Packed with humanitarian aid, food, weapons, ammunition and rebels soon to be on the front line, a small Libyan fishing vessel sailed away from the eastern port of Benghazi last month, making its way west.
“Qadhafi’s destroying buildings and shooting innocent people like women and children,” said 28-year-old Walid al-Fitouri as he sat in the captain’s wheelhouse. Like dozens of others on board, he was going to help his comrades in Misrata, Libya’s third largest city, which has been under siege by Colonel Muammar Qadhafi’s troops for two months. Caught in a crossfire and faced with heavy bombing and economic devastation, the city’s residents are facing countless struggles as rebels battle regime forces to keep hold of their western bastion; Executive was in Misrata to document the siege.
For weeks, rocket propelled grenades and bullets have whizzed down the city’s central frontline of Tripoli Street, which runs from the center of town west toward the nation’s capital.
But this isn’t the only place where violence abounds; Qadhafi’s forces have surrounded the city. On a rooftop not far from Misrata’s port, a woman who asked to be referred to as “Mrs. Mustapha” rocked her six-month-old granddaughter, Aisha. Just two days earlier a rocket hit the family’s home and put a hole in the baby’s bedroom ceiling. “What’s wrong with them? These are children. Innocent children,” said Mustapha. It was 6:30 a.m. when four rockets hit the family’s home, causing part of Aisha’s bedroom ceiling to crumble. Now displaced from their home, the family lives in a makeshift apartment, where 30 people share two bedrooms and one bathroom. Aisha and her grandmother are a few ofthe lucky ones; no one was injured in the surprise attack. Like so many others, they have been pushed from their homes after weeks of heavy bombardment of civilian areas.
One local elementary school is home to at least 25 families, some with more than 30 members each. “We’re homeless,” said the elderly Hania Abdallah, who sleeps in one of the school’s classrooms, “[Qadhafi] is bombing our children and he’s taking us as prisoners.”
After two months of Qadhafi’s troops pounding Misrata, some estimates placed the city’s death toll by mid-April at more than 1,000 people. At one of Misrata’s hospitals, head doctor Fathi Mohammad said he was seeing eight to 10 deaths on average each day and had counted more than 1,500 injuries. Many of the victims are unarmed civilians.
Abdel Basat Ibrahim never thought he’d be confined to a hospital bed when he went out to buy his family groceries. On an afternoon last month he was with his neighbor when the two men were hit by a sniper. Doctors say many patients have also been wounded in their homes; too often they see injured, or dead, children.
Logistics of living under siege
As Executive went to print, mobile networks in the city had been down for about a month, and water and electricity had also been cut. Before the uprising began in mid-February, water entered Misrata via The Great Man-Made River — the network of pipes Qadhafi’s government built in the early 1980s. The flow of water has since been electronically switched off meaning that many residents were forced todraw water from coastal wells. But the wells could become contaminated by infected runoff because the city’s sewage system has been blocked.
“This is criminal,” said Nassar Sahli, a Libyan water quality consultant and professor. “Water and electricity shouldn’t be stopped for any human.”
Residents said electricity is out in areas of intense fighting, and that it was being rationed in residential areas. Roads leading to nearby farms and factories on all sides of the city were blocked, and the city’s dairy factory had been recently bombed. The only way goods could enter the city is via the port, which, too, has been continuously shelled by Qadhafi’s troops. On the same cold night that the rebel-packed Libyan fishing boat pulled into Misrata, the road leading from the sea into the city was lined with shipping containers in flames. The day before, rockets and cluster bombs hit the port.
“Nowhere is safe in Misrata — not one single place,” said the port’s radio controller Said al-Fitouri, adding that access to the sea let the city’s residents survive. “The port is like the mouth of the human. If you close the port, that means you will die.” The occasional shipment of vegetables came in by boat, but the small imports were not sufficient to meet the need. Grocery store shelves were sparsely stocked, some completely empty. The shortage of food — particularly fresh produce — had prompted the price of vegetables to increase tenfold. As an example, Shoukri Mohammad, a father of five, said that on a rare day last month when tomatoes were available he bought a one kilogram bag for 5 Libyan dinars [$4.16], up from 50 dirhams [$.41] before the siege.
“It’s difficult to live on bread and water alone,” said 50-year-old Mohammad. “But for change, we’ll go through anything.”
On sidewalks and side streets across the city, men young and old waited in bread lines for hours each day. Ahmed Rouad, 65, sat with his head in his hands; his skin is burnt from the coastal sun. “I’ve been waiting in line for bread since seven o’clock this morning,” he said. By then he’d been waiting four hours. Bread factory owner Ali Abdel Karim said there was a shortage of flour and it was difficult for his business to operate with little electricity. “We open from 10 to three o’clock everyday, but people wait in line from dawn,” hesaid.
At a nearby fuel station, the situation was not any better. On a typical day, more than 200 cars piled up. “I spend half my day waiting in line for bread, and the other half waiting for fuel,” said Abdel Hakim. With unpredictable attacks and snipers poised on roofs, many people were afraid to go to work. Countless numbers of shops and businesses had closed, and residents said only two fuel stations in the city remained open.
Strong family ties seemed to have kept Misrata functioning financially, even when every bank in the city had closed: many of those who did not have cash borrowed money from others.
“Many people in Misrata are businessmen and traders, so they keep money at home,” said Misrata resident Yahia Hamsa. “But people aren’t buying and selling a lot.”
Roads weaving through the city were secured by rebel forces at checkpoints, with roadblocks made of piled sandbags and metal pipes. Local groups had issued rebel fighters identification cards that they had to carry with them at all times. On one long road in particular, drivers tended to speed up. “There’s a sniper up there,” said Said al-Fitouri, pointing to the top of a white building.
Rain pelted the small fishing vessel as it pulled away from Misrata’s port. This time it carried more than 100 refugees who were lucky enough to be able to escape.
“Life in Misrata is unbearable,” said Mohammad Nour, huddled in a group to hide from the wind. “They’re striking all the time – night, dawn and morning.” And so dozens like Nour had boarded the rickety ship to make the 36-hour journey to safety. As the boat pulled close to the port in rebel-held Benghazi, the passengers cheered, “Free Libya!” and “God is great!” One man slowly stepped off the boat. His son greeted him with a hug as tears ran down his cheeks.