Deep in Qaddafi-held territory, a rebel stronghold grits its teeth and hopes for the best.
- By Portia WalkerPortia Walker is a British journalist covering the Middle East. She has written for the Economist, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph, and The Washington Post.
MISRATA, Libya — In the center of Misrata, a small girl clambers on top of an abandoned tank. It’s part of a makeshift exhibit in a public square of this battered, besieged city, one of many scattered throughout. Beside a row of tanks, spent bullet cartridges and blasted rocket cases are carefully placed alongside boots and uniforms discarded by Muammar al-Qaddafi’s fleeing soldiers, all arranged as neatly as fossils in a museum display cabinet.
This is a city in shock. For two months, it was pulverized by troops loyal to the Libyan regime. Mortars destroyed civilian homes. Snipers took aim from towers. More than a thousand people died, according to the New York Times. Many more disappeared — or were taken — from their homes.
Now, Qaddafi’s soldiers have been pushed out to a perimeter 16 miles from the city’s edge. The people of Misrata are no longer at risk from rockets falling on their homes. But the siege is not over. This rebel enclave is deep in Qaddafi-held territory, only 130 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. Almost every day sees the bodies of wounded young rebel fighters brought to the city’s hospitals. Men are still dying here.
The city survives only because it is near the sea, and boats can bring food and medical supplies for its people and weapons and ammunition for its fighters.
"It’s a very bad situation," says Mohammed Salim, a 40-year-old engineer who was buying food for his four children at a small supermarket in the center of town. "Some days you need more than three hours to get bread." Qaddafi’s troops destroyed food stores and bakeries. There is little fresh food available inside the city, and the farms in the surrounding countryside are now inaccessible. Fruits, vegetables, eggs, and milk are hard to obtain. "We live now through the port," adds Salim. "If it closes, the city will die."
At night, the streets are quiet. Restaurants remain closed. The long, sandy beaches, licked by turquoise waves, are empty. For many, work has ceased. "There’s no jobs here now. Just helping the people, that’s our job now," says Majdi Lameen, 36, who ran an import-export business before the revolution.
Early on in the siege, the people of Misrata rallied to protect one another. Food was distributed to families in need. Private clinics opened to the public and provided medicine to the wounded for free. Shipping containers filled with sand were positioned across the roads, to impede the progress of Qaddafi’s vehicles.
A flow of volunteers came to help, arriving on boats from Benghazi and Malta. Misrata’s diaspora has returned to help. I meet Libyans who came back from Canada, England, and Switzerland to work. "We didn’t consider it our country," one of them tells me in fluent, accent-less English. "We considered it his country. And he ruined it." The privileged son of a prominent Libyan family, he once traveled the world. Now he fights at the front line.
Life here is on hold. Sometimes even the war is on hold. Despite the fighter jets blasting Tripoli and the combat helicopters newly deployed at the front line in the country’s east, the war continues into its fourth month with no clear end in sight. Qaddafi’s troops still surround the city on three sides, blasting the rebels with their heavy artillery.
One day at the front line, I find a circle of men sitting on picnic rugs in a copse of pine trees, sipping little cups of sugary tea as they wait for NATO to give them the all-clear to advance. They are frustrated not to be moving forward but understand that the area ahead of them needs to be kept clear for bombing and missile strikes. "I am sure they know what they are doing," says one of the men, "but I want to sleep at home now!"
These men, like everyone else I speak to, say that they would never accept a cease-fire. They are adamant that Qaddafi will go, maybe this week, maybe next week, but soon. "We will not stop until we reach Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli and catch Qaddafi," says one rebel commander, referring to Qaddafi’s Tripoli compound. He is confident that the towns along the way to Tripoli will fall easily, their citizens welcoming the rebel army.
Many people here are happy to talk. They speak faster than I can note down their words, say more than my interpreter can remember. After decades of caution and silence, the words come tumbling out: stories of suffering, tales of repression, wild conspiracy theories about what "he" — Qaddafi is always "he" — did in his four decades in power.
There have been other changes. A doctor frets about the violence that infests his children’s play, the pictures they draw of snipers and soldiers. The proliferation of small arms is startling. A young boy, no more than 7 or 8, plays with a loaded Kalashnikov, switching off its safety catch. I step into a car to find a pistol under my feet. The driver, a young man no more than 25, retrieves it with a smile and then stuffs it down the back of his trousers. He wears hair gel and designer sunglasses and walks with a swagger. I wonder what will happen when he can no longer carry a gun.
For days, I puzzle over why people wear the wrong photo ID cards. Then I see that the gray-bearded old man who drives me to the hotel and helps me find cars in the morning was once the dark-haired, clean-shaven, middle-aged man in the photo ID he wears on a cord around his neck. I had not thought it possible to age like that in mere months. When he talks about the son he lost, I begin to understand how it might be.
Walking with my interpreter, Osama, in a downtown square of shattered buildings like opened dollhouses, we find what looks like a burned copy of the Green Book, the Qaddafi-penned volume of political philosophy distributed everywhere in Libya. It turns out to be an Italian translation.
Osama is bewildered. "No one could understand the Green Book with Arabic," he muses, "so how could they understand it with Italian?" We ponder this as we trudge on through the rubble, past the tires people burned to make thick black smoke that snipers couldn’t see through, past another picnic rug lined with rows of spent bullet cartridges. Empty shell cases dangle above, tied to the fire-blackened railings. Osama looks down solemnly at one of the exhibits and then turns away, shaking his head. "After 40 years," he says to himself, "this is how we will remember him."