Wednesday 28 March 2012

Kevin Dawes Part Two - Dafniyah/Misrata Frontline

Kevin Dawes, from San Diego, California travelled to Libya in June 2011 as a photojournalist, but almost immediately became involved with assisting rebel medics on the Dafniyah-Misrata frontline, and eventually ended up fighting alongside the rebels in Sirte, where his time in Libya came to a sudden and violent end.  He filmed much of what he experienced in Libya, and has uploaded around 300 of those videos onto his Youtube Channel.

The following map details some of the locations visited by Kevin Dawes in Libya, along with videos filmed in the area:

View videos and locations visited by Kevin Dawes in a larger map

Diary Entry June 10th
Massive shelling of our aid station.  Everybody chanted a prayer while we waited for casualties.  I rode back with and treated two of them, started an IV line on one man with a bad head injury who had a blob of brain on his shoulder (probably not his) and wiped the face of another kid with an abdominal injury who was maybe 16.  Kept him calm while the other docs worked.

You say you became a medical assistant at the aid station, how long after your arrival was this, and can you describe your duties at the aid station?

It was June 10th.  I irrigated wounds, applied betadyne, once started a line, changed IV bottles with only two recorded accidents, took vitals, cut off clothes, held the light, and cleaned. I also served as a mobile instrument rack for the other people there.

These two videos were filmed after June 10th at the field hospital:

You were at the aid station during heavy fighting on the Dafniyah front west of Misrata, can you describe the sort of injuries you were seeing, and the number of casualties the aid station was receiving?

We lost track pretty quickly. We were seeing primarily massive blast traumas. Peppering wounds of the head, chest, and abdomen. Blast dismemberment was common. In a few videos we quote numbers but I do not have reliable statistics available. Lots. One thing to note- we did not see a single gunshot wound.

Was Dr Tameem the only qualified doctor at the aid station?  The rest were medical students and volunteers?
No, there were maybe two or three doctors including Dr. Tameem? Dr. Tameem would have better exact numbers. I may have seen an artificially low number given the traffic in and out of the station. The vast majority were medical students. I distinctly recall one trauma that was run entirely by medical students. I saw a kid do a panic venasection and then forget to start a line. He just cut the guy. Didn't increase the severity of the injuries appreciably, for whatever that's worth. Real deal panic attack, too. Breathless. The trauma in question was a male with a severe blast injury to his legs. They were covered in quarter sized holes. Many were penetrating. A large chunk of his left foot was missing along the arch. You could see all of the tendons inside of his foot.

He was very dry. No bleeding from any of the holes. They were just blackened and full of sand. I spent my time trying to irrigate them clean with a first year medical student who was bad at using betadyne. Then I saw a little swell of dark red venous blood ooze from the missing chunk on his foot. Then he suddenly moved his feet in two slow little beautiful circles. He activated every muscle. I saw his tendons working inside of his foot. Even with his ridiculous injuries he still had full nerve and blood supply as well as an intact orthopedic infrastructure. This man would keep his legs if the post-injury infections went smoothly. After seeing the incredible toll taken by infection I adopted a personal protocol advocating aggressive and immediate administration of ceftriaxone. At the time of injury if possible. There are other possible antibiotic combinations that work but the ceftriaxone is considered a first option drug that works in the majority of cases and it is really easy to administer.

Based on the pattern of injuries it looked like a mortar had landed directly at his feet. I imagine the blast concussion (it's really a diffuse axonal injury) had him out of it enough not to be miserable. I never did give anybody a single neurological assessment the whole time I was there. In hindsight he was *very* out of it.

I'm also stupid for not having a stethoscope. Airway guess and check was contingent on me sealing my ear to you.

The injuries were very gruesome. Breakdowns were pretty common for people at the end of the day. The venasection came in while I was spraying 0.9% sodium chloride into one of the man's sand holes. He said: 'I have .. I have.. I have to do a venasection. Venasection!' and he connected two of the holes in the man's calf with a scalpel blade held tightly between two fingers. The skin pulled apart readily exposing the muscle underneath. It was apparently under a lot of elastic loading from the swelling underneath.

The man's wounds were very gruesome and shocking. Proper triage gave way to a panicky 'maximal response'. Everything was stable. He was just covered in horrible wounds that needed to be debrided and closed. Lesson learned.

Was Dr. Tameem a local doctor, or someone who had come from outside the city?

He was a local doctor.

With a lack of medical supplies did you see much improvisation by the medical teams?

Yes, after some digging Dr. Tameem and I agreed on using lengths of  heavy gauge electrical wire as tourniquet material when this supply ran out. The practice was very rapidly widely adopted after the advantages became clear. Bare copper is aseptic and after twisting the wire on it tends to remain in place. I still remember walking into the field hospital one day and seeing this glittering curtain of bare copper wires hanging off of a rack next to the IV bags. 

Where any other foreigners or journalists at the aid station?

I saw none until much later when Paddy Wells appeared there to film. 

