Medics and rebel fighters treat a badly wounded comrade at a hospital in… (Associated Press )
Reporting from Ajdabiya, Libya — Rajab Zawiyeh, a Libyan businessman, drove to this coastal rebel stronghold two days after he heard about an outbreak of fighting in the nearby oil city of Port Brega.
Zawiyeh's 25-year-old son, Imad, was fighting at the front, and he feared for the young man's safety. Monday morning, he got a cellphone call: His son had been wounded.
Zawiyeh, 57, sped to the main Ajdabiya hospital, where he found his son's bloodied face swathed in gauze. A stained bandage was wrapped around his leg.
A rocket fired by government forces had exploded yards from Imad just outside Port Brega, where rebel forces were in the fifth day of an assault designed to retake the strategic city.
"It got my face and my leg," Imad told his father, who was struggling to hold back tears.
These were not tears of sadness, the father said, but of pride. For 41 years under the rule of Moammar Kadafi, he had never felt patriotism.
"Now I feel like a patriot," he said. "I'm so proud of my son. He's a hero."
Imad grimaced beneath the clumsy gauze. "As soon as I'm healed, I'm going right back to the front," he said, and his father beamed.
The painful wounds of Imad Zawiyeh added to the long roster of dead and injured posted on a wall at the hospital. After weeks of relative quiet, the rebel assault on Kadafi's forces dug in at Port Brega has overwhelmed the small staff of doctors and nurses.
Dr. Mohammed Abdulkarim, rushing from one wounded rebel to the next, keeps the casualty figures in his head. He rattled them off as he strode the darkened hallways.
"One dead Thursday, 10 Friday, nine Saturday, four Sunday," he said. And the daily wounded: 14, 86, 83, 63. The totals: 24 dead and 246 wounded in four days.
More than half the casualties have been caused by land mines laid by government forces, said Dr. Ramadan Salem. Most of the rest are from rockets and mortar fire.
"These mines cause very serious wounds; they're quite dangerous," he said.
The rebel advance has been halted by hundreds — some rebels claim thousands — of mines. Port Brega, 45 miles from Ajdabiya and 140 miles from the de facto rebel capital of Benghazi, has switched hands at least three times since rebels drove Kadafi's forces from most of eastern Libya in mid-February. The city and its petrochemical complex have been held by government forces since March 31.
A few miles from the hospital Monday, rebel fighter Khabab Sadiq sped into Ajdabiya, trailed by a wailing ambulance carrying more casualties.
Sadiq had just returned from the front, where he said rebels had surrounded Port Brega from four directions, including in boats from the sea. He said rebels had entered New Brega, a residential area along the coast, but that Kadafi's forces were still holding out in the city and oil complex.
"It's the mines; we can only clear so many each day," he said.
Inside the hospital, the arriving wounded were trailed by fellow fighters, their fatigues smeared with their comrades' blood. Behind them were friends and relatives, their faces creased with worry.
By late afternoon, at least a dozen injured fighters had arrived.
Here was Sanad Deab, 25, writhing in pain on a gurney. He had gone down at his fighting position nine miles from Port Brega. A comrade squeezed his hand.
Here was Abdelhakim Mohammed, 22, a medical student serving as a medic at the front. He had been hit in the back by shrapnel as he ran to treat a fighter with a grievous leg wound.
Here was Fouzy Sharif, 32, a gunner who fires helicopter rocket pods converted for use as ground weapons. He had been trying to fire a rocket when it exploded, maiming his right hand and breaking two bones.
And here, in Bed 2, was young Imad Zawiyeh, gauze draped loosely over his face to ward off the flies that swarm through the ramshackle hospital.
Zawiyeh was born and raised in Port Brega, where his father lived and worked for 35 years before fleeing the latest government takeover more than three months ago.
"Now I'm fighting to liberate my home," Zawiyeh said.
His father brushed away the flies from his son's face and said, "Not just Brega, but all the way to Tripoli until Kadafi is finished."
In the hallway outside, there were sudden shouts. A shaheed had just been brought in — a martyr, the 25th. One of his grieving comrades knew only his first name: Mutez.
The dead man lay on a gurney at the main hospital entrance, his body wrapped tightly in a blue sheet. Only his pale feet showed, the toes wrapped in gauze.
Fighters who had dropped off their wounded friends walked past his still form, headed to their vehicles outside. Each one paused to bow and gently touch the dead man before racing back to the front.