Libya: Misrata faces up to death and destruction

  • 25 April 2011
  • From the section Africa
Mohammed, a 10-year-old resident of Misrata who was hit by the crossfire between rebels and Col Gaddafi's forces
Image caption The war in Libya is all too real for 10-year-old Mohammed, hit in the head in the crossfire between rebels and Col Gaddafi's forces

For 10-year-old Mohammed, war used to be a game - his favourite game. He would lose himself for hours in shootouts on his games console.

But he is a child of Misrata, where the bloodshed is now not make-believe.

And just over a week ago, as he played in his yard, a speeding bullet penetrated his skull. Doctors say a fragment passed right through his brain.

Now he lies in a hospital bed, conscious but gripped by a searing headache. His voice rises and falls with the waves of pain. He cries out for his uncle, for God, and most often, for his mother, Zeinab, who keeps a vigil by his side.

"The bombing had stopped so he went outside to play with his cousins," she said. "He was tying his shoelaces when the bullet hit him. It's a miracle he survived."

Before he was hit, Mohammed was already contemplating his own death, Zeinab says.

"Two days beforehand he told me, 'If I am killed don't cry. You should celebrate. I will be a martyr,'" she says.

Endless flow

Mohammed is her only child. Mother and son suffer as one. When he cries, she winces, gripping his hand, and reciting prayers. Doctors say he is improving, but they are concerned about his headaches, and the risk of a haemorrhage.

Casualties arrive at the hospital in an endless flow - as if on a conveyor belt. Over a 15-minute period recently 120 were rushed in.

"We are exhausted by blood, and exhausted by death," said Dr Abdullah Jawad, a casualty surgeon. "We have been working like this for 60 days. Col Gaddafi just wants to kill."

Soon after we arrived, visitors were asked to clear the crowded hospital car park. Staff were worried the large numbers could provoke a mortar attack.

The medical staff are battling against fatigue, shortages, and their own grief.

"Misrata is a big city, but we are one family," said Dr Fathi Mohammed, a softly spoken young surgeon. "Sometimes you don't have time to even look at your patient, but after a few minutes you realise that you know him, and he is dying.

"My school friend died in front of me. At any time they might bring some of my family here."

On most days at least 10 people die in the hospital, he says, with over 100 injured - most of them young.

Cluster bombs

The wounded arrive with horrific injuries - the result of mortars, grenades, and snipers. An increasing number have lost limbs - which may be the result of cluster bombs.

Image caption The use of what look like cluster bombs explains some of the horrific injuries doctors are seeing

We found remnants of these widely banned weapons attached to a makeshift barricade in a district near the front line. The rebels there told us they had been used on homes and a supermarket.

By day, these rebels mount checkpoints - a kind of armed neighbourhood watch. And by night they fight - often to the death.

Their leader, Hasan Duah, is a middle-aged factory worker who never expected to take up arms.

"On the first day we went down into the streets to hold a peaceful demonstration," he said. "We've been forced to hold guns and weapons to defend ourselves."

Two months on they have mastered street-fighting techniques, and used their local knowledge to their advantage. In key areas of the city centre the rebels managed to encircle Col Gaddafi's forces, cutting their supply lines.

At the weekend the regime claimed to have suspended operations against the rebels, and its forces withdrew in places. Since then, however, the deadly shelling of the city has continued, and Misrata has seen some of the worst violence since the siege began.

"The retreat is just a trick," said Rida al-Montasser, a rebel supporter and local organiser. "Gaddafi intends to send his soldiers back here in civilian clothes."

It's a tactic the Libyan leader has used before, in battlegrounds in eastern Libya such the town of Ajdabiya.

Cracks, thumps, thuds

Many in Misrata believe there is a lot more fighting left to do.

"It could go on for another two or three months," said Kasim Ibrahim, a businessman. "But if Nato really helped it could be over in 15 days."

During a three-day stay in the city, we heard Nato warplanes overhead several times, but did not see or hear any fresh air strikes.

Image caption Rebel fighters have had to learn on the job

But another soundtrack became very familiar - the percussion of war. Both day and night were punctuated by the cracks, thumps, and thuds of heavy artillery and mortars. Sounds that can mean instant death - for fighters and civilians alike.

The rebels have suffered heavy losses - clearing one key intersection cost 100 men. A shortage of weapons can mean that guns have to be shared, passed from hand to hand at the end of fighting shifts.

One 20-year-old student told me he was often bare-handed on the front line. When two of his best friends were killed beside him by a mortar attack, he left the besieged city - but only to look for guns.

Rebel sources told us they are getting re-armed from their de facto capital, Benghazi, but so far had not received weapons from foreign friends like Qatar. A three-man French team had arrived in the city, they said, to help pinpoint the location of Col Gaddafi's forces.

What the rebels lack in arms, they appear to make up for in resolve. And, critically, they know the consequences of failure.

"When I fight, I have a big chance to win," said Mr Montasser. "If I give up I will certainly die. Gaddafi will not leave us alive."

Many in Misrata stress that their revolt is for freedom, not for bread. The port city has a long history as a centre of trade. It has a developed infrastructure, and an educated population. The problem here was oppression, not poverty.

Before the uprising in the city, Mr Montasser was a businessman, with a tile factory. Now he's a revolutionary, with a beard. But he's quick to explain the facial hair now sported by many men in Misrata.

"Please don't think we are al-Qaeda," he said.

"We all agreed not to shave until Col Gaddafi was gone," he said. "Nobody thought it would take this long."