Last hope for the crossfire children

The Sunday Times

On the day Nazia’s two-year-old son fell ill with acute diarrhoea, American soldiers engaged in a shootout with the Taliban near the family home in Helmand province.

Terrified of being killed in the crossfire, Nazia sheltered indoors for five days before braving the dirt track that led to the local clinic. By then, Abdul was close to death.

As night fell, Nazia’s husband could not find a taxi driver willing to risk the journey to hospital on Helmand’s dangerous roads. They had to wait till the next night to get to Bost hospital, in the provincial capital Lashkar Gah, which has the only paediatric ward in the area.

Nazia was lucky: when she reached the hospital last Tuesday nurses fed a diet of enriched milk to her malnourished child. The doctors said Abdul would survive.

The Helmand paediatric ward is supported by staff from Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF). The hospital in which it sits is one of only two 24-hour hospitals that serve southern Afghanistan.

Patients who make their way to the hospital have risked roadside bombs, highway thieves and the danger of being caught in military action to get there. The delay makes easily curable diseases and infections potentially deadly.

“If people can’t leave their village for days on end because there’s fighting going on then only when their child is dying do they take the risk. Simple things such as diarrhoea become life threatening,” says Michiel Hofman, MSF’s regional director in Afghanistan.

Our Christmas appeal aims to help children such as Nazia’s, whose lives are threatened or devastated by war. Last year, we raised £750,000 for a special surgical unit run by MSF, where children with burns and blast injuries sustained in the war in Iraq are given a chance of a normal life.

In the coming year, we want to continue to support that unit and extend our help to some of MSF’s other projects which give medical aid and shelter to children in war zones.

MSF will give 10% of the money raised to the Royal Society of Medicine, an educational charity that counts some of Britain’s most eminent doctors among its members. The society will use the money to open its webcasts and online journals to doctors working in war-torn areas, who often struggle for information on difficult cases.

The Helmand paediatric unit is bringing medical expertise to an area where few else dare to venture: MSF itself was forced to leave Afghanistan in 2004 when five of its workers were murdered in Badghis province. Last year, despite the ferocity of the conflict in Afghanistan it decided it had to return.

The charity has also opened a clinic in Kabul, but it is in Helmand that the need is most acute. MSF receives no government funding for its work in Afghanistan and is wholly reliant on the generosity of individuals.

The concrete steps outside the 150-bed hospital are lined with the squatting figures of Afghan men waiting anxiously for updates on the health of their children.

One week ago, when Obaidullah Mohammadi’s pregnant wife fell ill, the taxi drivers in his village refused to take the couple to Lashkar Gah because of fighting on the road. It was two days before they reached the hospital and by then it was too late. At the end of an agonising journey, his wife suffered a miscarriage.

“We have a situation where the population is trapped between the different fighting forces. Either they can’t reach the hospital or the health system fails to reach them,” says Stefano Argenziano, the head of MSF’s Bost team.

Bost also treats its share of gunshot wounds, shelling victims and mine injuries. Qaramagullah, a 17-year-old girl, lost her two children, her father and her husband when a Nato plane bombed her home in Sangin district last month.

Qaramagullah, who has a fractured skull and cannot move her left leg or arm, says: “I have lost everything. You can’t tell where my home once was. This hospital is the only place in Helmand I can get free medicine and good treatment.”

If you would like to donate to our appeal please go to thesundaytimes.co.uk/appeal or msf.org.uk/iraqappeal

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