ADJABIYA, Libya — Overwhelmed by fatigue, Ramzi Mohammed took a deep drag on his cigarette, leaned against the door of his ambulance and recalled the blur of the past six weeks. He's seen fighters torn apart by rockets. He's been shot at for trying to rescue rebel fighters. And three days before his wedding date, while he scrambled on the battlefield, supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi killed his fiancee back home.
Like many other doctors across eastern Libya, Mohammed has traded the hospital ward for the front lines, taking immense risks to do what they see as their part in helping the revolt.
"I don't know how to use a weapon, so this is my way to fight for freedom," Mohammed, wearing scrubs, a lab coat and wire-rimmed glasses, said over the weekend during a break a few kilometers behind the front lines near the oil-refinery town of Brega.
Doctors have been among the most organized groups in the rebel camp since the uprising against Gadhafi's 41-year rule began Feb. 15. Soon after the revolt started and rebel fighters began marching west to take towns still under Gadhafi control, teams of doctors rotated in and out of the fighting zones to treat the wounded. They set up supply lines to move medicine and essential supplies to the hospitals nearest the front, which has swung back and forth along the sandy Mediterranean coast over the past six weeks.
Doctors and drivers say being devoted to saving lives has earned them no mercy from Gadhafi's forces, who have opened fire on ambulances, destroying four of them. Four doctors are missing and one — a medical student — was accidentally killed by a NATO airstrike, said Gebreil Hewadi, a doctor and member of the rebel committee responsible for rebel medical affairs.
Another medic, Hatim al-Hodairy, said that when he and others tried to retrieve bodies in Ras Lanouf, an oil-refinery town along the Mediterranean Sea, government troops used the moment to strike.
"There were some bodies in a field that attracted a lot of people," he said. "Gadhafi's forces knew that relatives or friends and family would try to pick up the dead bodies, and started shelling us as we did. So we quit trying to get bodies from faraway places."
For Mohammed, a 30-year-old from Ajdabiya, the worst days also were in Ras Lanouf, which is now held by the government. In late February, the rebels were pushing forward in a mad dash west before Gadhafi's troops launched a rapid counterattack that sent rebel forces fleeing east.
"Gadhafi's troops were shelling three ways — by land, air and sea," he said. "They targeted ambulances, and three were hit. Twice I was in a car that was hit. One time, the engine was shot. I had to jump out and into another vehicle. There was a patient in the back of my car, so I had to come back and get him. The oil was dripping out of the engine. All I could do was jump in and drive."
Mohammed said the front line, now to east of Ras Lanouf, has become less bloody since then. Rebels have improved their organization, relying more on former military members and lightly trained volunteer.
In Ras Lanouf and Bin Jawwad, a town to the west, "I usually carried out 18 to 20 killed and wounded a day," Mohammed said. "Now a normal day is only one or two."
The number of doctors and ambulances out in the field has dwindled from a high of 18 down to seven or eight over the past six weeks as the number of casualties has fallen.
After more than a month together, those still manning the front line have become a close-knit band. Most of them sleep in the hospital or at a friend's house in Ajdabiya, a dusty city of some 140,000 east of Brega and about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Benghazi, the rebels' de facto capital. Their days begin together around 8 a.m. — with coffee, tea and toast with marmalade — and finish well after sundown.
"Sometimes we're so busy we can only recall the last hour. Before that, we can't remember a thing," al-Hodairy said.
Each ambulance normally carries an anesthesiologist, a general surgeon and a driver. They provide basic medical support, inserting intravenous drips, setting fractures, staunching bleeding and stabilizing patients to keep alive as they are rushed back to Ajdabiya for treatment. The worst cases are taken to the two primary hospitals in Benghazi.
The work is exhausting — they sometimes steal a nap on the stretcher in the back of the ambulance — but it gives them a sense of pride. They often deflect the trauma with humor.
"I told the guys here that if a woman doesn't come in with a bullet, I'm not going to treat her," joked Zaid Abdalla, an anesthesiologist from Benghazi who worked with gynecologists before the uprising. "A general surgeon then said if someone comes in with an inflamed appendix and no gunshot wound, he's not touching him."
The doctors' efforts and sacrifices have won them the respect of rebel fighters.Comment on this story
"They're playing a big role in the revolution. They go into dangerous places, and sometimes the ambulance is the only thing going in. They do more than they should," said Mohammed Abdel-Karim, a 12-year army veteran, on the front outside of Brega. "God help them."
All the doctors on the front have seen tragedies in their ambulances, and had friends killed. Mohammed's time at the front, however, has been colored by a personal tragedy he wasn't around for at home.
His fiancee, Iman, was killed by Gadhafi supporters in the city of Bayda on March 6, three days before their wedding was scheduled to take place. She was shot. That's all he would say.