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Unseen mental scars of war descend upon Libyan community in the opposition east

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BENGHAZI, Libya — Thuraya is convinced she’s a political leader and a mother.

Neither is true: Since the 24-year-old’s home came under fire and forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi overran her town, she is no longer aware that she isn’t married, has no children and lives at home with her parents.

Doctors at the Benghazi psychiatric hospital, where she has been committed, say she has detached herself from reality to deal with the fear and stress caused by the fight between Gaddafi’s forces and rebels that has torn Libya apart.

It is easy to see the bloody wounds of those injured in attacks in the besieged western city of Misurata and on the eastern front line, but at this sprawling hospital the invisible mental scars run deep and will continue to grow, psychiatrists say.

The psychiatric hospital is already strapped trying to deal with the mental stress of those living in this city, which is the de facto capital of the rebel-held east, according to Ali el-Roey, the hospital’s chief.

But its psychologists must also travel throughout the east, from the frontline city of Ajdabiya to as far as the Egyptian border. Across the region, children are dealing with night terrors and bed-wetting, and others develop acute stress disorders, Roey said.

Libyan State Television, run by Gaddafi and his loyalists, has proved an effective psychological weapon. It often reports that Gaddafi’s forces are heading to the east to kill the opposition. People get text messages with one-word threats: “Soon.”

“The state television keeps saying that they are coming to kill us,” Roey said. “It’s psychological war, and it’s having a terrible impact on the people. . . . I hope this bloodshed stops soon.”

With the increase of patients who have been psychologically scarred by the past two months of attacks, the hospital is quickly running out of medications and there are not enough doctors. Foreign workers — including nurses, doctors, and cleaning and maintenance staff — have fled.

“We don’t have experience with such an atmosphere of war and guns everywhere,” said Abdel Aziz el-Neihuom, a psychiatrist at the hospital. “We have acute shortages of nurses and doctors. Many have abandoned ship.”

In the pharmacy, he searched through the dwindling supplies of medication. Sedatives and antidepressants are running out.

On the grounds of the hospital the walls are tagged with graffiti: “Free Libya.” But the cost of that quest is scattered throughout the wards, where patients look out from behind the barred windows.

Fatma, 42, suffers from bipolar disorder. She had been stable for more than a decade. When Gaddafi loyalists took over her home town of Ajdabiya, she fled with her five children. When they cried, she could not take care of them — she was debilitated by fear.

For weeks she has been in one of the women’s wards, heavily medicated. Fatma and other patients asked not to be identified by their last names, because of the stigma that is still attached to mental-health issues in Libya.

“I can’t control myself,” Fatma said.

Thuraya is in the same ward. Her mother, Rajaa, stays with her here. They cannot go back to their home town of Bin Jawwad, because it is in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists.

Rajaa brought her daughter to the hospital last month when she wouldn’t stop screaming.

“She was scared,” her mother said quietly. “Before, she was a normal student.”

“I'm not scared,” her daughter replied. “I’m a political figure, and I’m demanding to be released.”

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