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Libya Dispatch: Hope and Fear

Inside the rebels’ main hospital in Ajdabia, amid the turbulent emotions of the anti-Qaddafi fight.

Ajdabia, Libya—In a quiet corner of Ajdabia’s Shahid Mohammed Al Sherif Hospital, Mahmoud Al Houti, 25, bent his head to the ground, his eyes closed in prayer. A sling fashioned out of a black and brown keffiyeh cradled his bandaged right arm, and a flickering fluorescent light illuminated the chipped concrete of the floors. The right side of his face bore the marks of the multi-rocket launcher that hit his armored car as he was trying to retreat from Bin Jawwad, a rebel-held city, last week.

Three of Al Houti’s friends from business school in Benghazi were visiting him the night that I saw him. They had signed up to join the anti-Qaddafi forces now fighting for Libya’s freedom on February 17. They had received no army training, but rushed to the front lines. Now, they stood in the hospital, where doctors and nurses wheel heavily bandaged patients into surgery, some of whom are missing limbs. Everyone spoke in hushed tones. Al Houti’s hearing was affected by the attack, and he spoke almost too softly to be heard. “I told my mother and father, ‘I have to go fight,’ even though they threatened never to forgive me. It’s my country. I have to go.”

Ajdabia’s hospital has become the primary medical facility in the war against the Qaddafi regime. And, inside the building, all the emotions surrounding that battle jostle uneasily for supremacy. Fighters, both untrained volunteers and seasoned army veterans who defected from Qaddafi’s forces, seem undaunted by the wounds that brought them here. Meanwhile, dozens of local people—and some doctors from as far as Egypt—are volunteering to help the ailing and provide families with information about casualties. “Qaddafi thinks he can kill thousands just like that, but he makes us feel like a team, because we are working together in these times,” said Fathi El Orabi, a civil pilot who volunteers here.

But the hope and cooperation exist side by side with darker elements: suspicion and anxiety, the remnants of a brutal police state. Now that Qaddafi is gaining ground, even threatening Ajdabia, some at the hospital doubt they will triumph against him—and, in the meantime, they fear lurking informers and unknown outside elements in equal measure.

At the hospital, behind a bay of ambulances adorned with tricolor Libyan flags, there is a plain, boxy office, alive with a constant hum of voices and ringing phones. A group of men were gathered around a large table, drinking tea and eating date bars from the World Food Program. They scribbled furiously and entered information into the lone computer, an antiquated white desktop model with a monitor the size of a milk crate. The lists they were compiling contain the names of the dead, missing, and injured from the shifting front lines, which stretch from Bin Jawwad all the way up to Ajdabia.

When asked who was in charge of the operation, all the men in the room eventually pointed toward Abdullah Doma, a genteel, dark-skinned English prep school teacher who kept insisting, “We all work together, there is no one in charge.” But finally, Doma conceded that he had the idea to organize the casutaly information when he saw ambulances start to stream into Ajdabia last week and people became desperate for information about their sons and brothers and fathers. “I called up my friends. It’s easy because everyone here knows each other, and since no one is working, everyone wants to help,” he explained. “Look around you—there’s some teachers, engineers, retired folks—none of them work here normally. Even the computer doesn’t belong to the hospital, but another teacher brought it from his house. Now, people have a phone number they can call if they want information, or if they have someone to report.”

About 120 Egyptian doctors have also come to Ajdabia to aid in the relief effort at the hospital. “My wife is worried, but she understands why I feel I have to come here to help,” said Dr. Mahmoud Masr, a 31-year-old vascular surgeon from Egypt who left his wife and two children in Cairo to come here. Masr has been volunteering in Ajdabia hospital since March 5. Normally, there is only one vascular surgeon in Ajdabia, he explained, but more were needed once the fighting began, because vascular injuries are especially important to treat when bomb and blast injuries are sustained. “If the veins and arteries aren’t repaired, the bone and muscle will die,” Masr said.

With the likes of Doma and Masr working at the hospital, there is a sense of optimism in the halls. And yet, underneath, there is a steady level of anxiety and uncertainty. “I’ve always been against Qaddafi,” said Salem Saleh, 42, who worked as a school inspector before the schools shut last month and he began monitoring security in the hospital. “But now, we are confused about who is still with Qaddafi, and we worry about infiltration in the hospital.” Like Doma’s information operation, Saleh’s security operation is an impromptu setup, made of friends from the community. There have been no security incidents yet, but the influx of people from all areas of eastern Libya and the constant thrum of foreign journalists and volunteers in Ajdabia has put some, like Saleh, on edge. Also, now that the eastern front has lost military ground to Qaddafi, there is anxiety that his loyalists will reappear in the area, creating new conflict.

“Qaddafi will never give up, and we made our own army, but they are not well-trained, they have no heavy machinery, and no air cover,” said one Libyan doctor who declined to be named.

“I don’t know if we will win, and I don’t know how we can live together after this,” said Ali Mahjoub, a volunteer who makes the roundtrip from Benghazi, the main anti-government stronghold, to the front lines every couple of days to deliver food and supplies.

On Monday, Qaddafi’s warplanes bombed three sites in Ajdabia. They missed a local weapons depot, but several of the bombs landed behind the hospital. Reportedly, they did not explode, and local residents took them home as souvenirs. On Tuesday, journalists reported that Qaddafi’s troops had taken the town, but Khalid El Sai’ih, civilian coordinator for the opposition’s armed forces, maintained at a press conference that, while some of Qaddafi’s units had advanced into the city, “they have been dealt with, and have retreated past the western gate.” The next day, journalists were denied entry into Ajdabia; El Sai’ih said that there was shelling in the city, and it was not safe to enter.

As the fighting draws nearer, what will become of the rebel hospital and the people—soldiers and volunteers alike—inside? It’s impossible to say. But, at the end of our conversation, Mahmoud Al Houti gazed into the distance and said, “When I get stronger I will go back to fight.” Asked if he was afraid to die, Al Houti looked up and said, “You have the answer already.”

Clare Morgana Gillis is a freelance journalist in the Middle East.

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