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Pakistan: Islamabad Keeps Hospital Beds Open For Afghan Strike Victims

  • Charles Recknagel

The U.S.-led air strikes have raised fears in Pakistan that any Afghans injured in the bombings could require treatment no longer available in Afghanistan's own poorly equipped hospitals. In response, the Pakistani government has ordered its hospitals to admit injured Afghans, even though Pakistan's border officially is closed to refugees. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel visited one of the hospitals near Peshawar to learn more about the program.

Naseerbad, Pakistan; 29 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Some 20 minutes by car from Pakistan's northwestern city of Peshawar is the sprawling Naseerbad camp for Afghan refugees.

The camp was established almost two decades ago, as Pakistan absorbed millions of Afghan refugees fleeing the Soviet-Afghan war. Many of the inhabitants have been living here ever since, part of a population of some 2.5 million registered and unregistered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan.

Near the camp is the Naseerbad Teaching Hospital, a private facility built as part of a charitable effort to provide the refugees with medical care.

Today, the 100-bed hospital is voluntarily keeping 60 of its beds empty in readiness for what many in Pakistan believe could be a flood of Afghans injured in the ongoing U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. The decision is in line with a government directive to all state-owned hospitals in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province to provide free medical care to any victims of the air strikes -- despite the fact that the borders remain closed to refugees.

Faisal Shabir, one of the doctors at Naseerbad Hospital, says his facility is one of three in the Peshawar area that currently is receiving patients from Afghanistan. The patients are brought across the closed border in ambulances by a Pakistani charitable foundation that makes the trips with the permission of the Taliban and the Pakistani government.

Shabir says that since the strikes began 7 October, his hospital has received two patients from Afghanistan. Medical officials say they are among a dozen injured Afghans currently receiving treatment in the Peshawar area.

One of the patients sent to Shabir's hospital was a Taliban soldier, the other an ordinary citizen. The doctor says both were suffering from multiple bone fractures:

"The first patient was a Taliban soldier. He was not actually injured in the recent [strikes] but he was injured one month before while fighting the Northern Alliance. By the time the strikes began, he was actually in hospital in Kabul -- the so-called '420-bed Hospital,' this is the name of the hospital. He was there while the roof of the hospital collapsed when it was hit by a bomb."

The doctor goes on to describe the second patient: "He was also having multiple fractures in both hands. He was an ordinary citizen [who was wounded] while he was at home, [when] at about 12 midnight his home was bombarded. He was probably in Jalalabad."

Both of the patients were released a week ago to a larger state-owned hospital in Peshawar that can provide them orthopedic rehabilitation therapy. Shabir says after that they will be released and may return to Afghanistan if they wish or stay in Pakistan.

The dozen patients in the Peshawar area are part of an unknown total number of Afghans who have been injured during the U.S.-led air strikes against the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda network of accused terrorist Osama bin Laden. The number of civilians killed or injured in the air raids is hotly disputed by the Taliban and Washington.

The Taliban's deputy ambassador to Pakistan, Sohail Shaheen, said on 27 October that 1,200 people have died in the attacks and thousands more have been injured.

But the U.S. has called the Taliban's claims vastly exaggerated. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said this weekend that the Taliban has lied about the civilian casualties and "taken the press to places where they could see things that they contended were something other than what they really were."

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has said that civilian deaths are mounting, but has not provided an estimate.

Amid the debate, reports about the bombing from Afghans who enter Pakistan are mixed. Shabir says that some 200 refugee families have slipped clandestinely across the border in the past weeks to arrive at the Naseerbad camp and that he has spoken with many of them. The doctor says some of the new arrivals report that few people are being injured in the air raids, while others say that the opposite is true.

"A few were heard to say that there were not [so many] casualties in Afghanistan because the U.S. and their allies are striking the targeted areas and civilian casualties are less. But a few patients said, on the contrary, that people are being injured in these attacks."

Shabir says that whatever the true number of injuries, it is almost certain that Afghanistan's own barely functioning medical facilities would be unable to handle serious cases. The country's public hospitals and clinics have suffered decades of neglect due to Afghanistan's collapsed economy and foreign aid workers have left the country amid the current crisis.

As a measure of how little treatment medical facilities in Afghanistan can provide, Shabir says that Pakistani hospitals for years have been accepting patients from Afghanistan even for relatively simple cases like surgery to remove kidney stones.

Such referrals of patients to Pakistan from Taliban-controlled areas were possible because Pakistan is one of three countries that recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan's government. The other two, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, have broken diplomatic relations with the militia since the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S.

Islamabad, now part of the U.S.-led coalition against terrorism, says it is still maintaining diplomatic relations with the Taliban in hopes of being a channel for any dialogue to end the crisis. However, chances for dialogue appear slim, as the Taliban has refused U.S. demands to hand over bin Laden, and Washington has rejected the militia's offer to try bin Laden itself.

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