Kandahar, Afghanistan – At the Kandahar Regional Military Hospital in southern Afghanistan, the wounds tell the story of a brutal fighting season against a largely unseen enemy. Afghan Second Lieutenant Suleman lost one leg; another is pinned together. His army truck ran over a buried mine in the province of Zabul. “I had four soldiers with me,” he said. “We were going to a checkpoint to check on my boys, three of my guys were killed in the blast.”
The Kandahar Military Hospital takes care of about a quarter of all military casualties in Afghanistan. In early 2013, it doubled its capacity to about 117 beds including an emergency room and an 8 bed Intensive Care Unit, or ICU.
General Said Azim Hossaini is in charge of the hospital. “We don’t just take soldiers, we treat a lot of civilians too,” Hossaini explained. “If there’s a big accident we get 20 or 30 at a time in the Emergency Room.”
A critically injured civilian is being treated in the ICU. Doctors are pleased with his progress; he’s awake and speaking 24 hours after being admitted. Both legs have been amputated. He’s another victim of a buried bomb, an improvised explosive device or IED.
“Most of our patients are victims of roadside bombs, IEDs, land mines, suicide attacks but mostly land mines,” said Hossaini.
The Afghan government has stopped releasing official casualty figures for the Afghan army. A NATO official from the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says about one thousand Afghan Army soldiers have been killed and about three thousand injured in the first four months of the fighting season, which began in late March. Hossaini said his hospital and other medical professionals were prepared for heavy casualties this year. It’s the first year that the Afghan Army is at full strength, and in the lead for the heavy fighting after ISAF transferred it authority in June.
Continuing support needed
Just as the army is taking the lead, the Afghan medical professionals that support them are trying to do the same. That’s why the facility doubled its capacity and keeps a full blood bank, thanks to regular donations from soldiers, and has new state-of-the-art equipment, such as digital X-ray machines and scanners.
The Afghan top military surgeon General Mosa Wardak said military doctors will continue to need support from ISAF and the international community, but are moving towards sustainability.
“We have maintenance contracts for the newest equipment,” said Wardak. “It includes training our personnel on how to take care of it ourselves. The main areas where we will need continued support are training, logistics and financial support.”
One of the biggest challenges for the Afghan Army is getting the wounded soldiers to facilities like Kandahar. Lack of aircraft and pilots as well as the cost of air evacuations means Afghan forces are relying on ground transport such as ambulances, and improving medical care in the field.
Some of them whom we have treated might have gone back and joined the bad guys again, but this is not our problem, our job is to just save people's lives.
“Since we are doing most ground evacuations ourselves, we are putting more physician’s assistants and doctors in the field and where our units are,” explained Hossaini. “That way if there’s someone injured on the battlefield, we can take care of them out there. And once they are stable they can transfer them to the hospital.”
“If an incident occurs during the day we use our own ambulances to evacuate the wounded,” said Hossaini. “But during the night, because of security, most of the evacuations are done by the ISAF coalition, although some are done by Afghan pilots. All the evacuations from here to Kabul are done by the Afghan forces.”
Caring for the ‘enemy’
On the day Al Jazeera visited, in addition to the dozens of soldiers and civilians in its wards, the Kandahar facility was also treating four injured Taliban fighters as well. Two had gunshot wounds, the other two had wounds caused by IEDs. Doctor Ahmad Zia Safai said that he and the other doctors treat the Taliban like any other patient.
“We talk to them everyday and we try our best to communicate with them because the Taliban have the idea that anyone who works with the Army is an infidel. We want to prove to them that’s not true. We tell them that we are all Muslims and we are not infidels and we try to win their hearts and minds through our words – by educating them.”
When the Taliban patients are stable, the hospital will turn them over to Afghan intelligence officials. Safai said these are not the first Taliban who have been given medical care here. He recognizes that the Taliban under their care may have caused the injuries to some of the soldiers or civilians in the hospital.
“Some of them whom we have treated might have gone back and joined the bad guys again, but this is not our problem, our job is to just save people’s lives,” he said.
In the hospital wards, there are dozens of patients with life-altering wounds. Most are amputees, or double amputees.
Hasan Ahmadi had been in the army just nine months when he was injured. Large stitches take a winding course on his face. He has lost his right eye. Ahmadi was serving in Helmand province, when his squad received a report of a suicide attack at a checkpoint, they were going to support their fellow soldiers when the vehicle hit something and exploded.
Ahmadi doesn’t remember anything after that, and woke up at the Kandahar hospital. He doesn’t know what happened to the five men who were with him, or how long it will take to recover. He says he’s sure of one thing, he wants to go back to the army.
“I joined to serve my country,” he said.