TRIPOLI, Libya — The elevators at Tripoli Medical Hospital don’t stop on six anymore. Take the stairs to the sixth floor and you are immediately confronted by three men in desert camouflage, each carrying a Kalashnikov.
The men, fresh from the front lines of the Libyan revolution, guard their wounded enemies at the municipal hospital — rooms full of regulars from Moammar Gaddafi’s army as well as African fighters the dictator had paid to fight against his own people before he was deposed and killed.
Only Gaddafi loyalists lie in wards on the sixth floor, but the revolutionary fighters who patrol Libya’s streets are determined to ensure the safety and rehabilitation — both physical and political — of the men who shot at them just three months ago.
Free medical care and a promise of a return home — a date in court awaits only those who stand accused of having tortured or killed their countrymen in the years prior to this revolution — may eventually persuade some loyalists to see good in the people Gaddafi called “rats.” But for now, divisions run deep in the land most people are calling “Free Libya.”
Three pins hold Ali Abdullah al-Ati’s left leg in place. The 28-year-old soldier, from a village in Libya’s mountainous west, blames not Gaddafi, whose harsh justice system kept him in prisons for nearly half his life for fighting with a rival tribe. He blames the revolutionaries who plan to take him to Tunisia for a bone replacement that Libyan medicine cannot handle.
“All my tribe is pro-Gaddafi,” Ati said. “When the rebels came to our village, we fought them in the street.” Shot in the leg, he couldn’t keep up with his tribesmen when they were pushed back from their home town. The revolutionaries captured him and took him to a hospital.
Although he is quick to praise his captors for the medical care, Ati said he is the target of cutting comments and veiled threats from the revolutionaries who watch over him. “I don’t have a chance of a future,” he said. “Like this, without a leg I can use, I’m almost dead. Maybe the rebels will deal with us with wisdom, but we didn’t have to go through this. They could have left things alone.”
Ati stares through the hospital’s filthy windows at Tripoli’s alluring landscape of tropical white buildings. Maybe he was on the wrong side of history, but really, he never minded the eccentric, brutal man who ruled Libya for 42 years.
“Gaddafi, okay, maybe he wasn’t top quality, but I’m okay with him,” Ati said. “We just want peace and security, with or without him. We never wanted change — it’s too much. Now, if I get out of here, people will look at me like I’m a rat.”
Actually, that’s precisely what the revolutionaries want to avoid, said Saleh al-Hadi Fikrine, commander of the brigade at the hospital and a member of the interim government’s Supreme Security Committee: “If he’s still for Gaddafi, that’s okay. We did this revolution for freedom, and that means we have to let people have their opinions. Our belief is that if we treat them well, that will eventually persuade them that this is a good revolution.”
In separate interviews, the commander, patients and guards on the ward all said that the revolutionaries make no effort to debate politics with Ati or other wounded loyalists.
The former Gaddafi forces are kept on a guarded, separated unit to protect them from other Libyans who may not yet have come to terms with the idea that the people who shot at them a few months ago must now be reabsorbed into society as fellow citizens. The hospital turns out to be a deeply divided place, where many doctors were long considered suspect because they were known to be critical of Gaddafi, while most nurses were so strongly pro-Gaddafi that they often informed on doctors to the dictator’s feared internal security force.
During the revolution, when several nurses saw a pediatrician at the hospital tear up a poster of Gaddafi, they collected a pay bonus for reporting the incident to the secret police, according to Salah Kashedan, a pediatric cardiologist, and a security official at the hospital. The doctor who tore the poster was arrested and found dead in a Gaddafi prison a few weeks later.
Now, relations among the medical staff are slowly improving, doctors said. “We forgive the nurses,” Kashedan said. “They’re Libyans like us, just not educated. Before, we couldn’t talk to them because they would report us. Now, we can convince them, and some of them didn’t need much convincing: The same nurses who were putting up pictures of Gaddafi one day came to work on the day after liberation wearing the new Libyan flag.”
Like the nurses, soldiers who fought for Gaddafi should be forgiven, said hospital security supervisor Kamal al-Anquodi, because they knew no reality but that created by the man whose face appeared on Libya’s money, in schools, on buildings, and even on the wristwatches many wore.
“Gaddafi gave the soldiers cars, money and arms, and they felt important,” Anquodi said. “Most of them didn’t even have a sixth-grade education. This is all they knew.”
The commander of the hospital guards said the decision to treat pro-Gaddafi forces with respect came easily to him, because he spent 26 years in Gaddafi’s army before defecting to the rebel side nine months ago.
“Twenty-six years,” Fikrine said. “You can view it two ways — if I was working for Gaddafi, then my whole life was wasted. But I tried to think of it as working for Libya. Well, now I have to admit that I am only 5 years old, because the calendar says I am 47, but I have to erase the 42 years of Gaddafi. Not so easy.”