Fieldset
Yemen: August 2016. "Airstrike in the hospital, now!"

Vera is a nurse who has been working with MSF in Yemen, a country in the midst of a civil war. She looks back to August, to the day she received a fateful telephone call…

I´m in Yemen, wrapping up my last weeks of a three month assignment with MSF. It's Monday afternoon and I am in the MSF office, in the process of completing the pharmacy order. At the same time my colleagues, a doctor and the HR coordinator, are in the room next door, doing the last job interviews for staff for the new clinic for malnourished children. It’s due to open a week today.

The project I have been working in since the beginning of June is in Abs District, in north-western Yemen. MSF started working in this area about a year ago, providing healthcare to internally displaced people who have fled the horrors of war and settled in the area.

Vera with a newborn baby

Vera with a newborn baby. Photo: Vera Schmitz / MSF

More than 16,000 people have come here in search of protection in the last year. Usually they can bring with them only the most necessary personal belongings. Many children and pregnant women are now living in makeshift huts; clean water and food are both scarce.

Outside, we hear an aircraft flying past, unusually low, but we don’t think much of it

To provide all-important healthcare a team goes daily into the various makeshift camps to run mobile clinics. They provide patients with consultations and, if necessary, arrange transfers to Abs Rural Hospital, which the Ministry of Health runs, but MSF provides support to.

In the hospital there is an emergency room; an operating theatre; and paediatric, maternity and surgical wards. MSF started supporting the Abs Hospital in July 2015. Since then, we have seen more than 11,000 patients in the emergency room; treated nearly 2,000 people as inpatients; and supported over 1,500 women as they gave birth. If MSF was not here, thousands of people would be without adequate access to health care.

But back to 15 August 2016. Outside, we hear an aircraft flying past, unusually low, but we don’t think much of it.

Then my phone rings.

At the other end a Yemeni colleague from the hospital is calling, no, crying out to me:  "Airstrike in the hospital! In the hospital! Now!”

My first reaction: disbelief, bewilderment, this must be a misunderstanding. At the same time other colleagues get similar calls, and we have a few anxious minutes of waiting until we get a message confirming the news.

Our hospital was attacked.

Everyone looking for any scrap of information about friends and family, trying to find out if they’re all right

What is happening with the patients, with our colleagues?  Are they hurt, could they get to safety?

The telephone network is completely overloaded, of course, everyone looking for any scrap of information about friends and family, trying to find out if they’re all right.

Gradually information starts to slip through. First are the reports of injuries and deaths.

While all this is going on, as I find out later, my colleagues at the hospital are fighting for the lives of the injured. Over the next few hours, several injured people are brought in to the nearest hospital in Hajja.

Gradually, colleagues come to the office. We learn the sad reality of the death of Abdul Kareem Al-Hakimi, one of our technical staff.

MSF staff from the Austrian office holding “We will miss you, Abdul”, plus Vera holding “#NotATarget”. Photo: MSF

Now, we also know that other people died in this unbelievable attack.

The bomb fell in the middle of the hospital grounds. At any time of day, there are patients, employees, and family members there.

For our employees who have minor injuries, the doctor and I build a small "medical room" here in the office to take care of their wounds. Luckily enough, most are doing well.

Outwardly, the shock can be read in each of our faces, which are etched with grief over the loss of our colleagues. The team is now supporting each other in this difficult time.

Amid all this now everybody asks : How could this happen?

A hospital worker salvages the remains of undamaged medication and equipment left in the emergency room after the 15 August Saudi-led coalition airstrike which destroyed the hospital killing 19.

A hospital worker salvages the remains of undamaged medication and equipment left in the emergency room after the airstrike. Photo: Rawan Shaif

I am caught in the middle of sadness and anger, but also by the helplessness of not being able to stand by my team at the hospital directly. The network is still overloaded and getting through is very difficult.

And amid all this now everybody asks : How could this happen? The coordinates of the hospital, which identify its exact location, are known to all parties in this war. It was known that this was a hospital, a place where people were struggling for their lives and other people gave everything to save them.

19 people died.

About 20 were injured.

The hospital´s Emergency Room is seriously damaged , but medical activities continue with the Ministry of Health staff. MSF has taken its staff out temporarily while it carries out an internal investigation. 

I am still deeply moved by the experience of August 15, 2016.

Civilians and hospitals must not be targets.

Because even war has rules.

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