BBC News

Gaddafi's home town Sirte blasted into the Dark Ages

By Wyre Davies
BBC News, Sirte

image captionOne of Libya's most modern towns, Sirte has been blasted to smithereens.

Across Libya in recent days, people have been partying, crowds gathering in public places and everyone has been looking forward to building a new country after more than 40 years of stifling, dictatorial rule.

Everywhere, it seems, except for Sirte.

I spent much of the last month here in Sirte, Col Muammar Gaddafi's home town - a place he had built up from a position of almost insignificant obscurity to become one of the most modern and well-appointed towns in the country.

For the last two weeks, forces from the new transitional government had bombed and blasted Sirte back into the Dark Ages, as pro-Gaddafi fighters inside the city refused to surrender.

Return to rubble

It was to this devastation that the Hassan family returned to over the weekend.

Hoping that they would be able to move into their modest apartment near the beachfront, those hopes were dashed as soon as they saw what was left.

Every single building here bore significant bomb, rocket and bullet damage.

The family home, if you could any longer call it that, had a huge hole in the wall where the living room used to be. There was barely a single item worth salvaging from the rubble.

image captionPeople returning to Sirte have been searching for loved ones

A very angry and clearly upset Dr Ahmed Hassan spoke to me briefly before returning with his family to the tent they now sharewith other families from Sirte in the desert, a short drive to the east of the town.

"I am a lecturer at the university here... What did I do to deserve this?" protested the father of five.

He did not admit whether or not he'd been a Gaddafi supporter.

He shrugged his shoulders when I asked him about the scenes of celebration in Benghazi, Tripoli and Misrata.

"I don't really care. We'll see what happens," he said - clearly unconvinced by the path being taken in the "new" Libya.

What to do with Sirte and the hundreds of thousands of people who supported Gaddafi for so long is one of the most important issues for the transitional authorities here.

At the huge rally in Benghazi to mark the end of Libya's civil conflict, speaker after speaker stressed the importance of national reconciliation, and of not allowing the country to fragment along tribal and geographical lines.

Back in Sirte after the battle, the guns may have fallen silent but there is much animosity in the air.

This does not yet feel like a place ready to discuss reconciliation.

Gaddafi's final days

One reason why the fighting in Sirte went on for so long and was so fierce is now abundantly clear.

image captionAfter fleeing Tripoli, for the first few weeks at least, Col Gaddafi lived in relative comfort.

Gaddafi had been hiding out here ever since the fall of Tripoli two months ago.

It appears, that in the first few weeks at least, he lived in relative comfort in a large villa in the middle of Sirte.

When I went there, it was well-appointed for a long-term guest: plenty of food still in the cupboards and even an exercise bicycle in the living room.

But even here, the fighting became too intense.

I was then shown a succession of small flats and even cellars where the former leader spent his final days - scurrying between hideouts in Sirte, ultimately unable to escape the ferocity and intensity of the incoming fire.

The town has been blasted to smithereens.

The main road running through the area which saw the worst of the fighting is called Dubai Street. I have rarely seen such a picture of destruction.

Terrible retribution

Some people have more than possessions to pick over and recover.

At one location on the western edge of the city, not far from where Gaddafi's "escape" convoy was halted, I counted 61 bodies laid out in white bags on the dusty desert floor.

image captionA picture of destruction - Dubai Street where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

These were Gaddafi's bodyguards and fighters, but they were still husbands and brothers and sons.

A small succession of returning residents carefully zipped open each bag - holding their noses against the overwhelming stench - to see if they could recognise and claim the body of a loved one.

On the other side of the town, days later, at least 50 bodies were found scattered on a patch of grass.

It is thought they were also pro-Gaddafi men - shot dead with their hands tied behind their backs.

Muammar Gaddafi was an undoubted tyrant, whose regime killed and tortured thousands of opponents.

But there is disturbing evidence that, in the bitter final days of this conflict, terrible retribution was taken against many of his supporters, particularly here in Sirte.

A military commander in Sirte, from the National Transitional Council (NTC), told me that the priority here is to stabilise the city from a security perspective, to make sure that all Gaddafi's troops have been captured.

Only then, he added, would they talk about how to rebuild the town but where to start?

This town, where Gaddafi spent billions, will not enjoy such favour and privilege in the new Libya.

Some say that Sirte should not be rebuilt at all but instead left in its destroyed crumbling state as a memorial to Colonel Gaddafi's victims.