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RESPONSE TO TERROR | THE TRAUMA OF CHANGE

Chaos and Pain Overwhelm a Hospital in the Taliban's Wake

November 27, 2001|ROBYN DIXON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

KUNDUZ, Afghanistan — With a Taliban fighter lying dead in the hospital corridor and another gasping and moaning on a stretcher, apparently dying, the gash on my hand seemed hardly worth wasting the time of Dr. Mohammed Usman.

Usman doesn't normally work in the emergency room--he's employed by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan--but he came in Monday anyway, knowing he would be needed after the Taliban abandoned this northern Afghan town. The hospital's 25 doctors had all been commandeered by the town's new conquerors, the Northern Alliance, to treat their dying and wounded fighters.

Usman strode furiously around the dark, grimy hospital corridors trying to find sterile bandages and medicinal alcohol, hoping to save lives with the most basic of supplies. In the drug room, boxes and bottles were scattered and broken, and a chair was overturned. In the wards lay many wounded patients, but the doctor had little medicine to give them: It had all been stolen.

"The Taliban came and wrecked everything and took everything," Usman said angrily. "Everything that was here was brought in by the U.N., and the Taliban took it all away today."

I got my tour of the hospital after a truck-mounted antiaircraft gun ran into a group of people standing in the main street of Kunduz near a flatbed truck where four bound Taliban prisoners sat awaiting their fate.

The gun-bearing truck was a war trophy seized from the Taliban. Its brakes had apparently failed, and instead of running into the truck towing it, the driver had steered it into the group of people.

It injured several of them, running squarely over one man's leg, and as someone pushed me out of its path, my hand was caught and torn open: a straightforward case for Usman on a day filled with chaos, pain, death and despair.

The emergency room equipment was woefully basic: a filthy plastic bucket, three stained stretchers, a metal table and chair, some dirty rags. Rubbish was scattered in every corner. There was no running water.

No one knew the name of the dying Taliban fighter or his story. With a lump of shrapnel lodged in his neck, he could not speak. His badly injured right leg was bandaged and caged in a wire frame.

He writhed and groaned, struggling for air, and the red blanket covering him slipped to one side. Whatever could be done for him for the time being had been done. On a mattress in the gloomy corridor, the dead Taliban fighter lay on his back looking strangely peaceful amid the mess.

Usman's operation on my hand attracted a crowd of curious onlookers unused to foreigners, let alone the sight of a male doctor treating a female patient. Until Monday, a medical man was forbidden to touch a woman's flesh.

The doctor opened several sterile packages but laid the clean surgical thread on the table and between stitches picked up a needle with his fingers, finding it tricky to manipulate with his pincers.

As he stitched, prolonged volleys of gunfire rang through the town.

Akhmad Talibjon had arrived at the hospital that morning with a friend, a wounded Taliban fighter. He said fighters of Northern Alliance commander Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum had been looting the hospital alongside the Taliban and had left town at the same time, early Monday, a claim that could not be verified.

Usman said the Northern Alliance forces that arrived at the hospital about 9 a.m. Monday under Dostum's rival, Gen. Daoud Khan, had taken nothing.

In the main street of Kunduz, a shabby, windblown town with buildings clad in faded green awnings, bodies lay scattered in the road after the morning's gun battles, when the Northern Alliance fighters had entered the town and been ambushed by the Taliban.

Several of the corpses were being carted away, their big toes tied together. Others lay where they had fallen. Fighters who did not die immediately were left on the sidewalks for several hours and hauled off after they were dead.

The shops, which had been closed for more than a week, were still shut, but several bazaar traders were selling radishes, spinach, herbs and apples. A loudspeaker blared out the news that the town had been liberated from the Taliban. The streets were crowded, the atmosphere subdued and tense.

Kunduz had been a pro-Taliban city dominated by ethnic Pushtuns, and the indifferent reception that residents gave the Northern Alliance on Monday was a far cry from the jubilance on display after anti-Taliban forces took the city of Taloqan, 30 miles to the east, about two weeks ago.

People interviewed said they were glad to see the Northern Alliance take over--but it was hard to tell if some were merely expressing sentiments they saw as appropriate to the new political environment.

Qosim, 35, seemed happy. He said the city had been terrified, expecting a huge battle between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance, with many casualties. He had been afraid for his 4-year-old son and was relieved that major fighting had been averted.

He said he was looking forward to cutting his beard short.

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