Libya conflict: Fearing massacre in Misrata

Inside the crowded Misrata hospital

Glancing around the hospital ward full of broken bodies, a weary Libyan surgeon gave his explanation of the conflict in the besieged city of Misrata.

"Gaddafi is hunting his own people," said Ramadan Atewah, a volunteer on leave from his hospital post in Britain. "He's trying to concentrate the shelling where there are groups of people."

In the overflowing wards of the main hospital that is how it looks.

The surgeon spent more than a week fighting to save the life of a toddler, injured with her sister. Their family was targeted as they tried to flee.

After the elder sister died, he promised the parents he would do everything possible to save their remaining daughter. His eyes filled with tears as he described how he lost that battle.

"We tried by every means I learnt in the past 20 years to save her life," he said.

"At one minute I was happy because I thought I am saving her. We fight together for the life for more than seven days, and sadly she left me alone."

Lacerated by shrapnel

During our visit, the intensive care unit was treating patients with multiple shrapnel injuries, including another young girl, a six-year-old called Arwa. She, like many others, was hit inside her own home. Her tiny body was punctured by 30 pieces of shrapnel.

Arwa moaned in pain as a surgeon examined her lacerated abdomen and lifted the dressing from a deep scar running right across her neck. Though her injuries are horrific, she is expected to make a full recovery.

But so many wounds on such a tiny body were a distressing sight - even for her surgeon.

"It's very hard," said Ahmed Radwan, a volunteer from Egypt. "I have a daughter her age, or a bit younger. Someone has to help, this is not humanitarian at all, what's happening here."

Asked if he felt let down by the international community, his reply was swift: "Definitely. People here have been left alone and no-one is helping, no-one is caring."

That is a common sentiment in Misrata, inside and outside the hospital.

Doctors told us most of those they see - like Arwa - have been wounded by heavy weapons including rockets and shells.

And they say 80% of those killed or injured in the city are civilians. One of the latest targets for Colonel Gaddafi's forces was a queue of people waiting for bread.

Hospital staff say 23 civilians were killed in that attack on Thursday morning when about 80 grad missiles hit a neighbourhood bordering Misrata's port. It was the most ferocious attack yet on the port area.

Five of the dead were Egyptians, who had been waiting for weeks for a ferry coming to evacuate migrant workers. The vessel arrived just a few hours after they were killed.

Dwindling supplies

The hospital is struggling to keep pace with the attacks. The emergency ward is a tent in the car park. Patients are rushed in and out to make way for new arrivals. Lights go on and off without warning, plunging surgeons into darkness.

Staff have asked us not to name the facility for fear of attack. They have already had to move hospital once.

Doctors say they are running short of supplies, beds and staff to treat the continuing flow of wounded.

"If anyone else arrives now, they'll have to be treated on the floor," said Dr Khalid Abufalgha, a member of Misrata's crisis committee.

"I have enough drugs for the moment but if things continue like this I can sustain things for only another two weeks to one month."

With so many urgent cases, he cannot help patients with chronic conditions.

"Cancer patients are dying," he said. "It's happening. There's no chemotherapy available."

And there are growing concerns about the security of the port. Medical supplies are coming ashore here but the heavy shelling has halted some ships, and raised fears that Col Gaddafi wants to cut this last link to the outside world.

Debris of war

Downtown we saw tell-tale signs of the fight for the city - empty streets, shelled homes and a burnt-out armoured personnel carrier.

We were told that Col Gaddafi's forces were dug in on two sides, no more than a kilometre away. One location was near a mosque. Dense black smoke filled the horizon nearby. The rebels thought, or hoped, that was the result of a Nato air strike.

At the corner of battle-scarred Benghazi Street we were introduced to a 16-year-old football fan called Youssef, who now spends his time gathering intelligence for the rebels. Older men identified him - with pride - as "the first one to volunteer for the frontline".

Before the revolution, the teenager's passions were his favourite teams - Barcelona and Manchester United.

Youssef, fresh-faced and polite, was matter-of-fact about his high-risk missions. "I go to scout at the front, and come back to give the guys information," he told me. "I'm not afraid, I go any time I want."

If this slight 16-year old can apparently pinpoint the location of the regime's fighters, why cannot Nato? Many locals insist the alliance knows perfectly well where they are, but has been reluctant to act robustly.

"We don't want to sound ungrateful but Nato really should finish the job, otherwise Gaddafi will have no mercy," said Mohammed Ali, a member of the rebel council and chairman of an investment company.

"After Nato took over, things really slumped."

The rebel leadership insists that Nato has been given up-to-date information on the whereabouts of Col Gaddafi's fighters.

"We've been sending photos and co-ordinates of their locations and information about their movements but they regard that as advisory," said Mr Ali.

Nato says Misrata is its "top priority" but, among civilians and rebels alike in this besieged city, there is a common question - how much longer will we have to wait?

"It really is a matter of life and death," said Mr Ali. "People have so much to fear. The massacre that was prevented in Benghazi could easily happen here."

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