28 Dec 2011

The battle for normality in Tripoli’s streets and hospitals

After a year of major change in Libya, a doctor and filmmaker based in Tripoli writes for Channel 4 News on the daily challenges in hospital and on the streets around the city.

The battle for normality in Tripoli's streets and hospitals. (Getty)

Tripoli certainly looks like it is getting back to normal but there is an uneasy calm. The security situation remains uncertain. Libya‘s security capabilities are still largely under-developed, writes Saleyha Ahsan.

The interim government and National Transitional Council (NTC) exert little control over the rival militias that continue to operate inside Tripoli. The NTC under Mustapha Abdul Jalil has implemented a plan to incorporate militia into state security forces – such as the National Army and the National Security – thus providing jobs, training and ensuring discipline and accountability. And certainly by day things do look better.

Young men in green army fatigues bravely stand in amongst the traffic chaos, exerting feisty command and control that make even the most inconsiderate of drivers think twice before making that selfish manoeuvre. Refuse trucks line up to clear the streets of rubbish, the harbour is back in business as ferries sail in and out and shops resume normal services.

The price of food certainly is higher than pre-revolution days. It almost doubled during the war and remained high after liberation. The only thing that remains stable price-wise is petrol. Drivers can still get a full tank for 6LYD – about £3 – but that is hardly surprisingly in this oil-drenched country.

Life in Tripoli's hospitals after Gaddafi. (Getty)

By night things are different matter. Checkpoints with armed men are set up all over town. Some of them are in uniforms with recognisable logos – and others are not. Hospital emergency rooms continue to receive gunshot wounds. A lack of effective security is having disruptive consequences. Local doctors took matters into their own hands by shutting down their hospital for ten days.

Staff at the central hospital had their first day back at work this week after ending strike action. It followed an incident where local armed militia broke into the office of Professor Nureddin Aribi – the hospital director. They forced him out of the hospital at gunpoint and briefly detained him. Colonel Mustafa Al Tir – the Ministry of the Interior’s spokesperson- describes the incident as a “misunderstanding”. Professor Nuradeen has not been contactable since his release.

“The strike was called by the junior doctors-no consultants were involved,” explained an orthopaedic registrar. “The problem is now solved and we are going back to work-but we will see how it goes.”

One reported incident describes a gunman even entering the operating theatre.

He along with nine middle grade doctors on the strike committee refused to give their names. Such is the desire to move away from “dictatorship”, that the culture has swung into anonymously led consensus groups.

Central hospital – the second largest and oldest trauma hospital in Tripoli – has had security problems since the August liberation of Tripoli. Last month doctors walked out when intern, Dr Mohamed Baruni, was attacked by local armed militias, on hospital grounds. He had been trying to protect a female colleague from armed militia, insisting she end her break and go back inside to work. The attack was filmed on a mobile phone and posted on Facebook.

“I can’t meet you at the hospital – I don’t feel safe there,” explained Dr Baruni soon after that attack. He said that the local armed men responsible for the attacks were not people the doctors’ recognised as the fighters who protected the hospital during the war.

In the early days of the revolution Colonel Gaddafi had released a large number of prisoners with criminal backgrounds. Many of these people are still out there on the streets, I am told by Hussam Zaggar – spokesperson for the Tripoli local council. A widely-used explanation for attacks on hospital staff is that former prisoners now are involved in guarding establishments like hospitals. The militia on the gates refused to speak to me, so verifying such accusations is difficult.

After the first strike following Dr Baruni’s attack, improved security was promised but armed local militia continued to interfere with doctors’ work. One reported incident describes a gunman even entering the operating theatre.

Professor Nuradeen at the time was publicly calling for better effective security. Following this he was himself attacked. Now a new plan has been proposed together by the Ministries of Health and the Interior. National Security and Thawaar – fighters from the revolution – will guard the hospital.

“No guns will be allowed inside the hospital at all,” warned Colonel Mostafa. Certainly going to the hospital on the day the strike was lifted – guards dressed in blue National Security uniforms stood at the entrance. The previous mixed combat dressed local militia were gone.

Tripoli local council have responded to such incidents with the launch of the “Libya-Law and Government” campaign – calling for improved security in Tripoli.

We want to shame people who carry guns, to make them feel like smokers who smoke in non-smoking zones. Dr Hatem Abubaker

“The TLC acted as intermediaries pushing the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Health to fix this,” explained Hussam Zagaar. The TLC does not have authority to deploy police but they have worked behind the scenes to encourage those that do to act.

Security is failing in other areas too, with tragic consequences. Last week, Mohamed Al Ghosbi, 37, was killed by gunmen as he sat in his car. The armed militia wanted his car – a 4 x 4 Pathfinder. Ironically he was shot yards away from the entrance of the Tripoli Medical Centre-the city’s largest hospital. He couldn’t be saved and he leaves a wife and ten month old son.

His friend Dr Hatem Abubaker, 38, describes him as “a quiet, gentle man who loved to play the guitar”.

Dr Abubaker and some of his colleagues from the Free Generation Movement group – which took breathtaking risks to propagate a message of resistance during the revolution in Tripoli are now working on a month old “no-gun” campaign. Currently it involves distributing 5,000 posters across Tripoli.

Read more from Channel 4 News: Gaddafi's gone - but what next for Libya?

“We want to shame people who carry guns, to make them feel like smokers who smoke in non-smoking zones.”

Mohamed’s death was the third in the last ten days – where armed men have shot civilians in Tripoli.

Colonel Al Tir finishes with the promise that “in two weeks everything will be sorted with no more guns on the street”.

Returning from his friend’s funeral, Dr Abubaker is driven to make this a reality.

“When I started this campaign, it was a general thing-now it has become personal. Mohamed was my close friend.”

Saleyha Ahsan is a filmmaker, freelance journalist and practising medical doctor.