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MSF in Libya, 2011
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A few days after violent clashes broke out on 17 February 2011, a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) medical team crossed the border from Egypt into eastern Libya to provide medical assistance to health facilities trying to tend to large numbers of injured people.
In the country’s second city, Benghazi, MSF donated much-needed medicines and supplies, such as anaesthetics, antibiotics and external fixators to help mend fractures. But in several conflict zones, such as Zawiyah and Misrata, thousands of people were cut off from any external assistance, and critical medical needs and shortages of medicines and materials were reported. Some MSF staff were able to provide logistical support for the delivery of medical supplies to areas under siege, but other teams were blocked from entering the country. MSF repeatedly called for urgent, unhindered access to medical assistance for people caught up in the conflict.
In Benghazi and Ajdabiya, MSF provided psychological support to health personnel and patients, and trained medical staff in psychological first aid for victims of violence.
Assisting people trapped in Misrata
Part of Misrata’s main hospital had been bombarded, while the remaining functioning clinics were overflowing with severely injured patients. On 21 March, MSF managed to get a first shipment of surgical kits to the hospital. An additional six tons of medical supplies reached the hospital in April.
Also in April, MSF organised two medical evacuations by boat of a total of 135 patients from Misrata. Medical teams provided urgent assistance while the boat was heading to Tunisia. Upon arrival, patients were transferred to medical facilities for treatment.
In the same month, an MSF team from Benghazi succeeded in reaching Misrata by boat and started supporting four medical facilities, working alongside Libyan health workers in surgical wards and obstetrics departments, and providing training on war surgery, hygiene, sterilisation and waste management. Teams carried out 137 surgical operations in Qasr Ahmed and Abbad hospitals. In Qasr Ahmed hospital, MSF also carried out 780 physiotherapy sessions with patients who had undergone surgery. Twelve patients in need of reconstructive surgery were transferred to the MSF programme in Amman, Jordan. In Ras Tubah medical centre, staff supported the paediatric and emergency obstetric surgery department, assisting 1,914 births, 312 of which were by caesarean section.
MSF donated several tons of drugs and medical supplies to health facilities and provided training, materials and ambulance equipment to the health posts near the main front line.
In May, MSF launched a mental health programme in Misrata, and by the end of the year, more than 3,000 patients had received psychological support through 200 group and 455 individual consultations. In addition, staff gave training to 20 Libyan psychologists.
MSF also provided medical assistance in four detention centres, carrying out a total of 2,600 consultations, including 311 for violent trauma. Doctors working in the centres repeatedly came across patients with injuries caused by torture during interrogation – they treated 115 people with such wounds. MSF reported all cases to the relevant authorities in Misrata, but medical staff continued to receive new victims of torture, and some detainees were denied any medical care. In January 2012, MSF publicly denounced the situation and suspended its activities in detention centres.
Following the line of battle
MSF teams supported health facilities in the towns of Zintan and Yefren, in western Libya, by performing surgery, donating medical equipment and supplies and training medical staff in responding to large numbers of casualties. Between April and October, MSF treated more than 2,200 war-wounded patients and conducted over 270 surgical interventions in the two towns. The mental health team carried out 470 individual consultations and over 1,000 group sessions between July and October.
As heavy fighting moved towards the capital Tripoli, an MSF surgical team went to Zawiyah, to the west of the city. On the first day alone, they treated over 70 casualties in the general hospital. In Tripoli, MSF worked in medical facilities, donating lifesaving medication and supplies, and transferring patients in need of urgent medical assistance.
When fighting reached Colonel Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte, MSF provided surgical supplies and 150,000 litres of water, and organised the resumption of surgery in Ibn Sina hospital. After the hospital came under fire and armed fighters started checking patients inside the hospital, MSF called on the warring parties to immediately halt all attacks on and intrusions into medical facilities.
Assisting displaced minorities and undocumented migrants
From August, MSF provided medical care in four camps in and around Tripoli, where some 4,000 migrants and internally displaced people belonging to the Tawargha minority had settled. Residents in these camps had been subjected to intimidation, theft and assaults. Teams carried out more than 5,100 medical consultations and offered psychological support in over 200 individual and 33 group sessions.
Many people fled Libya during the fighting. MSF teams in neighbouring countries, such as Italy and Tunisia, provided them with medical assistance and reminded governments, particularly members of the European Union, of their responsibility under international law to keep their borders open to people fleeing Libya, and to ensure proper reception conditions.
At the end of 2011, MSF had 64 staff in Libya. This is the first time that MSF has worked in the country.