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In Misrata Port, Ship Braves Shelling to Save Patients, Migrant Workers

May 4, 2011 at 6:30 PM EST
In Libya, five people were killed amid shelling Wednesday as they waited for an aid ship to rescue migrant workers and trauma patients from a hospital in Misrata. Alex Thomson of Independent Television News reports on the harrowing mission in the port city, which has been the focus of intense fighting for two months.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the bloody conflict in Libya, where the battle for a key port has gone on for two months.

Today, government forces kept up their shelling of Misrata. At least five people were killed as they waited for the aid ship “Red Star One” to dock. It was the only lifeline for hospital patients in critical condition, as well as 1,000 stranded migrants.

Alex Thomson of Independent Television News watched the scene unfold.

A warning, some of the images in the story are disturbing.

ALEX THOMSON: It’s Monday afternoon at the hospital in Misrata. The U.N. may well have charged NATO with protecting Libya’s civilians, but it is easy to find civilians NATO is not protecting.

DEMETRIUS MOGNIA, International Medical Corps: Come. And now you see another one, another one.

ALEX THOMSON: Another blown-up person arrives in Misrata’s intensive care unit, ICU, only to find it’s shot. It’s full to overflowing.

DEMETRIUS MOGNIA: If one injured now came with this bombing, he — are going to die. Should be moved immediately to let the ship enter in the port to take, to evacuate this person to Benghazi. This is our problem.

ALEX THOMSON: Already patients are dying whilst listed for transfer by boat to Benghazi. They have a list of others desperate to move.

These are people in need? These are people who must be evacuated?

DEMETRIUS MOGNIA: Yes. Yes. And it’s far from ICU.

ALEX THOMSON: Four intensive care cases, 33 in all, waiting for that ship.

The problem for those running the rescue vessel is a stark one. To get in and get out of Misrata Port involves congregating around 1,500 people, dock workers, 1,000 migrant workers desperate to escape, 50 or 60 hospital patients and so forth, congregating 1,500 people in a confined space in the middle of a shelling zone for anything up to five or six hours. It is not an easy call.

And this is why the rescue ship lies out of range 12 miles offshore, unable to dock. Colonel Gadhafi says any ship now leaving or entering Misrata is a target. Smoke rises from the almost daily salvos of Grad missiles and shells that hit the port area.

MAN: Incoming.

ALEX THOMSON: So to make a run for it is to be either brave or foolish, or both.

And yet, to our astonishment, the skipper of this Turkish freighter did just that, unladen and at full-throttle between the piers, even as they’re hit by incoming shells and mortars. Close in, at the dockside, it is lethal.

MAN: We need to get under here. We need to get out of here.

(Screaming)

ALEX THOMSON: Shelling the port happens daily, two people killed in this attack alone, several more seriously hurt. But consider, too, the reason why this ship is coming in the first place, 1,000 migrant workers still here, still trapped in somebody else’s war and desperate to go home. They too are being shelled.

IBRAHIM MOHAMMED, migrant worker: We don’t have anything. We are dying here. This bombardment, the smoke is killing us, as now everybody’s sick here now, no medicine, no anything. We are dying here. Please, world, if they are hearing me, they should help us.

ALEX THOMSON: And this Nigerian man was shelled in that camp and could indeed be dying. He’s scheduled to be moved on the ship to the safety of Benghazi when the ship comes in — if the ship comes in.

By this morning, the ship’s been waiting four days. We went to see the harbormaster and found chaos, the ship not even speaking to this harbormaster’s office.

MAN: NATO warship, Misrata port control try to contact you on channel 16. Over.

MAN: OK.

ALEX THOMSON: Finally, people started talking, and a ship began appearing, and steamed straight into port, without contacting the harbormaster.

 

Five-and-a-half days, but they have made it here. The medicine is unloaded at top speed. This is an incoming zone for shells. But the jubilation is short-lived. Two hours after docking, the sound of incoming missiles, and people move to cover.

That was a salvo of 12 Grad missiles. And because of that, quite understandably, it looks like the ship is cutting and running. They have delivered medical goods this morning. They’re not waiting to pick people up from the hospital.

But armed rebels screamed at the captain not to go, and he seemed to listen. And suddenly the first ambulances with those ICU patients were at the dockside. The loading systems going well, the last 1,000 migrant workers trapped by the fighting queuing up, embarking, it’s very orderly — until, that is, scores of well-connected Libyans from Misrata turn up, push in, and it all falls apart.

(SHOUTING)

(GUNFIRE)

(SCREAMING)

ALEX THOMSON: A rebel gunman fires his Kalashnikov. At this point, hundreds more migrant workers arrive. They’re the people this boat was sent for, and now they can’t get on. They have lost control. The captain fears the boat being overloaded and incoming shells.

Without warning they cast off. A ship which came to pick up hundreds of migrant African workers leaves them forlorn, on the key side, in the shelling zone. And only now we learn that several were indeed killed in that salvo an hour or so before.

MAN: They killed three children, one old woman, plus her husband, five this morning maybe one hour ago.

ALEX THOMSON: This woman distraught, her husband still on the key side. And down below, one of the patients is dying. They have to re-dock. Five days to get into this port, five hours to get out of it and still the humanitarian mission in this town is not complete.

JEFFREY BROWN: The ship did manage to pick up 800 people but had hoped to take away as many as 1,000. Its destination is Benghazi in the east, which is held by the rebels.