Besieged city weathers continued attacks

April 17, 2011

The street that leads to the port of this strategic city in western Libya is known as the road of death. Dozens have been killed here as Moammar Gaddafi’s forces battle to retake the area’s only lifeline.

Misurata has been besieged for two months, and its residents are trying to flee, unable to cope with the terror of life amid random shelling and daily killings. Gaddafi is fighting hard to regain this rebel holdout, which is just east of Tripoli.

Misurata, a relatively wealthy merchant town with an estimated 500,000 people, stands between Tripoli and Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte. Rebel control of the city forces his fuel supply trucks to go through the mountains in a costly loop. It also undermines his assertion that the east is alone in its opposition to his rule.

Residents and doctors say the past two days were agony as rockets and artillery fire barraged the port. The death toll across Misurata on Sunday was 17, the highest since the first two weeks of fighting in late February.

Hikma hospital, a private facility that has become a makeshift trauma center, was sprayed with bullets Sunday, but doctors continued to work.


“The international community has to assume responsibility,” said Khaled Abu Falgha, head of the hospital’s medical team in Misurata. “I see civilians dying every day.”

One of the wounded on Sunday was a 10-year-old boy named Mohammed. He lay unconscious in the intensive care unit, shot to the head. The only sound was the beeping of heart monitors.

In the past week, many victims have lost limbs because of cluster bombs, Abu Falgha said. Since the start of the conflict, the hospital has recorded at least 300 fatalities. He said the overall death toll is probably closer to 1,000. At least 3,000 have been wounded, he said.

“Eighty percent of the dead are civilians,” he said, exhausted from his 24-hour days, which are broken up by small naps on a cot in the hallway.

The deaths, injuries and food shortages have left residents begging for international help. NATO planes fly above, but the echoes of artillery fire through the city are far more common than the sound of airstrikes.

The International Organization for Migration has made two runs to evacuate residents and bring in supplies. The 132-member group has cobbled together the funding for another run as humanitarian conditions in the city worsen, said Jeremy Haslam, who leads the Misurata mission.

“If we’re going to protect civilians, there needs to be more emphasis on the humanitarian assistance,” he said.

The city’s streets are full of the signs of urban warfare. Barriers are fashioned out of large pieces of water pipe and filled with sand to protect checkpoints. The city’s main road is hotly contested.

Pro-Gaddafi towns surround the city, and the only help Misurata residents receive comes from the sea.

Ali Hannoush, a rebel fighter and guard at the port, said that he has lived in fear for 60 days. He pointed out the gnarled cargo crates of chocolate and chewing gum that were hit by rockets.

“For every Gaddafi soldier we kill, we lose three or four of our fighters,” he said. “We’ve suffered since the beginning.”

But he said he is determined to stay and fight.

“We can’t leave,” he said. “If we leave, who will protect the city?”

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