06/30/2010 05:35 PM

Patched Up in Pakistan

Red Cross Hospital Treats Taliban and Children

By in Peshawar, Pakistan

A Red Cross field hospital in Peshawar specializes in treating victims of the armed conflicts in northwest Pakistan and Afghanistan. The doctors don't ask which side their patients are on. For them, they are all victims.

Wahida's outstretched leg is in a cast and secured to the bed. The 5-year-old girl cannot move it. The wounds and fractures cause her pain, the doctors say, but the girl is sitting upright and smiling. Her smile gets wider and wider, her white teeth become visible. Then her mouth opens and her little body begins to shake with laughter.

The bomb, the nightmare of the explosion, the arduous journey in her mother's arms -- all of that is forgotten in this moment, when the doctors and nurses come to her bedside, stroke her cheek and tell her how brave she is. "How are you?" asks one nurse in Pashto. "Good," she replies. She looks radiant, as if this little bit of attention has made her very happy.

Wahida's right leg was shattered by shrapnel in an explosion at the beginning of June near the city of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan. Her family has no money to pay doctors. But someone told them that in Peshawar, just a few miles from the border in neighboring Pakistan, there was a hospital that treated patients for free. A few days later, Wahida's mother arrived with her severely injured child at the entrance of the Surgical Hospital for Weapon Wounded, which is operated by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

"We know very little about this girl," says Sabahat Gilani, a senior nurse at the clinic, which is located in the center of Peshawar. "Only that she comes from Afghanistan." Wahida was hospitalized and underwent surgery. The doctors saved her leg.

No Time for Psychological Support

Since April 2009, the ICRC has been running the field hospital, which was set up to treat victims of the ongoing conflict between government forces and armed groups in Pakistan's tribal areas and North West Frontier Province. White tents stand close together on a well-guarded property in the middle of Peshawar, about 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the border with Afghanistan. Norway has donated the funding for the accommodation.

Some 200 people work here, including 180 Pakistanis. Two surgical teams operate and carry out amputations every day in one of the tents, battling to save people's lives. The building next door, which has two brand new operating theaters, is almost finished. But there are just too many victims. Usually up to 12 new patients are admitted per day, but after military operations or attacks by insurgents sometimes 40 seriously injured people arrive at one time.

"In April, for example, two suicide bombers blew themselves up in a refugee camp in the town of Kohat," recalls Gilani. The bombers were standing in the middle of a group of people who were waiting to receive food, she says. "Many were killed instantly. We had our hands full trying to deal with the seriously injured."

The hospital specializes in emergency assistance. There is no time for giving the patients psychological support. Gilani strokes Wahida's head -- the girl is still smiling -- then she leaves the tent.

'Body Parts Everywhere'

In this field hospital, the victims of attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan, only numbers in the news reports, get names and faces. People like Syed Hussain Shah, 22, who ran to the scene of the explosion in Kohat after the first bomb went off. "I wanted to help," he says. "There were bleeding people and severed body parts everywhere."

Shortly after Shah arrived at the scene, the second bomber blew himself up, and Shah was seriously injured in the knee. He has been in the hospital in Peshawar for two months now. The bed next to his is occupied by Shayaz Ali, 15, whose leg was damaged in the same attack. They have become friends in the hospital, brought together by war.

With most of the injured that come to the hospital, the staff only know their names and approximately where they live. There are men and women, old people and children. They are victims of the Taliban, the Pakistani military or American drones. Wahida is currently the youngest patient.

'We Treat Everyone the Same'

The beds are occupied by all kinds of people, including civilians and extremists. Sometimes there are members of the Pakistani security forces and sometimes fighters from the ranks of the Taliban. "We do not ask if they were actively involved in fighting or who they are fighting for," says the hospital's manager, Richard Cook. Most patients are traumatized by what they have experienced and don't want to talk anyway, he says. "We treat everyone the same. The ICRC is impartial and neutral," says Cook, who is originally from New Zealand.

Recently the ICRC came in for criticism after it was reported in international media that the organization had allowed Taliban fighters to participate in first-aid courses in Afghanistan. "Naturally we also train Taliban, although not here in Pakistan but in Afghanistan," says Cook. "We are proud of that. We are there to help everyone in armed conflicts."

Horrors of War

The hospital is full of victims of the horrors of war. Zubair, 13, is lying in his bed, staring silently at the ceiling. He was tending cows in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan in early June when he stepped on a mine. The surgeons in Peshawar had to amputate his right leg below the knee.

An unknown assailant shot Mohammed Sajid, 13, in the face as the boy was watching a cricket match. The bullet shattered his jaw. His attacker has not yet been caught.

In the tent next door, a Hungarian surgeon and his Greek colleague are operating on a man who was wounded in the head. His brain swelled up, and the doctors now have to saw open his skull. On the neighboring table, an Italian surgeon is treating a young woman with a leg injury. A Mexican anesthesiologist goes backwards and forwards between the two patients.

'A Victim Is a Victim'

People from areas all along the Afghan-Pakistan border come to the Red Cross hospital. Currently, 72 beds from a total of 120 are occupied. There are no ambulances -- patients have to get there by themselves. The travel costs are covered by the Red Cross, which provides a flat sum of 2,000 rupees (around €19 or $23). In this region, one can travel for several hundred kilometers with that kind of money.

The only condition for being accepted at the hospital is that the patient must have an injury caused by armed conflict that was suffered within the previous two months.

What happens if the patient is a wanted terrorist? Cook shakes his head. "A victim is a victim," he says. "Medicine does not differentiate between people in that respect." If the intelligence agencies make inquiries, they are given access to documents and allowed to enter the hospital. The ICRC prefers not to say how often that happens. Overall, the Red Cross enjoys considerable trust from all sides, Cook says.

Soap and the Koran

Representatives of the insurgents confirm that they appreciate the work the Red Cross is doing. They also appreciate the fact that ICRC employees visit imprisoned Taliban fighters who no one else cares about. Red Cross workers try to ensure that such prisoners receive humane treatment. They bring them soap, clean clothes and books, including the Koran, and deliver letters to their relatives.

In the tent for the most seriously injured patients are men with long beards. Some have bomb shrapnel in their chests, while others have broken shoulders. Some are missing arms and legs. They don't want to say anything about their past, talk about what they have experienced or say whose side they are on.

"We just want to get well," says one man. "And then go home and live in peace."


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