‘I did not survive the fire just to be kidnapped!’
On October 3, 2015, a hospital run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders, or MSF) in Kunduz, Afghanistan was struck repeatedly by US military aircraft; 42 lives were lost in the mistaken dawn assault. Dr. Evangeline Cua, a Filipino field surgeon with MSF, survived the horrifying ordeal. This is her story.
I was leaning on his shoulder when he shook me hard, waking me in panic.
“What!?” I asked in alarm.
“Are you all right?’’ he asked, concern in his voice.
The smoke was becoming stronger and he was afraid we might suffocate.
“Let’s get out of here.”
“No, I’m staying here!” I told him firmly. I’d rather die of carbon monoxide poisoning than be hit by a stray bullet outside. “Just close your eyes,” I absentmindedly added. In normal circumstances, I might have laughed at my suggestion. Close your eyes? Genius solution!
“Okay, we stay here. But cover your nose with this,” gathering the hem of my OR gown and handing it to me. I had lost my mask earlier. “I don’t want you losing consciousness.” And with a laugh, continued, “I might not be able to carry you out of here.”
Out of nowhere, something tore through the roof and landed inches away from our feet. A stray bullet missed us by a few inches. A few freaking inches! The hair on my body stood on end. We could see the extent of the fire above through the hole the bullet made on the roof. I didn’t need convincing that I was going to die that night. There was just no way we could get out of there alive.
All traces of sleepiness now gone, we discussed what we were going to do if we were still alive in the morning. We’ve been hiding in that hole for what seemed like an hour. Nobody knew I was there, that I was still alive. With bitterness in my voice, I asked if I could go with him, until I found a way to let my colleagues know I’m alive.
“Of course! Let’s go to my house and hide there temporarily.”
“Okay. But do you have food? Basement? Is it safe there?”
“How can we go there?”
His car was in the parking lot, near the side of the building where we first entered, several hundred meters from where we were at the moment.
“We could run. Then you can hide in the car. I’ll drive fast.”
“I don’t have any identification card or travel documents with me.” I had left all my things at the OR. All I had in my pockets when we ran out were the keys to my room and locker.
“Don’t worry. My father and my uncle will find a way to get you to Kabul.”
Agreeing finally to what we should do next, we noticed fire darting in and out of the windows just above where we were hiding. Without notice and any hesitation, he hoisted himself up the wall and jumped out of that pit and ran into the open. I was left in the dark … alone.
Following his example, I jumped and tried to reach the edge of the hole; I was unsuccessful. I stood up and tried again, this time placing my body against the wall and putting my feet on the opposite side to gain traction. I fell down with a loud thud. I panicked. The fire was slowly eating the window above the roof covering the hole and I could feel the heat. I shouted for him to go back, to help me get out of there. I heard his voice calling back my name, telling me to get out of there immediately. Then, silence. Nothing. I was becoming desperate so I jumped again but failed miserably.
I slumped on the floor, weeping, all trace of hope now gone. I was weeping for myself – the dreams I had yet to achieve, all the plans for the future; for my family back home — for giving them so much heartache, I could have spared them the agony if I had chosen to stay at home and had a private practice instead; for my friends — I am not going to see them again; for the patient I just lost at the OR table – he was still so young; for the old man who lost a son, for all the work we poured into this hospital, for the people of Kunduz.
“I only asked You for one thing during my birthday, to keep me safe,” I cried. “One wish and You could not even grant it.” I had arrived in Afghanistan on my birthday and it was my sole wish. My heart was filled with bitterness.
I was angry. I wanted to lash out at somebody, anybody. I wanted to punch someone in the face. I was enraged. I hated both sides involved in this stupid war. I wanted them to see all the damage they have been causing among civilians and let them imagine that those are their families. Let us see then if they would still continue this senseless war.
I was also afraid. I didn’t want to be burned alive.
The tears came in a torrent, bringing all my frustrations into surface.
Then, surprisingly, there was calm and clarity. I was back to being a surgeon again. “Okay, nobody will help me now but myself. What should I do?” After removing my shoes, I stood and studied the small space I was in. No crevice on the wall to put my foot into and the wall was really too high for me. Then I saw a small piece of steel jutting out from the right corner, so small I hardly saw it the first time. With all my might I jumped, aiming to grab it. It was hot but I didn’t let go. My shoulder joint threatened to dislocate but I didn’t mind. I didn’t know how or what else I exactly did but in a few minutes I was out of the hole. With a big sigh of relief, I saw my colleague sprawled on the ground near the rose garden, waiting, a big grin on his face when he saw me. I ducked and ran to where he was, hearing him say “Get down! Get down!” I felt my OR gown catch a small fire, from the embers falling from the burning building. I rolled on the ground. When the volley of shots in the surroundings stopped, we started crawling toward a building, several meters from where we were. We were halfway there when a figure came out from the darkness. Fear gripped me. I did not survive the fire just to be kidnapped! No, please.
Then the man, who was wearing traditional Afghan attire, uttered the words that I would always remember: “Follow me, there’s a safe place here.” JN/IDL
READ: Part 1 ‘I screamed in terror’ when US bombs fell on my hospital
READ: Part 2 ‘The city was once again back in the hands of the Taliban’
READ: Part 3 ‘I am not Muslim but I pray for your protection’
Factsheet: Kunduz Hospital Attack
Dr. Evangeline Cua is a surgeon from Iloilo, the Philippines. She works for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and was at the scene during the October 2015 Kunduz Trauma Hospital bombing. Dr. Cua is due to return to Afghanistan to work in a maternal health care project of the MSF.
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