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Afghan War Takes Toll on Civilians

August 21, 2009 at 7:24 PM EDT
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Independent Television News special correspondent Nima Elbagir reports from a hospital in Kandahar, in the south of Afghanistan, on the toll that war has taken on the nation's civilian population.

JIM LEHRER: Now, a look at the toll of the Afghan war on civilians. Special correspondent Nima Elbagir spent a year at a 350-bed hospital in Kandahar. It serves all of southern Afghanistan, including the war-torn Helmand province. Elbagir has reported for Independent Television News, among other news organizations.

A warning: Some viewers may find the images in this story very disturbing.

NIMA ELBAGIR: It’s Thursday, and the morning rush has started. Already several cars have pulled up outside Mirwais Hospital’s emergency unit here in Kandahar.

This one brought Haseena and her sister. They were playing outside their home when they were hit by a driver swerving to avoid a coalition convoy. The convoy never stopped. Passersby brought them here.

In the week we’ve spent at Mirwais Hospital, there’s been a constant flood of civilian casualties, and not just here. Throughout Afghanistan, this summer is shaping up to be the deadliest for civilians since the conflict began.

While Operation Panther’s Claw has been trying to push the Taliban out of their strongholds in southern Afghanistan, the injured civilians have been flooding here.

We came to Mirwais in the last week of July, a month into the offensive, to see what life has been like for the people caught in the crossfire. This is the intensive care unit, the ICU where the most critical patients are brought. They’re mainly war-wounded.

DR. DAOUD FARHAAD, director, Mirwais Hospital: He’s from yesterday, from gunshot wound, from one of the districts of Kandahar.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Is it always this full?

DR. DAOUD FARHAAD: Yes, always bed is full.

NIMA ELBAGIR: Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have become the major operational issue for British and U.S. forces. Soldiers have been ordered to show restraint if there is even the slightest risk of a civilian presence.

But tell that to this man. On the night of July 16th, Hajj Naimutallah says he and his family were asleep in their home in Shah Wali Kot district, north of Kandahar City. They were woken by a coalition attack on his village.

AFGHAN MAN (through translator): It was 10 o’clock at night when I woke up and the helicopters were bombarding. So the children and my wife ran outside their rooms, and they were fired on by the helicopters. And I was not with my family at that time, and that’s why I survived. When I reached them, everyone had been injured. And then the helicopters fired another bomb. During the last strike, I was also injured.

Taliban-inflicted casualities

NIMA ELBAGIR: Of course, it's not just the coalition inflicting casualties. This year, for the first time, over 50 percent of civilian deaths recorded by the U.N. were caused by Taliban roadside bombs and suicide attacks.

The injured man on the stretcher, Bismullah Rahmutalla, was sweeping for old Soviet-era mines when a roadside bomb went off. An Afghan army ambulance was nearby, and the paramedics began treatment, but it wasn't enough. Rahmutalla had lost too much blood. They arrived too late.

Mohammed Anwar was also the victim of a Taliban attack. The 11-year-old fruit-seller lost his legs to a roadside bomb. But he seemed to take a lot of joy in his new mode of transport. And for his elders, in the face of their loss, he became an unofficial mascot.

Over our seven days at the hospital, we spend every morning by the emergency unit's entrance watching dozens of injured war victims arriving, many escaping from the heart of the conflict in Helmand.

Patients brought by ambulance are rare here. People arrive in whatever they can find and whatever they can afford. Often, they have to help themselves into the hospital.

But in addition to the aerial bombs and the mortar blasts, there is another silent threat: fear.

Shamsullah has been brought in by his father suffering from dehydration after days of diarrhea. The doctors crowd around the toddler's bed. His father looks on as they try to revive him, but it's too late.

Shamsullah's parents were too afraid to risk the journey to Marwais, with the ever-present threat of violence. They waited in the hope their child would recover. It's a story we hear over and over from parents here.

This is the general pediatric ward. And coming in here, you can see how overcrowded it is. There are two or three children to every bed.

Throughout our time here, the pediatric ward was where we always saw the most harrowing scenes. Every morning, the hospital runs a feeding clinic, and malnourished children are brought in, often by equally malnourished mothers.

Despite the billions of dollars pouring into Afghanistan, the country ranks number two in the world for infant deaths, the same ranking as in 1990 at the end of the war with the Soviets. It's easy to forget that the ones who make it here are the lucky ones.

This hospital has been supported by the Red Cross since 1996. So unlike many of the country's other hospitals, the medicine is at the international standard and the generator doesn't run out of fuel. This July, the hospital registered a 50 percent jump in civilian casualties.

ANGEL VICARIO, International Committee of the Red Cross: We're getting around 700 inpatients a day; 600 have been discharged. So we're having 100 patients extra that are staying at the hospital. There are some wards that are around 140 percent, 150 percent, even 175 percent of the bed occupancy, so we're really having a lot of inpatients.

NIMA ELBAGIR: There are 20 Red Cross-trained surgeons here able to perform 700 operations every month. They're currently running at capacity, with the majority of surgeries performed on those injured in the fighting. And they're still coming.