Wounded Libyan fighters recover at Mass. hospital

AP News
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Posted: Nov 10, 2011 8:14 PM
Wounded Libyan fighters recover at Mass. hospital

Ramadon Aliah speaks softly as he recounts how he ended up here, lying in a bed in a rehabilitation hospital thousands of miles from home, his body partially paralyzed, but his spirits still high.

Aliah is one of 22 Libyan rebel fighters who were flown to the U.S. for treatment after being severely wounded in the civil war that led to the ouster and death of Moammar Gadhafi.

Aliah, a 37-year-old mechanic, was wounded April 24 during a battle in the city of Masrata. He was with a group of fighters that had surrounded forces loyal to Gadhafi.

"They were trying to escape. We were surrounding them in every direction and they couldn't get away," said Aliah, speaking through a translator. He avoided machine gun fire, but a rocket exploded near him, sending shrapnel into his pelvis and causing paralysis from the waist down.

Like the other men receiving treatment at Spaulding Hospital North Shore in Salem, he is grateful to his doctors and the U.S. government for helping bring him to the U.S. for the treatment, which is being paid for by the transitional Libyan government.

The wounded fighters, ranging in age from 16 to 49, arrived in Boston on Oct. 29 after a 13-hour plane ride. Doctors say they are suffering from various forms of trauma, including gunshot and shrapnel wounds, head and spinal cord injuries.

Hospital officials say they're doing everything they can to help them recover from their injuries and feel comfortable in their new surroundings. The men are expected to spend weeks, if not months, in the hospital before they return to Libya.

While others have been treated in European hospitals, Spaulding was the first U.S. hospital to receive Libyan fighters.

Hospital officials on Thursday showed where they had set up a Muslim prayer room, facing to the east and with prayer blankets on the floor. An imam was brought in from a nearby mosque and made an "incredible connection" with the patients, said Maureen Banks, hospital president.

And while tending to the spiritual needs of the men was critical, so was avoiding the inevitable boredom that can go with long hospital stays. To that end, Spaulding arranged for Arabic-language TV programs, including Libyan soccer matches, to be piped in by satellite, and a Wii video system, with soccer being one of the games of choice.

"By and large, with the exception of their war injuries, these are young, healthy guys," Banks said.

"I was in the middle of fire," said Osama Ali, 30, who was attending a protest in Tripoli in February, early in the uprising, when forces loyal to Gadhafi began shooting.

"I got the first shot in the arm. It broke my bone. I still have a bullet," said Ali, pointing to his upper chest where the bullet remains lodged.

Getting shot was only the beginning of a harrowing story of survival he described. Ali said he was captured, taken to an interrogation center and, while still in severe pain, tortured by security forces seeking information about other rebels.

"They were calling me a traitor, he said. "I was tortured badly."

Ali credited a hospital nurse and family members for helping him escape and get to Tunisia for treatment.

"It was very difficult, but in the end, I made it to a safe place," he said.

Marwan Ali, 22, who described himself as a civilian and not a fighter, was delivering medical supplies to rebels in Tripoli when he was dragged from his car, beaten, stabbed and left unconscious in the street.

While at a hospital, on a stretcher awaiting surgery, he said he could hear taunts from government forces.

"They called me a rat and said you don't deserve to be alive, you should be dead," Marwan Ali said. "I believed I was going to be dead."

He sustained a skull fracture, a traumatic brain injury and injuries to the tendons in his hand. A university student, he is looking forward to returning to Libya and continuing his studies in economics. He hopes to become an accountant.

Marwan Ali and Osama Ali, who are able to walk, spoke in a physical therapy room in the hospital adorned with American and Libyan flags. They repeatedly thanked their doctors and the U.S. government, in particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who helped arrange for the transfers during a visit to Libya last month.

Earlier in the day, the youngest of the patients, 16-year-old Mottah Ahmed, winced in pain but also smiled and laughed as a physical therapist helped him bend and stretch his injured hand with the help of a putty-like material.

"We've got a lot of young people with gunshot wounds, paralyzed limbs, lost nerve functions, a number of complicating kinds of fractures, very typical for that kind of conflict," Dr. Ross Zafonte said.

Despite their injuries and long roads ahead to recovery, the men said they had no regrets about siding with the rebel forces and would do it again.

"I would give my life to my country," Osama Ali said. "To get the opportunity to offer freedom to a new generation was worth it."

Although tired, Aliah said when asked that the fight was "absolutely" worth it and he is hopeful for the future of Libya.

"I'm very optimistic. I think the future is going to be better," he said.