KABUL, AFGHANISTAN—It was during the brief drive home that Dr. Mohammad Kamal realized he had just saved the life of the man who had murdered his colleague and close friend.
Up until that point, everything had seemed like a dream. But a few hours after the horrifying ordeal here in this sprawling capital city, Kamal felt the reality of what had happened slowly begin to set in.
Like so many others at Kabul’s CURE International Hospital, Kamal had hardly noticed the man—who went by one name, Ainuddin, and briefly worked as an armed guard at the medical facility—until he saw him writhing in pain on the grass of a courtyard outside the hospital. No one suspected that Ainuddin, whom they described as young and in good shape, would ever attack the staff of a medical facility that specializes in caring for women and children.
But late last month, that’s what happened when five foreigners entered the building one morning. In what some fear is becoming a trend in Afghanistan, the 20-something guard appeared to choose his victims because they were Americans.
Roughly a month after the attack took place, little is known about Ainuddin or why he opened fire. But as the U.S. and other international troops prepare to leave this war-torn nation of 32 million, the lingering questions have led many here to fear that the attack on the hospital won’t be the last of its kind.
It was only minutes after the foreigners entered the building that the gunshots rang out from the courtyard. Witnesses say Ainuddin fired the fatal shots before another armed guard shot him twice in the chest.
Jerry Umanos, a Chicago-based children’s doctor who had worked alongside Kamal at the facility for seven years, was among the victims. “He was not afraid,” Kamal says. “He was here to serve the Afghan people.”
The gunman also killed two other Americans: Gary Gabel, a visiting lecturer at Kabul University, and his son, John. The elder Gabel’s wife, Teresa, suffered wounds to her arms and shoulder, but survived.
The shooter’s injuries—internal bleeding from two bullet wounds—required immediate attention. Kamal quickly called for a gurney to transport the gunman into the operating room.
“I don’t regret it,” Kamal says. “He was a human being screaming in pain.”
Yousuf Khan, the hospital’s medical director, agreed. Despite fears that other would-be shooters could follow Ainuddin’s attack, the staff’s obligation was clear. “We are health workers,” he says. “Even if it’s our enemy, we must help.”
The staff rushed into action; three Afghan doctors signed the consent forms to operate. While he was conscious before and after the surgery, Ainuddin screamed in pain, but otherwise remained silent for the rest of the day.
Since the shooting, rumors have swirled about Ainuddin and his motivations. He has made no public statement, and the Afghan government hasn’t provided any details to the press.
What is known is that Ainuddin is originally from the eastern province of Laghman, a stronghold of Hezb-e Islami, Afghanistan’s second-largest armed opposition group. His cousin describes him as a “religious but ordinary” figure. Guards at CURE report having little to no interaction with Ainuddin, who was a member of the Afghan Public Protection Force—a contingent of armed guards assigned by the Ministry of Interior.
One driver, who often transported hospital staff to and from work, says he tried to befriend Ainuddin, but the guard rebuffed his efforts. “When he first arrived, I asked him where he was from. He gave me a bad look and said: ‘What’s it to you, driver?’ Since then, none of us spoke to him.”
The mystery has been grist for the rumor mill. Some think the shooter may have acted on false rumors that the hospital was secretly converting people to Christianity. CURE International is indeed a Christian charity, and the shooting came only weeks after the Taliban claimed responsibility for an attack on a guest house that the militant group alleged was being used as a church.
Most Afghans view the hospital as one of the best in the nation. And Khan flat out rejects any allegations of non-Islamic practices at the facility. “This is not a Christian center,” he says. “We are all Muslims here. The only work we do here is medical.”
For foreigners in the Afghan capital, the April 24 shooting marked the third case of violence against non-Afghan civilians in as many months. It’s unclear whether this is a concrete strategy or the work of lone gunmen. “There has been a tendency to lump everything together and call it a trend,” says Benoit De Gryse, who manages Doctors Without Borders in Afghanistan. “But we have to look at the details of the attacks.”
Khan says the Taliban’s silence in the weeks following the shooting is a good sign. “In the past,” he says, “even in the middle of their fight, they would be fervently congratulating themselves. This time they have said nothing. It means we are not a target.”
Others at the hospital believe that Pakistan must have been involved, though there’s been no indication that’s the case. For decades, Afghans have blamed Islamabad for many of their country’s problems, including support of the Taliban.
Either way, the attack—and the possibility of another—has created a sense of unease for many at the hospital. Foreign workers, of course, have the option of returning home. But for Afghans, there isn’t much choice. Even if they aren’t being targeted, it’s still easy for them to get caught in the crosshairs.
For his part, Kamal is determined to keep doing his job. But with so many questions swirling around the shooter, he still hasn’t come to terms with his colleague’s death or his decision to save his killer’s life. “I still wonder,” he says, “how I was able to conduct the operation.”