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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.

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“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.”

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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.’ ”

And after so many years working in Libya, the Filipina nurse – one of 10 at this hospital – can’t complement enough the Libyans she knows. “They are good people, very very good,” she says of those she has worked with for three decades. “We are in the middle – we treat both sides.”

“I want a peaceful Libya,” says another Bangladeshi nurse, Sahetaj Khanom, who wears an aquamarine hospital gown and hair cover as her shift begins. “But nobody knows when it is finished, this war.”

Inescapable war

Which is why some are wondering how their quiet, pre-uprising posting to the relatively obscure town of Nalut has turned into what, on some days, now appears to be a combat deployment. A Katyusha rocket fired by pro-Qaddafi forces last Thursday landed inside the hospital compound, less than 50 yards from staff housing – one of half-a-dozen that landed that evening.

“I was afraid too much!” recalls Bangladeshi nurse Usha Barai of the blast that burst in her windows. “Suddenly, ‘Boom, boom!’ I fell down and I cried.”

Space has since been made for living in the reinforced basement of the hospital itself, with one door listing the “Filipina Group” and others. Many have moved from their unprotected apartments where they maintain vegetable gardens and usually spend their free time.

But the conflict has been inescapable. “Our life is very painful,” says Ms. Barai. “We love people, but it is very hard. In front of my eyes, I have seen a lot of people die. I want to go. My family is also crying.”

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