Freedom: A specter haunting Libya

Al-Bayda, Libya–The uprising now sweeping across Libya began in the restive coastal towns in the eastern part of the country.

Here in al-Bayda, residents assert that this picturesque city overlooking the Mediterranean was the first to shake off President Muammar al Qadhafi’s 42 years of authoritarian rule.

Empowered by a newfound sense of freedom, the people have taken full control of their town: groups of young men guide traffic, armed residents protect banks, hospitals and other public facilities, and cheering crowds parade through the streets all day.

The city is home to a quarter of a million people.

Al-Bayda is located halfway between the border with Egypt and Libya’s second city, Benghazi.

Since last weekend it has been in the hands of local residents after Qadhafi’s security forces were forced to withdraw in the wake of fierce battles. But liberation came with a bloody price.

The town’s only public hospital, renamed “Revolution Hospital,” has been in crisis mode since last Friday after a violent crackdown by government security forces on anti-regime protesters created an unprecedented medical emergency.

“This was a war on the Libyan people,” said Majidi Mohamedd, a Libyan-Egyptian surgeon who moved to Libya five months ago. “The scenes here remind me of hospital rooms in the Gaza Strip where I was two years ago during Operation Cast Lead.”

Doctors at the hospital have seen up to 80 people killed in the past week and nearly 400 injured, some with serious bullet wounds to their chests and stomachs.  

Hospital staff displayed a variety of weapons used against protesters, including live ammunition and anti-aircraft artillery.

They say most of the violence was caused by government security brigades and well-paid foreign mercenaries, many of whom have been caught by civilian patrol groups.

Mohammad Othman, 26, is an unemployed graduate of a local polytechnic university. He was shot in his back and abdomen last Friday, leaving his colon permanently damaged. He is now recovering in the post-surgery ward where he lies bandaged and barely able to speak.

“I was among peaceful unarmed demonstrators. Security forces and mercenaries began opening fire randomly at civilians. It was a bloodbath,” Othman said.

Othman is one of dozens of critically wounded patients who remain in the hospital after last week’s clashes.

Several doctors and nurses noted that the hospital was ill-equipped to deal with a crisis of this scale, adding that they had to send many patients to Benghazi, 170 kilometers away.

As the revolution spreads westward, many Libyans in al-Bayda fear that the carnage will only get worse unless the international community takes decisive action.

Some urged the United Nations Security Council to impose a no-fly zone over Libya to prevent more government-ordered air raids against civilians.  

USofficials said on Thursday that specific actions against Libya could include a UN Security Council decision to enforce a no-fly zone to stop further government attacks.

Omar Khaled Ali, a surgeon in al-Bayda, also called for targeted sanctions against Qadhafi and his family, but insisted that Libyans should remain fully in control of their country’s future.  

“Qadhafi’s regime is almost finished,” he said. “But our hope is for the Libyan people to free themselves.”

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