MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Driving an ambulance in the besieged Libyan city of Misrata is always a matter of life or death these days — not only for the injured passenger in the back, but also for the luckless driver in the front.
Drivers say snipers and mortar operators loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, waging a bitter street-by-street war of attrition against rebels across Misrata, regard an ambulance as a juicy target.
“They know me and I know them,” said Ibrahim Abu Lerfa, describing what he said was a deadly game of cat and mouse between him and government soldiers on the front lines of Misrata, which has been under siege for over seven weeks.
“The other day I was parked on a street and a mortar landed near me. I know they were trying to kill me. There was no fighting, it was a quiet area. I moved to another street and then a mortar landed there as well.”
There is no way to verify such reports independently. The government denies deliberately attacking civilians in Misrata and elsewhere and says the rebels trying to end Gaddafi’s four-decade rule are al Qaeda militants.
Four ambulance drivers are undergoing treatment for injuries suffered in what they say were attacks on them by government forces. Hundreds of fighters and civilians have been hurt in the Misrata conflict overall.
Conditions are hard enough for the drivers without the fear of suffering the same fate as the injured people they transport to an overstrained hospital.
Some drivers don’t have proper communications equipment. So all they can do is park on the edge of battle zones and await word on casualties there.
Few are trained for the job. Most had other occupations before the February 17 uprising erupted against Gaddafi, inspired by revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia.
Hissein Abu Turkiya wears a bulletproof vest on the job. It wasn’t enough.
“I went to an area to help someone who was hit by a mortar and then my ambulance was hit by a mortar,” he said from his hospital bed.
“My leg was then hit when another mortar landed. At first I tried to carry the victim then the pain was too much. Then people in a car took us both to the hospital.”
A doctor sat next to him with a cast around his ankle, which he said had been fractured by shrapnel when he was riding in an ambulance attacked while on a rescue mission.
In the hospital parking lot, drivers gather to inspect a hole punched by a bullet which had entered an ambulance just beside the rear-view mirror and gone into a panel next to the driver’s seat.
They were in no doubt it was another deliberate attack.
Drivers certainly run the risk of being hit by what doctors and Misrata residents say are indiscriminate rockets and mortars fired by Gaddafi’s forces.
There is little time to rest.
There can be more than 100 casualties a day, and it can take hours to navigate alleyways to reach the wounded.
Muhammad Abu Falgah, a dentist who volunteered to be an ambulance paramedic, recalled what happened as he helped a man gravely injured when a rocket-propelled grenade slammed into a house.
“I felt bullets whiz by and just miss us as we worked on the man and were carrying him to the ambulance,” he said.
Some of the drivers, who support the rebels’ cause, said they had chosen the job because they had not wanted to take up arms against Gaddafi. And they opted for what some expected to be a safer option than fighting.
For some, the key to getting through the day is a routine to keep the mind focused.
Just after he puts his foot on the gas pedal, 19-year-old Omar Ali Houti yells Allah-u-Akbar (God is Greatest), Islam’s rallying cry. He says it helps him forget he has been targeted before.
“When it gets really tough, whoever is with me gets out of the ambulance and asks a rebel to fire his weapon in the air to scare away anyone who may want to attack the ambulance so I can keep moving,” said the engineering student.
“I have a humanitarian mission which must succeed.”