The road to recovery inside Libya's mountain hospital
- 20 July 2011
- From the section Africa
It is not hard to get to Nalut these days. The town is in the rebel-held Nafusa Mountains in western Libya, about 40km (25 miles) from the border with Tunisia.
We make a quick dash, once we have cleared Tunisian customs, through the empty town of Wazin on to the open road. We pass the risk of Gaddafi's "Grad" rockets that can come at you from the valley below.
Just outside Nalut we are waved through a rebel checkpoint, the men on guard lounging in plastic chairs under tarpaulins that ward off the fierce heat.
There is a pick-up truck with an anti-tank gun mounted and pointing for no apparent reason back down the highway we have just come up.
Nalut is like a ghost town. In the late afternoon sun a few cars drive by, but the houses are shuttered and empty, the shops and restaurants closed.
The men are off in the mountains. Sometimes they attack chaotically, sometimes they retreat in utter confusion. Most of the time they sit and watch.
The women, the children and the old folk are across the border in Tunisia where the heat in the desert is stifling. Here in this mountain town, the air is cooler.
I'm travelling with Saleyha Ahsan, a British doctor I first met in 1998, when she was a captain in the British Army and the first Muslim woman to graduate from Sandhurst.
When she left the army she went into medicine. Now in Libya she is volunteering with other doctors, most of them Libyans, helping refugees and the wounded from both sides of the conflict.
"I found on organisation online called Global Relief Libya - doctors organising themselves and getting involved," she says.
"I want to be part of this Arab Spring, even though I was born in Britain and my roots are in Pakistan and Afghanistan."
As we make our way to the hospital, the streets are virtually empty.
We drive past a newly painted wall with slogans in Arabic that say things like, "God is great and Nalut is free" and "For all dictators there is an end".
North Korean staff
The hospital is large, with 300 beds. It was built by Colonel Gaddafi as a showpiece, intended to underline how his efforts were benefiting the Libyan people.
Ironically he chose to staff it mainly with foreigners - Filipinos, Bangladeshis and, bizarrely, North Koreans.
The North Koreans are very wary of publicity, but Dr Ahsan has a natural ability to get people to talk.
They and the rest of the staff have not been paid, we are told, since November.
The rebel leaders from the National Transitional Council say they will be paid sometime. So they wait and tend to the wounded.
One day in June it was very busy here. A rebel attack on Gaddafi's forces backfired badly and 15 people were killed. Another 48 were injured. The more seriously wounded have been evacuated to hospitals in Tunisia, the others have been patched up and sent back to the front lines.
We walk down the halls with the locum doctor who happens to be Libyan. Our feet echo through empty halls. In all of this hospital there are only three patients.
Dr Ahsan has asked if she can examine them.
The patients are kept behind a locked door. The hospital staff say this is for security reasons but these three are not going anywhere - they were all fighting on the Gaddafi side.
All have suffered severe bullet wounds. One has lost a foot, another was wounded badly in an arm and a leg.
The third is a boy, no more than 16 years old. He lies in a freshly made bed with crisp, clean linen. His eyes catch you first. They are brown, very big, and full of sorrow.
He tells Dr Ahsan he had gone to a pro-Gaddafi rally in February from his home in the south of Libya. It probably seemed a bit of a lark at the time.
After the rally he was press ganged, he says, given a gun - but no training - and forced to join Gaddafi's soldiers at a checkpoint. In early June the rebels attacked the checkpoint. He was shot in the back and the leg and brought here.
Dr Ahsan examines his dressings. The boy complains of some pain.
She notes that he is dehydrated but overall is satisfied with the quality of care he is receiving. She asks the Libyan doctor to keep an eye on his fluid intake and recommends painkillers and physiotherapy.
When asked if his family knows where he is, the boy shakes his head and says "no".
He says, "When I get out of the hospital, I want to go home to my family."
But for now the war is grinding into a stalemate. Gaddafi cannot budge the rebels from their strongholds like Nalut.
But equally, the rebels, a rag-tag army of civilians, seem unable to advance toward Tripoli from the Nafusa Mountains. That is understandable - they are up against some of Gaddafi's best brigades.
So the North Korean nurses and the boy with sad eyes wait in the empty hospital in the deserted town of Nalut for the end of a war that seems set to continue through the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and into the autumn.
Dr Saleyha Ahsan is only working with the refugees and fighters there for a week but she is determined to return.
"I want to become another little link in that massive chain that has sprung out of the revolution."