When the guards entered my cell at 3:30 in the morning on July 24, they didn't jingle their keys or shout the way they normally did. Instead, they whispered: "Ashraf, Ashraf, wake up! You must prepare yourself for a visit."
I jumped up, looked at the clock and felt an ominous sense of doom. Who would visit me at this time of the night? The thought flashed through my mind that they were going to shoot me now, and that they would later claim that I had tried to run away.
A few minutes later I was standing in the office of the prison warden. I was told to apply my fingerprints to a piece of paper to confirm that I wanted to leave the country for Bulgaria. The process was videotaped. They took me to the part of the prison where the five Bulgarian nurses were kept, and then they took all of us to the airport.
There I was asked, once again, whether I wanted to stay in Libya or travel to Gaza. "I want to go to Bulgaria," I replied. "You have destroyed my life, my family's life and the lives of these nurses. I do not wish to remain in this sort of a country for another second." The official was livid. "You are witnesses," he barked at the Palestinian and Bulgarian envoys.
My life in hell began back in August 1998. I had completed my medical exams in Libya and was working as an intern at the huge pediatric hospital in Benghazi, initially in the gastroenterology department. The infectious disease section was closed. A sign that read "HIV-infected" hung on the wall behind one of the beds in my area. The occupant of that bed was a seven-month-old baby that had undergone surgery in Egypt to correct a bone deformity. The child's infection was also detected at the Egyptian hospital. It was the first HIV case I saw.
I had already been working in another department for some time when, on Dec. 13, 1998, I was summoned to appear at a police station, where I was arrested. I spent the next three days in a tiny cell. The reason, I was later told, was to await the results of an HIV test, which turned out to be negative.
'Hundreds of Infected Children'
One of the officials said to me: "We have hundreds of infected children, and we know that you are to blame. You picked them up and injected them with the virus." I responded: "If that's true, then shoot me in public on the main square in Benghazi." Of course I picked up the children before each examination, but only to take away their fear.
"You have had sexual contact with a foreign woman," the police officer continued. It was only then that I realized that a scenario was taking shape that had been mapped out by someone higher up in the hierarchy and in which I had been chosen as the scapegoat -- I, a refugee from Palestine who had lived in Libya with my parents since I was two and for whom this country was in fact home.
My family is very conservative. My fiancée, a Palestinian, had died the year before, and I was just beginning to start a new life with another woman. Because I knew that the Bulgarian nurses at our hospital had also been interrogated, I assumed that the accusation of having had "sexual contact" involved one of them. But then the police let me go, telling me that I had only been there for routine questioning.
Benghazi was practically a war zone at the time, with a group of radical Islamists fighting in the streets. Our hospitals were filled with the injured, and hygienic conditions were disastrous. We didn't have any needles and the sterilization equipment was broken. A single pair of scissors was used to cut the umbilical cords of a dozen newborns. Seventy percent of the children infected with HIV also had hepatitis B.
The Libyan authorities were very concerned about the HIV infections. The government felt powerless to deal with a steadily rising AIDS rate caused by uninhibited sex and many things that happen behind closed doors. The hepatitis B epidemic was later confirmed by both the lower courts and Gadhafi's son, Seif al Islam, who studied abroad and is worldly. But his father's will is law in Libya, and he controls both the judiciary and the sentencing system. Moammar Gadhafi had to have someone to blame, someone to satisfy the furious parents of the infected children. Under no circumstances could any blame be assigned to the corrupt healthcare system, which the government neglects.
When I returned to my dormitory on Jan. 29, 1999, after visiting my parents during Ramadan, I found a note instructing me to report to the chief of police once again. For the next 10 months, it was as if I had vanished from the face of the earth. My parents looked for me in hospitals and scanned the lists of the dead. It took them a long time to find out that I had been arrested.
At the police station on that Jan. 29, at 11:35 p.m., they put me in handcuffs, covered my face with a black mask and locked me into the trunk of a police car. For the next four hours the car was driven through the countryside at high speed. Those four hours seemed like four years to me. It was still dark when we arrived at a building in Tripoli. It was freezing cold. They had taken everything from me but my shirt and my trousers.
The next morning two men began to beat me. They shouted: "You infected the children with AIDS, and you were instructed to do so by the CIA and the Israeli intelligence agency, the Mossad. You and the foreign woman with whom you are sleeping. You came to our country as a spy. You are nothing but scum and filth."
Then they drove me to a building about four kilometers outside Tripoli. It was a sort of farm for police dogs -- the ideal place, from their perspective, because no one would be able to hear us scream.
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