Now fears of disease rise as bodies pile up on the streets

Taking away dead is a priority as Tripoli struggles with a shortage of medicine, water, fuel and food

Kim Sengupta
Sunday 28 August 2011 00:00 BST

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


The shots came from two of the high-rise buildings, long bursts of Kalashnikov fire which made the rebel fighters on the ground scatter in alarm. The stubborn resistance at Abu Salim hospital, the last redoubt of the Gaddafi loyalists in Tripoli, was not yet over.

The scale of the fighting is now much reduced, but the bodies keep piling up – civilians caught up in the crossfire during the fierce violence of the past few days; fighters from both sides killed in action; those summarily executed, black men by the rebels for being alleged mercenaries, and political prisoners by the regime.

Outside Bab al-Aziziyah, Muammar Gaddafi's fortress stormed last week, the dead, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa, many with their hands tied behind their back, some gagged, have been left on display on the roadside by the revolutionaries. Inside Abu Salim, the dead from the mortuary, some with marks of manacles on their wrists, spill into other rooms at the hospital.

Yesterday brought the news of another massacre, the remains of 53 people in a warehouse on the outskirts of the city, shown to a Sky News reporter.

The corpses, bloated, infested with maggots, decomposing in the heat, have become such a danger to health that removing them has become an urgent priority of the Tripoli council, which has now been officially inaugurated. It would take time to organise all the utilities, said Omar al-Abed, the head of the municipal section, but: "We have started immediate action on moving these dead people. There are obviously medical issues involved. There are other shortages and we do not want illnesses to start."

The shortages are of water, electricity, medicine and fuel, all the basic necessities. Ban Ki-Moon, the UN Secretary-General, yesterday called for urgent international humanitarian assistance for Libya, and this is desperately needed.

Sitting in Benghazi, the opposition administration, the National Transitional Council (NTC) had announced that there was a task force and blueprint in place to get the country back on its feet once Colonel Gaddafi was overthrown. Now, the reality on the ground has shown the scale of the challenge being faced.

"There is a lack of supplies because of the sanctions [imposed on the Gaddafi regime by the UN]," said a TNC spokesman. "There are no stores of fuel left. This affects power, and that affects water. We are trying to get in supplies of medicine as quickly as possible. But there are remnants of the regime still around and this makes difficulties for our work."

Yesterday, urgent humanitarian support for people affected by the conflict in Libya was announced by the British government. The International Development Secretary, Andrew Mitchell, says the aid will include surgical teams and medicine for some 5,000 wounded (most of whom are rebels and their supporters), help to reunite families, plus food and basic household items for some 690,000 people displaced by the fighting. Some of the aid will also be used to move civilians to safety. The aid will be funnelled through the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Abu Salim hospital remained a scene of man-made desolation yesterday, with bodies lying in the corridor and hallways, left at the entrance, in what used to be a dining area. The intensity of gunfire had forced the staff to flee two days ago, Hassan Shafuddin Gawri, a clinical technician who had returned, looked at the carnage around him and said in a matter-of-fact voice: "We will reopen it, we owe that to our community. But there are many injured in this area, they need to be taken to other hospitals."

One of the hospitals functioning was Sher Zawiyah. Some people were venturing out during a relative lull in the fighting yesterday afternoon to bring the injured hitherto trapped in their homes there for treatment. Mohammed Ali Waftan was helping to take his 14-year-old nephew, Bassam, injured on Thursday, out of a taxi.

"He was playing out in the street, right in front of our house, when he was shot in the leg. It was a sniper, I don't know why he chose a young boy," said Mr Waftan, 43, from the Tareq Mattar district. "We couldn't get out the last two days because there was so much firing. There is no electricity, no water in our house. We thought the wound would get infected, so we have brought him here."

The hospital was being staffed by volunteers. Dr Salah Ahmed, a surgeon, said: "The main problem we have at the moment is with oxygen. A government plant producing it was bombed by Nato. There was also a business which was producing it locally, but the owners have fled abroad.

"I am not saying this as a political statement. This is what happened and we now have to cope the best we can. At the moment we are dealing with trauma, injuries caused by weapons. But if conditions continue to deteriorate, we may get serious outbreaks of diseases. That is a very worrying thought."

The continuing uncertainty and violence has also meant that shops, which may have stocks, are remaining shut. Yesterday, Nasr al-Abdin, a 39-year-old electrician, was resting against a car shot up during the fighting, during his search to buy provisions for his family. "We have had a little girl recently and I need to get baby milk. We need everything, really, the food we have had in stock is running out. It is not a question of money – I have saved up for just such a time," he said. "But all the stores are shut. I am walking around because I want to save fuel and it is very tiring. The price of 20 litres is now 130 dinars [£66], 30 times what we were paying before the revolution."

Some claimed that what little food was available was being denied to them. At a tiny market near Green Square, a group of women was looking forlornly at an empty row of stalls. They were originally from surrounding countries in the region, but, they stressed quickly, had long held Libyan citizenship. "I have lived in this country for 15 years. My children were born here," said Khadija Taib, from Mali. "But now, when I try to get food, they say go away. You are not Libyan; you are a foreigner. They say Gaddafi brought you here, let him look after you. My husband is unemployed. I have eight boys and girls. How am I supposed to feed them?"

Passing by, Suleyman Abdullah shook his head. "This is what happens when things are scarce. We haven't had this problem in Libya and now people are picking on the weakest, the outsiders. We have been through a lot, but I hope people will see reason."

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