Foreign doctors, nurses stand by Libyans amid rocket fire
At the Nalut Central Hospital, some 50 foreign doctors and nurses continue to treat the Libya rebels – and injured pro-Qaddafi forces – despite no pay and nearby rocket fire.
Perched on the edge of a rugged escarpment, Nalut has been rendered a ghost town by the civil war in Libya. Stores are shut in this rebel enclave, and women and children have been whisked to safety across the border to Tunisia.Skip to next paragraph
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At first glance, the only presence appears the rough-hewn rebel fighters, racing through town in battlewagons smeared with sand to battle troops loyal to Col. Muammar Qaddafi.
On closer look is another group that quietly clings to their duties despite nearly three months of conflict and a Katyusha rocket crashing into their compound: 50-odd foreign doctors and nurses assigned to the Nalut Central Hospital. Coming from as far afield as Ukraine, Pakistan, and North Korea, they have spent years caring for Libyans and have now chosen to stand alongside them despite the risks.
“After we are here for six or seven years, when it was good, when it gets bad we escape?” asks Dr. Hussein, a long-bearded doctor from Egypt, as if the thought never crossed his mind. “That does not say much for human character. It is not a shame to run away, but it is our duty to stay.”
“If all foreign doctors leave, who will treat the injured in Libya?” says another Egyptian, surgeon Mohammed Ibrahim Bhiey, who has spent two years in Nalut out of 12 practicing in Libya. “All of us are supporting each other.”
The foreign makeup of the staff at this vast – and today largely empty – regional hospital reflects that of Libya’s health system nationwide. With relatively few trained Libyan doctors and nurses, Colonel Qaddafi has paid foreigners and their governments with oil money to fill the gap. Their deployment took on new meaning when Libya’s uprising took hold in mid-February, sparking a civil conflict that divided the country east and west and created frequently bombarded rebel-enclaves like this one, which spans the 90-mile-long western mountains.
Above the main entrance of this hospital is a small printed sign that reads: “We are with the Libyan people wholeheartedly.”
'We treat both sides'
Through those doors in recent days have come five severely wounded pro-Qaddafi soldiers from the front line – their presence and life-saving treatment raising a commotion – along with four rebels wounded in the same battle.
“For us a patient is a patient; this is about medical ethics,” explains Dr. Mohammed Zahir, a Pakistani who has worked in Nalut for nine years. “Outside, he does what he does. Inside we relieve suffering. All blood is red.”
Adhering to such high values has not been easy, and is not for everyone. Staff here have not been paid for two months, since banks no longer function and sending Ministry of Health cash from Tripoli to rebel territory is a non-starter.
Perhaps one-third of the foreign hospital staff in Nalut left Libya as part of the exodus of hundreds of thousands of migrant workers – skilled and unskilled, who have built Libya and make it work – who fled Libya in the first weeks of violence.
And as the conflict and isolation has increased, with no end in sight, some wish they had gotten farther from harms way.
“Our country said we must leave, but if your place is safe you stay,” says Lorna Improgo, a nurse from the Philippines who has worked in Libya since 1991. The medical director in Nalut promised that if the situation deteriorated, he would guarantee their evacuation to Tunisia, 20 miles away as the crow flies.
“We hold onto this assurance only,” says Ms. Improgo. “He told us: ‘But now if you leave, then the hospital will close. We can’t work without you.’ ”