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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.

By Staff writer / May 5, 2011

Foreign doctors and nurses at the Nalut Central Hospital, among them Egyptian surgeon Mohammed Ibrahim Bhiey (center-right, arms clasped), continue working alongside Libyans in solidarity with the Libyan people though anti-government rebels have been in control for 2 1/2 months in Nalut, western Libya, on May 3.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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Nalut, Libya

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.

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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.

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