Dr Tameem tell you much about his encounter with Tim Hetherington? 
Yes, that was actually one of the first things he told me about. He was hesitant about details because the man had died. We discussed the reasons why he died. It was for want of a chest needle.

In Misrata on June 10th Dr Tameem is clearly unhappy that NATO warplanes only appeared 3 or 4 hours after Gaddafi tanks arrived.  Did NATO generally take that long to respond to threats like that?

Early in the war, yeah. Later in the war they were a lot more effective but they had a smaller target search area too. 

Was the aid station you worked at targeted by Gaddafi troops, and did you hear about any other medical facilities that were targeted by Gaddafi troops?

Yes it was; according to the medical staff this was the situation across all of the facilities. It is why I withheld GPS coordinates for our particular aid station until the front moved. The bulk of the artillery was consistently hitting that small field near the ambulance bays. I did not want the enemy to see my video on Youtube and then correct their fire.

So you worked at the aid station, and then began traveling with the ambulances?  Can you tell me what you experienced during that time?

In short we drove up and down the front really fast looking for seriously wounded fighters. We often drove through sections of burning trench and passed fighters with grievous but not mortal wounds looking for more immediate casualties. We didn't even slow down. It was quite grisly.

Did you come under fire at anytime when working with the medics out in the field?

We were under continuous bombardment. Quiet periods were rare.

Then there was the incident when Gaddafi forces executed an ambulance crew.  Can you provide more information on that, and the reaction of the rebels in Misrata?

Everybody was shocked and enraged, basically. At this point they were convinced that they were fighting animals. So people armed themselves and their worlds were rocked. We had spent so much time treating Qaddafi's wounded and lovingly swaddling Qaddafi's dead only to be met with this... many people broke.

Did you see a significant change in behaviour towards the Gaddafi wounded by rebel fighters and medics after the incident?
Nope. Still collected and buried properly. People were just rattled and angry.

After the ambulance execution incident did you receive weapons training yourself?  Were you provided with a weapon?

I've been an avid pistol and rifle marksman since 2000. I'm well versed with the operation of the AK-47 assault rifle, having previously owned one. I was eventually given a Romanian PSL that had been taken from Bab al-Azizia. I regularly stripped and clean this weapon and was otherwise skilled in its maintenance and operation. The controls and mechanics are virtually identical to those of the AK-47. I was already familiar with the style of range finding reticule the scope used. I really do have a lot of firearms experience.

No, I didn't receive training from these guys. Other way around.

I watched some of them clean their rifles with RAID roach killer, once. This is not their usual thing.

From your discussions with Dr Tameem it seems like the whoever was the most senior person avaliable at the time made any decisions? 

Yep. Kinda. There were classes of authority. You'd still see disputes within each tier.

What was the impression you got of the organisation and command structure of the rebels in Misrata?

Very ad-hoc.

I noticed in one of the videos filmed on June 9th you have "NATO" written on the top of your helmet?

I was warned to do this the day I arrived 'or the choppers might get me'. Air strikes are almost a magical force to people on the ground. So I'll go with: 'Magic Warding Symbol'.  A careful eye will also notice a Rebel gang symbol dating from June scratched on my helmet. On the brow. The blocked X.

Was that widely used in Misrata?  Did it represent separate militias or fighting groups?

The gang symbols are from very early in the war. They indicated that you were with the rebellion and changed regularly. I had the last one circulated.  People would scrawl them onto vehicles with soap.

You mention an elite unit in Misrata who drive black technicals, can you provide any more information about them?

They were based at the Marina and would go tear-assing to the front to reinforce any weak points. They were awesome. I befriended them while at the Marina, they had great senses of humor.

You also mention a Misratan who defended his apartment building with petrol bombs and salvaged MAT-120 submuntions, could you expand on that?

Yeah, prior to these guys assaulting and taking the air force academy there were no guns. Seeing how they fought anyway was neat. I now know of at least a dozen ways to take out tanks with basically nothing. This particular guy collected and refuzed UXOs. That's pretty dedicated, right there. I was filled with respect and admiration. He also drove an ambulance around.

We suspected that he might be Zorro, and lots of rumors were flying around about Zorro back then (regarding just what he did), but after some checking it turned out that Zorro was just some chubby kid who blew up a building with an SPG by way of lucky shot. There were some rumors that Zorro was a vigilante bomber taking out targets inside of the rebel structure that he felt were Qaddafi-loyal. This is untrue.  It grew out of his original story.

Can you tell me a bit more about "Zorro"?

Very nice guy. Tea with him was lovely and I think his friends are all very nice too. He made a great shot with an SPG from the shoulder. It took courage. His boldness was rewarded, too, as he felled a building with his shot. From this he became a legend. Kinda neat.
From what you were told did it appear that early on in the conflict the Misratan rebels got most of their military equipment by capturing it from Gaddafi soldiers?

