2 brothers' lives upended in Libyan fight

The scene was testimony to the wrenching changes war brings. It turned Dr. Ali Salhi, a Libyan dentist, into a battlefield medic. In a ship's corridor transformed into an intensive care unit, the patient he hovered over was his little brother, a lawyer who became a fighter to defend their home city Misrata from Moammar Gadhafi's forces.

Near a stack of life vests, Khaled Salhi lay unconscious on a mattress, a hunk of shrapnel lodged in his brain. Ali silently watched the tubes running into his brother's mouth and nose and listened to the beep of the heart monitor. Khaled hasn't woken up since he was hit.

But the 33-year-old Ali doesn't regret that his brother, six years younger than him, fought.

"If we all prevented our brothers from fighting, there would be no resistance to Gadhafi," he said Thursday. "My brother might die and others as well, but we have to defend our city."

On Thursday, the Ionian Spirit, a Greek passenger ferry, carried away more than 1,000 people fleeing Misrata. Also aboard the vessel, which docked in Benghazi late Thursday, were the bodies of an Oscar-nominated documentary maker from Britain and an American photographer who were killed covering clashes Wednesday.

Areas below deck were turned into impromptu clinics for the wounded. The ship's bar-disco was settled by Libyan families. Every hallway and seat was filled by others, including African and Asian workers, sleeping, eating, taking the opportunity of their first electricity in days to charge their cell-phones.

The two-month-old anti-Gadhafi rebellion has upturned lives across Libya, but perhaps nowhere else more completely than in Misrata, Libya's third largest city and the most significant rebel stronghold in the regime-controlled western half of the country. For nearly two months, Gadhafi forces have surrounded the city from three sides, pounding it with shelling and rocket fire, with ground troops and rebel fighters battling building by building along the main boulevard in the center of town.

Thousands have fled the city of 300,000 in ships from Misrata's Mediterranean port, on the more than daylong journey across the Bay of Sirte to the de facto rebel capital Benghazi. The Ionian Spirit's journey was organized by the International Organization for Migration.

The ship's passengers include dozens of injured and shell-shocked Libyans, hundreds of migrant workers from Africa, as well as smaller groups from Pakistan, Nigeria and the Philippines.

Their presence on a tourist vessel created bizarre contrasts. Many of the Africans were impoverished laborers who sneaked across the desert and entered Libya illegally to look for work. On the ferry, they took over nearly every seat, table and much of the floor in the ship's main cabin and outside deck.

Nearby sat 24 Filipinos, among them 16 who came to teach at the university in Misrata for salaries five times higher than what they could earn at home. The others worked as nurses or factory engineers.

Upstairs, the Panorama Bar holds more than 100 Libyans, mostly families with children, who tried to flee the city by tugboat before the ferry arrived. Now they sit and sleep at cocktail tables while their children race around and spin on the padded swivel chairs. Shutters on the bar have been tightly closed, and the conservative Muslim families have drawn the curtains across a small dance floor to provide privacy for nursing women.

"It's like a hotel," said Ahmed Stayta, 48, who was traveling with his wife and sister and four children, the youngest a one-month-old girl.

His wife Faiza, a lawyer, said they fled their home about two moths ago when fighting made the area unsafe. They lodged with friends near the port, but that area soon became unsafe too, she said.

"All the firing is random," she said. "You hear a rocket and you have no idea if it will come down on your house."

The family decided to flee after the shelling hit oil and milk factories. They were aboard a tiny tugboat waiting for the weather to improve enough for them to sail when the more hearty ferry pulled into Misrata's port on Wednesday, so they arranged to get on board.

The ship also carries an improvised medical unit caring for 58 injured Libyans. Some have been set up in sleeper cabins. Others are on mattresses on the hallway floor, their saline bags hung from handrails and doorknobs.

Their injuries reflect the city's, said Dr. Ahmed Jaaka. About half are civilians and half are fighters, he said. Three quarters have blast and shrapnel wounds from shelling, many with head injuries and shattered bones. The rest have gunshot wounds.

Four patients, all fighters, are in intensive care, one of them Khaled Salhi, who was hit by a mortar blast a week ago. He was set up in a sort of alcove near the reception desk on a lower deck, tended by his brother Ali.

Much of the shrapnel that peppered Khaled's limbs and chest was removed before he entered the ship, Ali said, but a large piece of metal remained in his brain, held stable by the white bandages circling his head. Sometimes his eyes flutter, or he moves his head or lifts his arm, which Ali loosely tied to a duffel bag so he doesn't hurt himself.

Before the uprising, the brothers were both educated professionals, seeking to advance in their careers, said Ali. He worked at a dental clinic while 27-year-old Khaled was an aide at a law firm. Khaled had graduated with high grades four years earlier but lacked the family connections needed to find good jobs under the Gadhafi system, Ali said. His brother was frustrated, but had never considered fighting the regime.

When fighting broke out, Ali abandoned his clinic and rushed to Hikma Hospital, where he volunteered with an ambulance crew. For weeks, he moved around the city picking up wounded people and rushing them to the overwhelmed hospital, he said.

His brother went to fight Gadhafi's troops, first with rocks and Molotov cocktails, later with guns captured from security offices or fleeing government forces.

"He felt he had to join because the fighting was so close to our home," Ali said. The family lived on Tripoli Street, the downtown avenue that has been scene of the most intense clashes.

"At first, my mother would tell him to stay home," Ali said. But when Gadhafi's forces started shelling the city and worries grew of a slaughter if the city fell, she changed her mind.

Early on, a sniper shot Khaled through the wrist, Ali said, pointing to the X-shaped scar left by the operation. Ten days later, Ali said, his brother was back on the front.

A week ago, Khaled dropped by the house where the family has been staying since fleeing their home. Ali saw him there.

"He came to check in on his mom and sisters and then walked out the door," Ali recalled.

A few hours later, Ali was at the hospital when his torn brother reached the emergency room.