Libya War Escalates as Health Care System Crumbles

Minutes after the explosion on Monday, doctors and other witnesses started circulating videos online. Another hospital compound in Tripoli had been hit.

“Look at this,” said one man, filming the fire from a hospital balcony. “We are doctors, only peaceful doctors.”

Last month, both sides of Libya’s now one-year-old war for Tripoli again agreed to a cease-fire as the coronavirus pandemic spread around the world. But since then, bombings can be heard daily from Tripoli homes as the fighting escalates and the health care system crumbles.

An added level of horror hit Tripoli, after an attack Tuesday on a water facility apparently cut pipelines into the city. By afternoon, some families reported their faucets were running dry at a time when their main defense against the virus is hand washing.

“My wife opened the sink and there was nothing,” said Ahmed, 37, a goldsmith and father of two on the phone from Tripoli.

Tripoli residents are living under a 19-hour-a-day lockdown to try to prevent the pandemic from spreading beyond the 18 cases and 1 death reported as of April 6.

But the continued battles have left the country vulnerable to disaster, according to local aid workers, and the capacity of the hospitals is rapidly decreasing.

“Countries that used to receive wounded patients from the war are now locked down because of coronavirus,” said Mohammed Ghiblawi, a youth-activist leader who is trying to set up field hospitals ahead of a potential outbreak in Tripoli. “Local hospitals are now already almost full with wounded fighters and people with other diseases.”

After the attack Monday, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator for Libya, Yacoub El Hillo, released a stark warning.

He said 27 health facilities have been damaged in the fighting in the past five weeks alone, and 14 have already closed. The war has killed more than 350 civilians and nearly 150,000 people have fled their homes.

“If Libya is to have any chance against COVID-19, the ongoing conflict must come to an immediate halt,” Hillo said in a statement.


While confined to their homes, Tripoli residents can hear bombs every day, said Wasef Gelani, 40, a father of four living in a downtown apartment. He fled his suburban apartment after fighting engulfed his neighborhood last year.

Gelani sells paper products to grocery stores in the city but since the lockdown began last month, his limited hours and the rapidly declining economy have stunted his business.

On the phone, Gelani said he can minimize contact with the outside world and wear gloves and a mask for protection against the virus. But he cannot stop the battles from harming him or his family.

“The war is more dangerous than the coronavirus,” he explained. “There is no way to cure or prevent falling missiles and bombs.”

Fear now colors every aspect of life, added Aisha Salheen Emhemed, a 23-year-old law student in Tripoli. Her university closed more than three weeks ago, and bad internet connections forced the students and professors to give up attempts to hold classes online.

With the health care system in shambles, she said, she fears getting infected and having nowhere to go for help. But like Gelani, coronavirus is not her greatest worry. Prices of basic food items are soaring as incomes for many people are dwindling to little or nothing.

“The hardest thing for Libyan families is the financial situation,” she said. “Between the war and the curfew, how will we survive and pass this time without starving?”

War to what end?

Despite the cease-fire brokered in January, an arms embargo and another cease-fire agreement in March, battles have intensified in the past month, with both sides ramping up attacks, supported by international allies.

The war is essentially between Libya’s two competing governments. In the east, strongman Khalifa Haftar leads forces known as the Libyan National Army. In the west, forces loyal to the U.N.-recognized Government of National Accord hold Tripoli, Libya’s historic capital.

In April 2019, Haftar declared his forces would rapidly take Tripoli, but since then neither side has been able to claim victory.

“Can you believe it’s been a year?” said one GNA soldier on the phone from his base in the Tripoli suburbs. “Haftar said he would take Tripoli in 48 hours and now look at this. He just ruined our life without any results.”

Both sides officially welcomed the latest cease-fire, and both sides claim the continued hostilities are in their own defense.

“It’s ridiculous,” added the soldier at his base. “I now rub sanitizer on my hands before going off to shoot mortars.”