Karin Laub, AP
The day Libyan rebels advanced into the strategic city of Zawiya, Moammar Gadhafi's forces clamped down on the local hospital. They forced doctors to perform hours of consecutive surgeries, put snipers on the roof and an anti-aircraft gun near the entrance, two doctors who managed to escape said Tuesday.
As the Libyan regime's grip on this coastal city of 200,000 is slipping, stories are seeping out about the reign of fear and intimidation imposed here over the past five months. Residents interviewed in rebel-controlled parts of Zawiya gave accounts of mass arrests in the preceding months. A woman said her son-in-law and two of his relatives were arrested and killed by Gadhafi agents. A rebel fighter said he was subjected to beatings and electric shocks. Zawiya had risen up forcefully against Gadhafi when anti-regime protests swept the country in mid-February, but was reoccupied in a brutal crackdown in mid-March.
Rebels pushed into the city on Saturday, but after four days of fighting Gadhafi's soldiers still control about 30 percent of the city, including the hospital and a bank building, said a rebel spokesman, Col. Jumma Ibrahim. Dr. Hamid al-Shawish, a 30-year-old surgeon, said the regime had clamped down hard on Zawiya since March, arresting anyone suspected of sympathizing with the rebels. At least 20 doctors and nurses were seized from the hospital, and some remain missing, al-Shawish said.
He and a colleague, gynecologist Mohammed al-Kum, said regime forces were a constant presence in the hospital, replacing the director with one of their own and ordering medical staff around. On Saturday morning, there was an influx of dead and wounded regime soldiers, and civilian patients were ordered to leave the hospital to make room, the two doctors said. Troops closed down the pediatrics and gynecology wards, among others.
The bodies of at least 30 Gadhafi soldiers were brought in that day, along with some 150 wounded, said al-Shawish, who was in charge of the emergency room. Rebels often allege that most of Gadhafi's troops are African mercenaries, but al-Shawish said there were many Libyans among the wounded soldiers. The soldiers ordered doctors and nurses to stay on their jobs, according to al-Shawish, who said he performed 15 operations between 11 a.m. Saturday and 3 a.m. Sunday. He said three more surgeons worked on other floors.
Al-Shawish said that while he was working, armed soldiers wandered in an out of the emergency room. "Anyone who was not operating was told to operate," said al-Shawish, but added that he did not have guns pointed at him. Gadhafi's men posted snipers on the roof and an anti-aircraft gun in a yard, right outside the window of the emergency room, the doctor said. Gadhafi's forces fired randomly at nearby houses, but he did not hear incoming rebel fire, he said.
Al-Kum said he was able to sneak out of the hospital on Sunday. Al-Shawish said he recognized a soldier guarding the hospital gate as the father of an infant he had circumcised. After initially refusing to let the doctor go, the guard relented and let al-Shawish walk out Sunday, with a promise that he would return shortly. Since their escape, the two doctors have been working at a clinic in Bir Moammar, a rebel-controlled village about eight kilometers (five miles) south of Zawiya.
On Tuesday, al-Shawish said he believed Gadhafi's 42-year-rule was almost over. "God willing, this is the end, and we will go to Tripoli," he said, as the thuds of mortars and rockets were heard in the distance. In other rebel gains, Ibrahim, the spokesman, said that fighters also took the town of Tiji, near the western mountain range, on Monday, and were now fighting in the nearby town of Badr. If Badr falls, the rebels will be able to shorten their supply route with Tunisia, Ibrahim said. He also confirmed that rebel fighters control Zawiya's refinery, which is in the northwest of the city.