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Hurt in Libya’s Revolution, Some Rebels Being Treated in Boston Area

January 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A group of 22 Libyan men who were wounded while fighting against the Gaddafi regime in last year's war have been recovering here in the U.S., at a hospital on Boston's North Shore. Jared Bowen of WGBH-TV Boston reports.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the story of Libyan rebels who have come to the United States to recover from injuries suffered in last year’s war.

The reporter is Jared Bowen of WGBH Boston.

JARED BOWEN: For Libyan fighters back from the brink, that is haven, a place of recovery, rehabilitation and therapy.

DR. RYAN ZAKLIN, Spaulding Hospital: The injuries that I’m treating, many of them are gunshot wounds, and there are severe hand injuries to shoulder injuries, nerve injuries. There are, obviously, patients that also have PTSD.

JARED BOWEN: These men — most were civilians before the fighting began — are being treated at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Salem, Massachusetts, a continent and a cultural divide away from home.

Spaulding is the only facility in the country now treating wounded Libyan fighters. It was selected by the State Department in part for its care of American soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.

When we came here, we changed completely our -- the image that Gadhafi put about America on our mind, that American nation are selfish.Belgassem Ali, Libyan patient

MAN: It took time for the patients to feel comfortable with us and really started to kind of tell us a little bit more about what had happened to them and how they were feeling.

JARED BOWEN: All of the 22 Libyan men receiving treatment here were rebel fighters wounded while fighting against the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.

Their injuries were extreme, sustained from conflict and torture. Their care at Spaulding, a facility nationally renown for ushering patients back from the trauma of surgery, stroke and brain injury, has been funded entirely by Libya’s transitional government.

Spaulding has placed all of the men on the same floor here, preserving their sense of community. Since none speak fluent English, they have an omnipresent translator. Post-it notes turn a walk anywhere into an English lesson, and a room at the end of one corridor has been transformed into a place of prayer.

KEVIN LOVE, Spaulding Hospital: I think it’s going very well. People here worked really hard, from the most simple thing of going on Google to trying to learn a little bit about what the customs are in Libya, what kind of foods people eat, what kind of music they listen to.

JARED BOWEN: Among the wounded here is Salem Mohamed, a civil engineer. One morning in August, he says he joined a caravan of about 400 men to attack Gadhafi forces in southern Libya. His brother, a videographer, recorded the attack.

SALEM MOHAMED, Libyan patient (through translator): I was surrounded by the militia of Gadhafi. By that time, I got injured in my hand.

JARED BOWEN: Mohamed came under intense gun fire while manning a gun on the back of a pickup truck. He was hit by shrapnel and was carried, bloodied and unconscious, into a Libyan hospital.

SALEM MOHAMED (through translator): That injury, actually, it left to cut of the vessels in my hand and also injured nerves and the tendons of my arm.

JARED BOWEN: And how is the pain in your hand?

SALEM MOHAMED (through translator): We have been received by a very warm welcoming from the medical team and the hospital management team, from the psychological aspect, from the physical therapy, from the entertainment and the social aspect as well.

JARED BOWEN: No one is more surprised about their treatment here than 21-year-old Belgassem Ali, a political science student who arrived in the U.S. assuming the worst about Americans, he says.

BELGASSEM ALI, Libyan patient (through translator): When we came here, we changed completely our — the image that Gadhafi put about America on our mind, that American nation are selfish.

JARED BOWEN: Ali is still undergoing treatment for a gunshot wound to the abdomen. He’s happy to remain in the U.S. for the time being. He and his fellow patients organize routine soccer games on the hospital rooftop and have visited New England tourist attractions.

But they also intently monitor Libya’s regime change via Facebook, Skype, and phone calls home.

BELGASSEM ALI (through translator): You are witness to, actually, our revolution and how we stood on the face of the oppression.

JARED BOWEN: Of Moammar Gadhafi’s violent public death, Ali has no remorse for what his countrymen did.

BELGASSEM ALI (through translator): When we captured him, we didn’t show any mercy toward him. He get the same fate — the same way that he oppressed us, we oppressed him.

JARED BOWEN: The men will return home to Libya in small groups over the next several months, as their therapy wraps up. They are confident that all they fought and suffered for has been to a worthwhile end.

SALEM MOHAMED (through translator): I believe that Libya is going to move to the best future. I believe that it will be an election. It will be a constitution. And that I believe Libya will be more advanced.

JARED BOWEN: A country on the mend, just as they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Several of the patients went back to Libya late last month. Those needing more complex treatments are expected to go home in February.