‘Torn apart by bombs’: Inside Libya’s field hospitals

As wounded soldiers continue to pour in, doctors say they are struggling with shortages of staff and medical supplies.

Doctors perform an operation on an injured soldier from forces aligned with Libya''s new unity government at a field hospital in Sirte
Doctors perform an operation on an injured Libyan soldier at a field hospital in Sirte last month [Ismail Zitouny/Reuters]

Sirte, Libya – Every day around 5pm, the Libyan army bombs the Ouagadougou conference centre in central Sirte – the de facto Libyan headquarters for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group.

The area has been under siege by Misratan troops for two months, and for soldiers on the frontline, these bombings have become a daily ritual.

In nearby Zafran, which was liberated a few weeks ago, fighters stand in front of sand heaps that divide areas under their control from areas populated by snipers with ISIL (also known as ISIS). They await the sound of the bombs from Ouagadougou, and when they see the smoke rising on the horizon, they shout: “We want our Libya free.”

READ MORE: Who will take on ISIL in Libya?

Almost all of the Libyan soldiers aiming to oust ISIL from Sirte are from Misrata, a strategic city about 200km to the west. Many of these men are young and inexperienced in battle.

Since the start of the Sirte offensive in May, more than 200 soldiers have died, while hundreds more have been wounded.

Up until a few weeks ago, the main roundabout in Zafran was a site of carnage: It was here that ISIL fighters executed people, beheading them and hanging their bodies as a warning to other residents. But since the liberation of Zafran in June, the ISIL flag has been replaced by the Libyan one. 


Next to this roundabout is one of two local field hospitals for the war wounded. On a recent evening, ISIL attacked Zafran with mortars, sending several Libyan soldiers to hospital with shrapnel embedded in their arms, legs and chests.

Omar Hassa, 27, who leads the brigade in Zafran, suffered injuries to his leg and arm.

“In Misrata, there are too many women, mothers, sisters who are crying for this war; too many young girls who are already widows,” Hassa told Al Jazeera.

“Many of my men, even the youngest, five years ago fought against [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi, and today we are gathered here together again to fight a war in which we should be supported – but we do not feel supported enough,” he added. “We don’t have enough ammunition, and the boys are not sufficiently prepared to fight.”

After an attack in Sirte earlier this month killed at least 36 soldiers, Libyan flags in Misrata were brought to half-mast. Hassa said fighters were proud of their work, but the tactics employed by ISIL have made it an extremely difficult battle.

“This is a dangerous war. Their strategy is shots of mortars, suicide attacks, booby traps,” he said. ” I’m losing a lot of men who die trying to defuse the booby traps left everywhere by ISIL fighters.”

It's a dirty war. The enemies are ruthless and ready to die, and our soldiers know it. This is why they are more afraid.

by Sadek Mami, doctor

The two field hospitals in this area are equipped with blood supplies for emergencies. Here, the doctors are tasked with stabilising the wounded, so that they can stay alive long enough to be transported to Misrata. The field hospitals have dealt with an influx of wounded that, on the worst days, reached as high as 150 people, doctors say.

Every morning, a list of the names of the wounded is hung in front of each field hospital, because phones and other communication methods are unreliable in these frontline areas.

“Often we receive bodies that are impossible to identify; they are torn apart by bombs. For us, it’s heartbreaking, but we know that it is even more so to the relatives of the victims, who often have to wait days to get to know the fate of their sons,” Sadek Mami, one of the field hospital doctors, told Al Jazeera. “We have many problems here in the hospitals at the frontline.”

Of the 10 or so doctors who work at Mami’s hospital, most are still students, he said. In addition, the hospital faces shortages of critical surgical supplies, which may prevent soldiers from getting the emergency treatment they need.

“It’s a dirty war,” he said. “The enemies are ruthless and ready to die, and our soldiers know it. This is why they are more afraid.”

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Treatment in Misrata’s central hospital is not always enough, either. Out front, like at the field hospitals, is a list of names of wounded soldiers. Stretchers are scattered throughout the hospital, even in the waiting room.

One doctor who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity said the hospital lacked sufficient staff and medicines, with even basic antibiotics often unavailable. “Also, we face the torment of many – too many – amputations,” he said, citing precision shots by ISIL snipers. “It’s a great sorrow for us to see our young people in these conditions.”

Mohamed Mohrog, an 18-year-old soldier who was taken to the Misrata hospital after a car bomb attack in Zafran, had to undergo an operation to remove pieces of shrapnel from his legs.

“It was early morning when we were hit. I just remember a loud noise and blood everywhere, and my comrades around [were] injured too,” Mohrog told Al Jazeera.

“But I want to get back on my feet and return to combat.”

Source: Al Jazeera