The Ibn Sina hospital offers a glimpse into the desperation in Sirte, home town of fugitive former leader Moammar Gaddafi. Although the autocratic ruler was toppled in August and the world has recognized a new, pro-democracy government, the war isn’t over. Some of the fiercest fighting in the eight-month conflict has been unfolding in recent weeks in this coastal city.
Interim government commanders said late Sunday that the other major Gaddafi holdout, the smaller city of Bani Walid, had fallen. In Tripoli, the capital, bulldozers set to work Sunday tearing down the walls of Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound — one of the most potent symbols of his reign.
But explosions continued to ring out in Sirte, where anti-Gaddafi forces are using tanks, artillery and mortars to smash their way into an area of the city center where loyalists are holed up and defending themselves with small-arms fire. Most of the city’s roughly 100,000 residents have been forced to flee.
For several days this month, the Ibn Sina hospital — one of Libya’s finest medical institutions — became a front line in the battle for Sirte. Outsiders gaining access to it in recent days have found operating rooms in ruins. Shattered glass twinkles like loose diamonds on windowsills. Skylights are blown out, and flies buzz around patients.
A handful of Sirte’s doctors and nurses managed to hang on through a fierce rebel bombardment in which the water supply failed and the building was raked with gunfire and artillery. When international medical teams arrived, they found the hospital’s personnel “completely burned out, confused, tired, not able to do their proper job,” said Gabriele Rossi, emergency coordinator in the city for Doctors Without Borders.
On Sunday, they were still struggling to take care of two dozen patients when the water again went out.
“Our problem, always,” sighed Abdullah Etbiga, a doctor who has not gone home for three weeks, as he sat in the hospital’s lobby. “Water, water, water.”
Libyan medical personnel started fleeing the hospital after the battle of Sirte began in mid-September. But not Etbiga.
“Everyone was afraid, but what can I do? I said, ‘I will stay with the patients,’ ” said the 40-year-old surgeon, who is unmarried. He rustled up food from the cafeteria and wondered if his siblings in Sirte were still alive.
Even before the fighting began, the hospital’s staff had noticed an ominous sign: Gaddafi had moved military forces, some from Tripoli, into vacant, brand-new buildings that belonged to the medical facility.
On Oct. 1, a young woman was in her brother’s hospital room changing his dressing when the first shell struck, recalled Maria Cristina Cruz, a nurse from the Philippines. “It hit here”— the nurse pointed to her stomach — blowing the woman apart.