Doctors reveal hospital horrors under Gaddafi

Staff at Tripoli hospital tell how they set up clandestine clinics to treat wounded during Libya's uprising.

    Hundreds of missing person photos line the corridor walls of Tripoli Central Hospital

    Little of the sprawling complex of Tripoli Central Hospital reminds its visitors of the hardships that took place there during the final months of Muammar Gaddafi's regime.

    As staff members slowly return to their normal routines, hair-raising stories are emerging of what the doctors of the hospital have endured since the start of Libya's uprising in February.

    Shortly after the first demonstrations in Tripoli were brutally dispersed by Gaddafi's army, the hospital was taken over by government troops, forcing doctors to report patients who came in with bullet wounds, doctors told Al Jazeera.

    Many patients suspected of being anti-Gaddafi were taken away and have not been found since.

    Evading the terror in the hospital corridors, a group of doctors affiliated with the hospital were said to have set up a network of secret field clinics throughout Tripoli, away from the eyes of security forces.

    Private homes, schools and other buildings were converted into makeshift operating theatres, supplied with medical equipment that the doctors smuggled out of the hospital's storage rooms.

    It was, according to the doctors, a dangerous undertaking, as stealing equipment from the hospital was sanctioned by severe punishment if discovered.

    "We were undercover doctors," Noureddine Hassan Aribi, a vascular surgeon who was recently appointed as the hospital's director, recalls when asked about the days when it all started.

    "It was a nightmare. There were horrible injuries. My colleagues and I treated many people in houses in the neighbourhood of this hospital. If the wounds were too complicated, we'd take them to a private clinic. We removed bullets and stabilised fractures, using primitive tools such a planks of wood and pieces of metal.

    "We created 24 secret field hospitals all over Tripoli. Some of the doctors were caught by Gaddafi's forces and were taken to prison. At least one of them was killed and another one is still missing," doctor Aribi told Al Jazeera.

    Gaddafi's adopted daughter

    All the while life at the hospital had to continue as normally as possible, so as not to raise suspicions. That task was made all the more difficult by the presence of one particular surgeon in the hospital: Hana Gaddafi, the adopted daughter of the former Libyan leader.

    Muammar Gaddafi once claimed that Hana had died in the 1986 US bombing of Tripoli. In fact, she finished medical school in Tripoli some years ago and recently started her second year as a general surgeon at the Central Hospital.

    Her presence put extra pressure on the medical staff because none of the clandestine activities could be discussed in front of her.

    "In the period before the uprising, Hana was doing a good job and she didn't bother anyone. But when the revolution started she showed the ugly face of the Gaddafi family. She started telling colleagues not to treat patients who were anti-Gaddafi, whom she called 'rats'," Aribi said.

    During the last two days of Gaddafi's rule in August, the hospital was completely overrun by Gaddafi's troops, who demanded care for their wounded comrades. However, most of the doctors had agreed among each other to stay away from the hospital and only work in the neighbourhood's field hospitals.

    After August 20, fighters of the National Transitional Council (NTC) who had taken over the city had taken a cardboard portrait of Gaddafi off the wall in the hospital and laid it on the entrance floor for people to tread on as a sign of disrespect for the former Libyan leader.

    Some nurses refused to step on his portrait, which led to heated arguments with the NTC guards at the hospital entrance. Some nurses even left the hospital because of threats made over their perceived allegiance to the old regime.

    "I too do not like to step on his portrait," Sahar, a fifth-year medical student and practitioner at the hospital, said. "I pity Gaddafi and I still feel compassion for him. The NTC cannot force me to do anything."

    Normality returns

    Today, a sense of normality has returned to the Tripoli Central Hospital.

    The old pro-Gaddafi director disappeared shortly after the fall of the regime and was replaced by a board of five doctors, headed by Aribi.

    There is adequate medical equipment and the supplies are reasonable, doctors told Al Jazeera. The only thing that still reminds visitors of the revolution are the hundreds of 'missing person photos taped to the corridor walls by desperate friends and family members.

    Now that Gaddafi and his regime have gone, people visit the hospital to look for missing friends or family members in a grim database of photos of unidentified bodies that were taken to the morgue.

    Many protesters, who were killed during the six-month crackdown, were secretly buried by family members without official procedures, for fear of retribution by the security forces.

    As such, families of the deceased did not receive a death certificate that is needed to claim government compensation.

    "Only now I dare to come here and tell the people at the morgue that I need a death certificate for my brother-in law," Abdullah Hassan, a teacher from Tripoli, said.

    Hassan says his brother-in-law was shot dead by Gaddafi's troops during a demonstration in February and was buried in the garden of his own house.

    According to Aribi, the Libyan healthcare system was in a constant state of crisis during the Gaddafi era.

    "Gaddafi was anti-institution. That was his system, his philosophy. He thought that if he would destroy the institutions there would be no strong, organised opposition against his rule.

    "A drastic change of mentality is needed from people who were conditioned to mistrust institutions and mistrust the government, as the whole system was built on corruption. People need to become aware that the new Libya will be for the Libyans, and not for Gaddafi," Aribi said.

    Even so, Aribi is optimistic about the future of his country.

    "We have the will, the knowledge and the skills to improve things. It just takes a lot of hard work."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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