Sunday, September 4, 2011

UK doctors and aid workers: 'Why we're helping in Libya'

Khaled is originally from Benghazi but has been in the UK for 16 years. He lives in west Yorkshire with his wife and four children and works as an orthopaedic surgeon.

He felt compelled to help when the uprising began and has visited Libya three times since then to deliver aid and work in local hospitals. He hopes to be in Tripoli next week.

Khaled found facilities at hospitals in Misrata very basic and says they are badly-equipped to deal with the number of casualties and rely on outside help.

He was in the coastal town of Zlitan when the rebels took control on 19 August.

"We had a lot of casualties, at least 150, and 35 dead," he says. "For three or four days we were working day and night."

One case in particular stands out.

"A young chap came in with his arm literally hanging off. He was in a queue of people waiting to be seen and when we came to him and tried to put dressing on he said to me 'I'm fine, just go and check on the others'. I said 'You're not fine' [and treated him]...

"It tells you about the bravery of these guys and their determination and character."

Khaled was due to return home on Sunday but the ship taking him to Malta returned to port as the rebels began to make their final advance to Tripoli.

"We were asked to deliver 50 boxes of medical aid and food supplies to Tripoli," says Khaled. "None of us wanted to refuse to help because we thought 'This is why we're here'."

And then much to his surprise, a group of rebels arrived carrying weapons and machine guns.

"There were at least 150 of them and they said 'Look guys, we need your help... Will you take us?'

"The youngest was 16 and the commander was only 40. We spent hours talking and realised they didn't have any medical training - so we gave them a first-aid course."

It was not thought safe to dock at Tripoli so a few miles out, speedboats turned up to take the rebels on the final leg of their journey.

Khaled's ship eventually reached port and he dropped off the aid and supplies, an experience he describes as "scary but incredible" amid the fighting.

Meanwhile, he describes the medical facilities in the Libyan capital as "dire".

"Most hospitals were closed because of the continuous fighting and it was a difficult situation to assess but we were told by doctors inside... that there were no doctors and no basic medicine."

Sarah O'Neill, 37, doctor, Medecins Sans Frontieres

Since arriving in Misrata a week ago, Sarah, who had never worked in a conflict zone before coming to Libya, has seen more than her fair share of serious injuries.

The main fighting may have moved away from the city, in north western Libya, but there is still a steady stream of casualties, coming in from Tripoli, about 120 miles (193 km) away.

"I've been treating conflict injuries, such as blast injuries, gunshot wounds as well as dirty, open wounds which take time to heal," said Sarah, who is from Manchester.

"It's pretty much been young men who have been involved in the fighting - about 16 or 17 is the youngest, through to people in their 20s and 30s."

Recalling one patient who'd been in the Gaddafi compound, she says: "He came in with an abdominal injury, a broken femur and about eight or nine bullet wounds.

"It was a case that touched me. He was just a young, 17-year-old lad, full of bravado and both his friends he was with in the compound were killed."

But working for a humanitarian organisation like Medecins Sans Frontieres, Sarah says her focus is on treating the injured, no matter what their background.

"We treated a chap whose leg we had to amputate, and he was left very traumatised," she said.

"He was a member of the pro-Gaddafi forces, but I work for a neutral organisation, so it's about treating combatants from both sides."

Sarah, who has come to Libya from working in Nigeria, expects to remain in the country until mid September.

And she says Misrata seems "surprisingly normal".

"There has only been one incident where we had to take cover since I've been here, but you never quite know when something might flare up," she said.

Jenny Humphreys, 35, project advisor, Save the Children

For Jenny, the journey to Libya has been a baptism of fire; she only joined Save the Children last year, having switched to aid work from her job as a recruitment consultant.

She is among a team of eight from the charity working with about 16 local staff in the second-largest city of Benghazi. She expects to move to the capital Tripoli in the coming weeks

Jenny, from south London, says there have been several security scares, including a car bomb outside Benghazi's Tibesty hotel in June and unrest following the killing of the military commander of the Libyan rebels, General Abdel Fattah Younes, in July.

At times like this, aid workers can face anxious waits inside their living quarters for up to 24 hours.

"It's incredibly long hours and hard work in difficult circumstances. We often have no power throughout the day and the internet fails on a regular basis - all of that adds up.

"But you are so energised in the work that you forget about where you are and the dangers."

She works with families who have fled the centres of conflict in Misrata, Brega and Ajdabiya. Some live in university halls, while others are housed in accommodation meant for migrant workers who fled the area when the uprising began.

Save the Children programmes target education, child protection and health. Aid workers run games and activities to try to reach traumatised youngsters through play, singing, music or art.

Many youngsters now in Benghazi have seen their homes and neighbourhoods destroyed and watched as sons, brothers and fathers go off to war, says Jenny.

"We have seen that children are initially drawing pictures of battles, violence, weapons - and over time, a few weeks or so, these pictures become less violent and focus on normal childhood scenes, such as families, homes and seaside scenes," she adds.

The team trains community members - teachers, social workers and volunteers - to recognise symptoms of distress in children, and to be able to explain that these feelings are natural.

"We're hearing stories talking about children having terrifying nightmares and screaming in the night. Some children have separation anxiety because they can't bear to be apart from their parents."

Jenny says there is a now a sense in Benghazi that life is returning to normal.

"The wonderful thing about Libya, and certainly Benghazi, is that the community spirit and the desire to reach out and help everybody is so strong," she says.