistan's Shi'ite Hazara minority. It has long been a scene of gruesome attacks by the Taliban and Islamic State (IS) extremist groups, including on schools, mosques, and sports facilities.

Newborns Killed In Attack On Kabul Maternity Hospital
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No group has claimed responsibility for the attack, although the government has blamed the Taliban -- dismissing the group's denial.

"Neither the Taliban hands nor their stained consciousness can be washed of the blood of women, babies, and other [innocents] in the latest senseless carnage," Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh tweeted.

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad put the blame on IS militants for the attack.

Even in a country ravaged by war for more than 40 years, the attack on a maternity clinic targeting babies and women has sparked international outrage and shocked many Afghans who fear a war with no end.

'Truly Devastated'

There were around 100 women, babies, and female health workers at the maternity clinic in Dasht-e Barchi when it was attacked.

Afghan forces were seen rushing newborns -- wrapped in blood-soaked blankets -- from the clinic. Panicked mothers raced with their children outside.

Twenty infants were relocated to Ataturk Children's Hospital, where they were under observation. Some have been discharged to their families. Others remain in the facility.

Dozens of men and women had come to the hospital out of solidarity sympathy. Some had come to adopt motherless children. Several women had also come to breastfeed the newborns.

'I'm Truly Devastated': Babies Left Motherless In Kabul Attack Breastfed By Volunteers
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Among them was Aziza Kermani. "I have come here to breastfeed these babies because they lost their mothers in the bloody attack," she said as she fed a motherless infant.

"I have a 4-month-old baby whom I left at home and came here to give them a mother's love by breastfeeding them," she said, amid the wails of the newborns.

All the babies were identified by their mothers' names, written in blue ink on their tiny legs.

"I'm truly devastated that this crime was committed against our children," Kermani said.

'Shot A Lot Of People'

Khadija, who had given birth just three days earlier, was in the maternity clinic in Dasht-e Barchi when it was attacked. "The attackers entered the hospital," she recounted, saying they were dressed as doctors and Afghan security officers.

"[One of them] pointed his gun at me but didn't shoot," she said, wearing a red head scarf. "I don’t know why. He shot two other people and then went behind a curtain and opened fire."

Khadija paused for a moment, fighting to hold back tears. "He shot a lot of people there," she said.

'Beyond Words'

When the clashes ended, Afghan security forces entered the clinic to find a scene of devastation. The walls were pockmarked with bullets, the floors were smeared in blood, and the windows shattered.

There were 26 mothers in the clinic at the time of the attack. Eleven women were killed, including several in the delivery room with their babies. Ten others found refuge in safe rooms. Five women were wounded.

One dead mother was lying on the ground still clutching her crying baby.

MSF, the Paris-based international charity, called the attack "pure hell."

"They came to kill the mothers," said Frederic Bonnot, the head of MSF in Afghanistan, who visited the facility a day after the attack. "This country is sadly used to seeing horrific events,” he said in a statement on May 14. "But what happened [on May 12] is beyond words."

MSF said it had suspended its operations in Dasht-e Barchi.

Written by Frud Bezhan, based on reporting by Farid Saadat of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.