Saleyha Ahsan

Militia Presence in Tripoli Hospitals Alarms Doctors

Posted by Saleyha Ahsan on 21 December 2011 | 0 Comments

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Doctors in Tripoli are increasingly concerned about the presence of armed militiamen in hospitals, says Dr Saleyha Ahsan, freelance journalist and a British physician who volunteered to work in the Libyan capital. 

On Tuesday, staff at the Central Hospital, on Zawiya Street in Tripoli, went back to work after a 10-day strike.

The strike was called after local militiamen broke into the office of Professor Nureddin Aribi, the hospital's director, forced him out at gunpoint, and briefly detained him.

Prof Aribi has been unavailable for comment since being released.

An interior ministry spokesman, Col Mustafa al-Tir, described the incident as a "misunderstanding".

An orthopaedic registrar told me that the strike was called by junior doctors at the hospital. He along with nine middle-grade doctors on the strike committee would not give their names.

"The problem is now solved and we are going back to work, but we will see how it goes," he said.

Local militia, often just gangs of armed young men, see claiming the right to police public institutions such as hospitals, as a way of asserting their authority and staking out territory.

Central Hospital has had security problems since the August liberation of Tripoli. Last month, doctors briefly walked out when intern Dr Mohamed Baruni was attacked on hospital grounds.

He had been trying to protect a female colleague from militiamen, who were insisting that she end her break and go back inside to work. The incident was filmed on a mobile phone and posted on Facebook.

Improved security was promised but gunmen continued to interfere with the doctors' work. There were even reports of an incident in which a man armed with an assault rifle entered an operating theatre in the hospital.

Prof Nureddin had been calling for better security for some time. Then, he himself was seized.

In the wake of the doctors' strike, a new plan to improve security has been proposed involving the ministries of health and the interior. National Security guards and and revolutionaries will guard the hospital.

"No guns will be allowed inside the hospital at all," said Col Tir.

Tripoli Local Council (TLC) has responded to such incidents with the launch of the "Libya Law and Government Campaign", which calls for improved security in the capital.

"We acted as intermediaries pushing the ministry of interior and the ministry of health to fix this," explained the TLC's media spokesman, Hussam Zagaar.

The TLC does not have authority to deploy police, but says it has worked behind the scenes to encourage those that do to act.

Security is failing in other areas too - with tragic consequences.

Mohamed al-Ghosbi, 37, was recently shot by gunmen as he sat in his car, just yards away from the entrance to the Tripoli Medical Centre, the city's largest hospital.

He couldn't be saved and leaves a wife and 10-month-old son.

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

Dr Abubaker is behind a month-old "no-gun" campaign which has involved distributing 5,000 posters across Tripoli.

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

Mohamed al-Ghosbi's death was the third in the past two weeks involving armed men shooting civilians in Tripoli.

When I asked him about the violence, Col Tir promised: "In two weeks, everything will be sorted with no more guns on the street."

Returning from his friend's funeral, Dr Abubaker said he would do everything in his power 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 British doctor working as a volunteer and a journalist in Tripoli.

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