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  • Writer's picturekwankew

From Malta to Tripoli

Saying my farewell in the wee hours of the morning to lovely Malta, we boarded the UNHAS (UN Humanitarian Air Service) plane with 50 or so members of various NGO's to Tripoli. Some were heading towards Benghazi in different capacities.

Before leaving for Libya we had to take the International Medical Corps' (IMC) 4 to 6-hour online course on security and score a 100% on the examination, otherwise one had to review the different scenarios again and retake the exam. Medical Teams International (MTI) is collaborating with IMC to provide medical services for the internally displaced people (IDP).

Tripoli from the plane was miles upon miles of pale yellow flat-topped buildings with a moderate array of high rises. As we drove through the streets of Tripoli, graffitis in Arabic and occasional French and English were scrawled over the walls: Revolution Feb 17, Freedom or Free Libya, Gaddafi go to hell; pictures of Gaddafi in various poses of humiliations and indignities, fleeing with bags in hands, being punched in the face and Libyan flags were everywhere, flying from cars, buildings and painted on the walls: red, black and green with star and crescent in the center. We saw remnants of road blocks: spare tires, concrete blocks, sand bags. Some road blocks were unmanned and the ones that were guarded were manned by men toting AK-47; some in fatigue but many in civilian clothing and trucks with anti-aircraft artillery.

We drove through streets where the fighting did not happen in the war so we saw little destruction.

We stopped briefly in the IMC office in Tripoli where the seemed to be a whole lot of confusion among the IMC personnel where they were to send us. They were even surprised at our arrival. It was also the day when the old country director was eagerly preparing to leave for US and the new country director from Croatia who happened to be on the same plane with us was just arriving. He had not been briefed. When we told the IMC personnel in Tripoli that MTI had the notion that we would be sent to Sahba in the desert area, south of Tripoli, one of the Tripoli personnel glibly said, "They want you to be killed!" Apparently it is still fluid and dangerous in the field hospital there.

Unfortunately with the confusion and changing of the guards, we felt somewhat put-off and unwanted. There was to be a security briefing when we got to Tripoli and that never took place. After some to and fro, it was decided that we would be sent to Al Zintan to make assessment of the four to five clinics there, the goal is to eventually establish a comprehensive clinic which would include maternity service. If and when we are no longer needed there, they may send us to other places. Right now, active fighting continues in Bena Wali and the birth-place of Gaddafi--Sirte, to the east of Tripoli.

We were driven south-west for 3 hours to Al Zintan in the Nafusa Mountains. We were also told that the staff there was aware of our coming but that we were to call them when we were two-thirds on the way there. On our way we saw a cavalcade of 4x4's with men and anti-aircraft artillery- a victory parade of sort honking down the street flashing victory signs. We passed a military base where Karim, our driver told us Gaddafi tortured the Libyans. When Tripoli fell, there were no signs of Gaddafi's men. Several buildings on the street were partially burnt and riddled with bullet holes: the hide-outs of Gaddafi forces. One was completely destroyed by NATO bombings and reduced to bent metals and concrete rubble. Parts of the roads were filled with shallow potholes from air bombing. There were many more road-blocks with men toting AK-47, stopping us and asking questions. IMC signs are prominently displayed on the front of the land cruiser and on the driver's side to enable us to pass check points more efficiently. Tripoli was taken over by the rebels in two weeks and the destruction here was much less compared to Misurata. Life however seems to have returned to Tripoli; some shops were opened and we were able to change money and buy some food.

We stopped in front of a tank on which was scrawled "Gaddafi's Killing Machine". Locals stood on top of the tank posing with victory signs. An enthusiastic young Libyan pulled me up the tank and I stood up there flashing my victory signs. They offered us dates and grapes. Passengers in passing cars honked, smiled and waved victory signs at us, all seemed happy and friendly. A young man fired into the dry vast desert terrain from an anti-aircraft artillery, he was being trained to use it.

Al Zintan is situated in the western mountains. Gaddafi's men were defeated because the locals here knew the terrain better than his men.

Arriving late in the day in Al Zintan, Lotfi, a Tunisian ER nurse showed us around the hospital. He spoke mainly Arabic and French with very little English. I did not think he showed us the entire hospital. We passed quickly through the ER with separate sections for women and men, the CT scanner, pharmacy, x-ray rooms and an empty 3-bed ICU. Many of the medical personnel here are from Tunisia where the first revolutionary wave of the Arab Spring started. They are very sympathetic to the cause of the rebels. In the evening we met with the clinical coordinator and the logistician in charge of security, again we had the distinct feeling that they did not know why we were sent to the mountains where they were either assessing the needs for clinics or closing some of the clinical services which are now being covered by other NGOs.

The citizens of Al Zintan prided themselves on their refusal of Gaddafi's offer of 100,000 dinars per person for not fighting against him. The city itself was dusty, all yellow and brown with sparse vegetation. The few women seen on the streets were covered from head to toe in long dark dresses and hijab or head scarves. Most women were driven in cars. This is a post-war area and things have calmed down, perhaps they will now need a long-term healthcare setting, although occasional injuries are incurred through firearms used by civilians left over by the rebels.

At first we were told that we should not go out without the escort of a man and to take as few trips as possible to and from the hospital but this rule was relaxed or abandoned because most men were busy and eventually we went out on our own. One morning I even managed to work in a run in the back roads meeting several camels fenced in a back-yard.

We had a cook who prepared lunch and dinner for us, mainly goat meat and sometimes entrails with spaghetti which was not very appetizing. One afternoon I walked into the kitchen and was startled by a sad-looking goat's head left by the sink to be used later in a stew!

Throughout the night we heard artillery fire, some very close to our building, making our sleep very fitful. We were told the Libyans were firing their victory volleys. After a while the firing became a normal background noise for us.

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