A team of foreign doctors has arrived at the war-torn Libyan city of Benghazi to carry out heart surgery on at least 30 young children during a month-long flying visit to a country where healthcare is in tatters.
The doctors are providing treatment that is otherwise almost impossible for Libyan families to obtain due to the collapse of the health system and an economic crisis that makes sending patients abroad unaffordable.
They have been visiting eastern Libya since 2012, but did not go to Benghazi for two years because of fighting that has destroyed parts of the city and is still raging in one downtown neighbourhood.
“The patients are from many cities including Tripoli, Derna and Tobruk. Every day there is a patient from a different area,” said Khalil Kwaidar, spokesman for the Benghazi Medical Centre.
The international team is led by William Novick, an American doctor who set up a foundation that has provided care for children with heart disease in more than 30 developing countries. They train local staff as they work.
Initially the trips to Libya were paid for by Libyan public funds, but they now depend on private donations.
For the past three years rival alliances have been battling for power in Libya, setting up competing governments in Tripoli and the east. Benghazi, where forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar have been fighting Islamists and other opponents, has seen some of the heaviest violence.
The health sector, heavily dependent on foreign staff before Libya’s 2011 revolution, has been crippled by their departure in the turmoil that followed. Medical supplies and equipment are in short supply, and many hospitals are shut or barely functional.
“The situation is very much deteriorated since 2012 and I am sure that it is not diplomatic for me to say it is a direct result of the chaotic government that currently exists,” Novick said
“The hospital is not receiving adequate funding to maintain itself, to purchase supplies and to really take care of the patients. And if you think about the city of Benghazi and the area, this is the major hospital. So if this one is having difficulty, then imagine what the situation is like for the rest of the hospitals.”
Most of the children being treated by the international team are under three years old.
Khaled al-Fellah’s 19-month old daughter Zahra has a heart defect that was discovered the day she was born, but has only now been treated.
“The diagnosis was wrong many times. When the diagnosis was correct, surgery had to be performed. You can say that the surgery should have been performed before last October,” al-Fellah said.
A U.N.-backed government has been trying to establish itself in Tripoli since last March, but Haftar and the eastern government have rejected it. Across the country, public services have continued a slow decline.