CAMP BASTION, Afghanistan (Reuters) - From the outside it’s a prefabricated building in the midst of the desert, an unremarkable one storey white block. Inside it may be the busiest trauma hospital in the world.
In the past week more than 100 casualties have been shuttled in to the British-run Camp Bastion hospital in southern Afghanistan, more than half with major trauma from explosions and requiring surgery, according to medics.
The wounded, and sometimes dead, have included British, American and Danish soldiers, members of the Afghan army and police, and civilians caught up in the crossfire as the battle against the Taliban has intensified across Helmand province.
“It’s the busiest trauma hospital in the world,” said a member of Britain’s airborne medical response team, pausing barely long enough to catch his breath after delivering another two casualties from a hovering Chinook helicopter.
“At least this week it has been. Busier than anywhere in Iraq. Busier than Johannesburg,” he said, referring to the city in South Africa with a notoriously high crime rate and one of the busiest hospitals in the world. “It’s non-stop.”
The Taliban have indeed stepped up attacks in recent weeks, mounting ambushes and planting deadly roadside bombs across the province, one of the most volatile in Afghanistan.
The upsurge was expected — in past years the Taliban have taken advantage of the dry summer months and the end of the opium poppy growing season to step up their activities. But this year’s rise in violence has surprised even medics.
“I’ve been in-theatre six weeks and in that time we’ve dealt with around 500 casualties,” said Colonel Iain Moles, the commanding officer of the hospital, showing a reporter around the facility as doctors readied to receive more wounded.
“Whichever way you look at it, that’s substantial. Everything has shot up since July,” he said.
July was bad, but June was in fact the deadliest recent month for British troops, with 13 killed as the Taliban mounted stiff resistance across Helmand. In July four were killed, and two have died so far in August.
U.S. Marines serving further south in Helmand, and Danish troops who are part of the 75,000-strong NATO-led force in Afghanistan, have also been in the firing line.
In the hospital, Moles and his 150 staff take in whomever they are brought, including wounded Taliban picked up from the battlefield. A U.S. Marine was guarding one bearded, bed-ridden militant, yards from recuperating British soldiers.
Three patients lying alongside each other in the intensive care unit told almost a full story of Afghanistan.
In one bed lay an Afghan policeman badly wounded in an attack. Doctors had given him morphine for his pain but quickly discovered he was an opium addict and that no matter what dose of the drug they gave him it didn’t help.
In the next bed lay what Moles — an Irish family doctor when he’s not on deployment — described as a “$10 Taliban”, a young man willing to carry out militant attacks for a bit of cash but not because he’s a big believer.
He had accidentally detonated a roadside bomb as he was planting it, blowing off his right hand and riddling his face with shrapnel.
Two beds down in the pristine ward lay a small Afghan child, barely 18 months old, breathing heavily through a respirator. She’d been hit in the abdomen by a fragment of shrapnel. Nurses said she was not faring well.
Asked how she was wounded the nurse said “by a strike”, then explained that she’d been hit by U.S. munitions in a mistaken attack on civilians.
Editing by Alex Richardson