No, it was all swords and spearguns and other crap for a while and then there was the pivotal battle of the airforce academy where huge supplies of weapons were secured. After that, they had guns. Before that, they'd take out 14.5 MM gunners with fishing supplies and the standard weapon was the molotov cocktail.

Where the rebels you encountered generally civilians who took up arms?  Did you encounter or hear of any defected Gaddafi soldiers fighting on the side of the rebels?

Yeah, and a few that I heard of. They usually didn't speak up or occupied a command position or something. Nobody distinguished one from the other in any way.

Did you encounter any other foreigners fighting with the rebels?

Yeah. Egypt and Syria, believe it or not. The Syria connection was the most fascinating to me. Did he mean Syria the country or is there a 'Sooria, Libya' somewhere? Any time I discussed Syria with other people they would pronounce it 'Sooria' so who knows. Ahmed got some footage of a white guy who said: 'Oh, if I told you who I worked for mate I'd have to kill you' but I happen to know this one. He was staying at the Baraka hotel (with the big name news teams) and was a security guy mocking a kid.

There were other westerners there. Americans, Finns, etc. The Americans trained fighters and mostly hung out in Benghazi with occassional trips to Misrata. No combat activities. The Finns worked at a field hospital near mine that didn't get as much business. They had older generation helmets and Raybans. Didn't encounter any French or British special forces teams all dressed up like Libyan country bumpkins hauling around a two way satellite transceiver and a ton of James Bond quality gear in the trunk of their ghettomobile while still inexplicably rocking awesome sunglasses, if that's what you're hoping for. The only SF team I am aware of, by reputation only, got arrested and yelled at by a totally different group of rebels and I believe sent home. The British diplomatic mission?

There was also that Matthew Van Dyke guy. I snapped this photo at the Benghazi courthouse before heading out to Misrata. We never met in person.

A missing person poster for Matthew Van Dyke, Benghazi

Did you see any evidence of any religious radicals fighting with the rebels?

Nope. During Ramadan they told me to relax and not to worry about the fast. I still was invited to the dinners and so on. They thought it would be silly for a non-Muslim to go through all of the motions. Libya is not Saudi.

CJ Chivers reported rumours that the remains of Gaddafi fighters were being dumped at sea, did you hear or see anything to support that?

I did not.

Once Gaddafi fighters were treated do you know what happened to them?

They were shuttled away. I do not know what happened to them.

Could you describe any of the Gaddafi fighters that were treated as being mercenaries or foreigners, or where they described to you by rebels as such?

They were often described as mercenaries though I saw no physical evidence to support this. All were uniformed.

Did you hear anything about Tawergha, or the behaviour of Tawerghans when they attacked Misrata from the south?

I went there with a guy looking for his television but otherwise no, I didn't. He didn't find his television as the place had also been looted. It was a battle ruined ghost town. When I left it was being repopulated by people from Sirte.

Did you spend most of your time in Misrata with the same group of people?  


Could you give some more details of the people you spent time with in Misrata?

Not really. Nothing interesting, at any rate. They were regular Libyan people / journalists staying at the Gostik.

During your time in Misrata did you encounter anyone you'd describe as working for any foreign governments and assisting the rebels?


Did you encounter any other individuals acting as independent journalists in Misrata?

There were a LOT of freelancers in Misrata. Most of the people at the Gostik. Usually, they just name whoever their most recent / most regular customer is as their employer.

Were you told any stories about the start of the uprising in Libya?  Did they talk about peaceful protests being attacked with live ammunition?

Yep. Dr. Tameem, mainly. They are filmed.

What role did the women you encounter play in Misrata?

Nurses at the central hospital, mainly. I did not see a lot of women in Misrata, actually. This wasn't a women's rights thing, either, it was more of a 'Wow, Qaddafi's soldiers seem to really be rapetastic. We should send our women and daughters to the rear.' thing. It changed once the front lines got pushed back.

The ones in Benghazi carried AK's.

You mention rape by Gaddafi forces, can you give me any details of what you heard about it?  Did you hear any specific claims, or was it just a general view of the Gaddafi forces held by the rebels?

I was shown a video of some Qaddafi guys interrogating some captured rebels making crude remarks about their women. Nothing beyond that. It could have just been to rattle people. Then again, there was that truckload of seized rape supplies. Who knows.

Did you get the impression the rebels were using the term mercenaries for anyone who fought for Gaddafi, or did they use it for specific groups of fighters, for example black fighters?

It seemed overused but the sample group just wasn't large enough for me to say

How long did you spend with the ambulance crew?  Did you spend your time in Misrata with them until you returned to America?

The month of June, and yes, yes I did. More like forward medical faculty. Not 'ambulance crew'

So after June you returned to America.  Did you take the same route out of the country?

Nope, I left by way of Malta aboard the Al Entisar.

In part 3 Kevin Dawes describes his return to Misrata, and the journey to Sirte.

You can contact the author on Twitter @brown_moses or by email at Previously posted on my Libya Voices blog.

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