Doctors describe carnage on front line in Libya
It was only after a long day of applying stitches, performing emergency surgeries and amputating limbs that had been torn apart by gunfire that the doctors took a moment to reflect on the brutality being waged against the people of Libya.
For two weeks, the Toronto-area doctors travelled from one overcrowded hospital in Libya to the next, using old equipment and outdated medicine to treat horrific wounds — but the morale of those on the front lines was always on their minds.
“Once we got to the hotel, that’s when we started crying and supporting each other. We are supposed to help the people who are living there. We can’t say this in front of them,” recalled Mahmoud Darrat, an anesthesiologist from Hamilton. “This trip was draining emotionally and mentally. It was exhausting for everybody because we did not expect this much damage.”
The four doctors left Canada on Feb. 27, and took the long journey from Cairo to Libya by car. They returned to Toronto on Saturday night, and gathered at the Hilton in downtown Toronto on Sunday to share what they witnessed.
“The casualties we’ve seen — you cannot imagine it. There were faces there but no head. These were civilians who were asking for rights,” said Abdalla Shamasi, a neurosurgeon from Windsor. “We’re talking about 14- and 16-year-olds with their head completely exploded. You cannot imagine the brutality of this regime.”
It’s been nearly a month since Libyans rose up against the 42-year rule of Moammar Gadhafi. Poorly-equipped civilians are up against Gadhafi’s navy, army and air force.
Shamasi described how Gadhafi’s forces were even using ambulances to attack wounded civilians.
“You have somebody who is wounded, and the ambulance comes, and out of the ambulance comes a person with a gun and finishes that,” Shamasi said.
Despite the daily deaths and crippling injuries, the doctors said Libyans maintained high hopes the dictator would soon be overthrown.
Fathi Abuzgaya, an orthopedic surgeon from Pickering, recalled an exchange with a 16-year-old boy, whose leg had to be amputated.
“We were trying to comfort him, saying how brave he was facing bullets at 16 and losing his leg, and he said, ‘For freedom I’ll lose the other one,’” an emotional Abuzgaya recalled.
It’s a common theme the doctors said they heard repeatedly from patients. Omar Bengezi, a plastic surgeon from Hamilton, described the fighting spirit of one injured man.
“He was bleeding from his abdomen. He told me, ‘Doctor, please suture me quickly. I want to go back to fight again for freedom,’” Bengezi said.
About 100 people crowded into the small hotel conference room and erupted into sporadic applause as they listened to the personal accounts. The praise was appreciated but misdirected, Abuzgaya said.
“We’ve been described as brave doctors, but the real brave people are really the people of Libya,” Abuzgaya said. “Most of all, I’ve seen hope of the people. They say, ‘We will not stop. We will either win or die.’”
The doctors said there’s a shortage of medical staff, supplies and space at hospitals across the country, and called on the international community for support.
“They’re not used to this kind of trauma. They’re not used to this kind of volume in these small hospitals. I don’t think they can handle this,” Darrat said.
The four doctors also joined the Arab League in asking the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone in Libya. The move would require a bombing campaign to destroy Gadhafi’s air defences.
Abuzgaya admitted there could be civilian casualties in such a campaign, but said the risk is necessary.
“If it happens — and sometimes it happens that some people are hit — that is not intentional. We know that the goal is to neutralize these missile defences,” Abuzgaya said. “The situation now is dire and it’s going to get worse. I don’t think they can do it alone.”