First-aiders on the front line

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Health personnel and emergency services played a crucial role in saving lives during the 2011 Libyan conflict. For more than a year, ICRC first-aid delegate Abdulbadih El Dada worked closely with volunteers and doctors. . What was the main purpose of your work in Libya?

My main job was to train Libyan Red Crescent Society volunteers in first aid so that they could deal with the most urgent casualties. However, when I arrived in Libya in May 2011, I realized that Libyan Red Crescent volunteers weren’t the only people attending to the wounded. There were other volunteers – doctors and nurses – who formed spontaneous groups in conflict zones. Because there were not enough first-aiders, doctors and nurses were on the front lines. And when we started talking to them, it became clear that there was no organized channel for transferring the wounded to hospitals.

So we worked with them to establish a field hospital and draw up a strategy for evacuations. Within a month, we had helped set up a mechanism for transferring casualties from front-line areas to health centres. The idea was to first move casualties to gathering points where doctors could prioritize patients. Those requiring surgery were taken directly to hospital. In less critical but still urgent cases, especially when heavy fighting was taking place, patients were sent to the field hospital.

We gave first-aid training at field hospitals to doctors and nurses, but also to volunteers and ambulance drivers who had absolutely no medical experience. We also provided first-aid training in Misrata and, later on, in the eastern part of the country.

What were the most memorable moments from your time in Libya?

It was very challenging to work on the front lines. I had to cross the lines in Sirte (in the northern part of the country), in Sabha (in the south) and in Tripoli, to deliver medical supplies to medical staff, and food and other essentials to people in need. That was not easy. Even when there was a ceasefire, clashes continued, making it dangerous to cross the lines.

In Misrata, we realized that there was a huge problem with the management of dead bodies. So we trained groups of volunteers from the community to collect and bury the corpses. When Tripoli fell, we worked with volunteers to collect the dead bodies from the mortuaries and the street. There were hundreds of them, and it was essential to identify the bodies, photograph them and note down where they were found, where they were buried, and so forth.

I had already been a first-aider with the Lebanese Red Cross for more than 10 years, but it never felt "normal" to be handling dead bodies, knowing that each person had left a family and a history behind. It’s when I'm dealing with the dead that I’m most convinced of the vital life-saving role of first aid.

What is the ICRC doing to enhance first-aid services in Libya right now?

Currently, we are working closely with the Libyan Red Crescent, to boost their capacity to provide first aid. We're also working closely with organizations involved in crisis management in Libya and providing training for medical emergency services, the civil defence, and others.

In one recent exercise we simulated a plane crash. This was a major event, with the participation of the National Safety Authority, the Libyan Red Crescent, the emergency medical services, Libya Aid, the crisis committee in the prime minister's office, and the interior, health and defence ministries. This kind of exercise ensures that everyone will be prepared in the event of an emergency. Coordination is crucial in such circumstances.