In row after row corpses lie, the grim cost of the fight for Tripoli

Civilians among the dead in the capital

The bodies lay partly covered in shrouds of tattered sheets on grey concrete floors deeply stained with blood. Some of the faces were almost serene, others frozen, mouth open, reflecting the terror of the last moments. In row after grim row lay the terrible human cost behind the battle for Tripoli.

Around 170 bodies have passed through the morgue of the Sher Zawiyah Hospital – many of them civilians with shrapnel wounds, caught up in the crossfire – as the regime and rebel forces continue their bitter struggle for control. Others appear to have been executed, with bullet wounds to the head, handcuff marks on their wrists.

Corpses have been brought to the doorway in pick-up trucks, cars, and the few functioning ambulances. A double layer of surgical masks were needed to view the corpses, seven in one room, 32 in another, decomposing in the heat. That is what the bereaved families have to do, some sobbing as they left, clutching each other for comfort.

Hashan Al-Agap had come to collect the remains of his nephew, Mohammed, who had been killed after being arrested by regime forces near Bab al-Aziziya, the fortress of Muammar Gaddafi. The 20-year old student was among eight found in the basement of a security building, all of them shot dead.

Mr Agap, 50, had driven from his home in Misrata to check on relatives in Tripoli. He was travelling with Mohammed and his two sons, Moiz and Mohab. "Our car was stopped and both Mohab and Mohammed were dragged out with guns to their faces. I tried to stop them, but they threw me back, threatened to shoot me, Moiz held me back, otherwise I would have been killed. I had to go away, to try and get help, leave the two boys behind. I was frightened for them, very frightened."

The two young men were beaten and told they would be shot for what happened at Bab al-Aziziya. During the night, Mohab escaped and phoned his father to tell him what was going on. Mohammed's body was discovered when the Gaddafi troops abandoned the building.

"I think I am in a dream now, I must wake up. These men like killing. These people make us work for year after year for pennies and then they kill us like rabbits, like dogs. We have had this for 42 years. We thought all this would now end, but the killings continue, all these lives..." Mr Agap's voice faded and he started crying. Adel Mohammed showed a photograph of his mother, Baia Al-Sophi, a woman of 62, shot dead by a sniper on Wednesday when she went out to the balcony of the family home in the Akhwakha district to call for a 13-year-old son to hurry home after a gun battle started.

"She was worried about Khalid with all the fighting that was going on. We do not know why they shot her, she was just an old lady," said Mr Mohammed, a researcher in electronics. "Of course, I am very sad about my mother. But do I wish the revolution had not taken place? No, I have thought about this, we have to bear our suffering to free our country so our children, at least, do not have to go through this."

Walking through the wards at the hospital, stopping from time to time to rest against the wall, Souma Um Rashid, just wanted to know what had happened to her 26-year-old son, Qais. "I have tried the Central [hospital] and now I am trying this one. I am praying every minute that they have brought him here. I do not want to go to the place of the dead, I do not want to go and find him there."

Abdel Razak Ramadan, in charge of the morgue, has worked at the hospital for 25 years. "From the time the revolution started we started having dead bodies brought in with bad injuries," he said. "But there were about 55 in the past six months, now we have had 170 just in this hospital alone in the past few days. We have fathers, mothers coming here every day, having to find their children. It is a very sad thing to see."

Omar Abdullah Ashur, an anaesthetist who had been working at the hospital for the past ten days, shook his head. "The sad thing is that under ordinary circumstances we could have saved some of these people," he said. "Some have come with severe injuries to the head, the chest and they would probably not have survived. But the others, we could have. That is very upsetting for us."

Dr Ashur's face was etched with weariness; he had been sleeping three hours a night. "I went home to get one night's good sleep and our house got hit by bullets. So I took my family to stay with relations, and came back here, what else could I do? I do not know how long this will go on for. We are all tired of this violence, as a people we are tired."

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