With battle pushed back from their city, residents of Misurata begin to rebuild

May 28, 2011

In downtown Misurata, the detritus of war litters the streets. Buildings are shattered, cars are burned out and roads remain blocked by shipping containers filled with sand.

For three months, this city was the scene of bloody street battles as Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi’s forces fought for control. But residents took it back, block by block, street by street, and a few stores and coffee shops have tentatively reopened their bullet-scarred doors.

Fighting continues on three fronts outside the city, and the bodies of rebel fighters are brought to hospitals each day. But rockets no longer rain down on homes, and the city is trying to get on its feet again.

The recovery effort is loosely guided by a committee of residents, drawn mainly from the judiciary but also including doctors and engineers among its 20 to 30 members.

“We started with daily needs, services such as sewage, water and electricity,” said Hassan Tuhami, a member of the committee.  “We set up about 10 specialized committees to run the city.”  There are also about 20 subcommittees, including ones for the military, security, fuel, communications, port and food aid, he said.

Three central warehouses distribute food to about 50,000 families. But Abdul Basat al Hadad, who heads the relief committee, said supplies are running low.

Another committee, staffed by engineers and architects, is working on a report evaluating the damage to Misurata’s buildings. Rebuilding the city will require considerable investment, but Tuhami was optimistic about the prospects of a quick recovery, aided by support from international donors.

Lights still flicker on and off. “We used to take our electricity from the high voltage line that goes along the coastline, but these were hit by Gaddafi’s forces,” said Abu Bakr Sadik Zuwawi, chairman of the fuel committee. Power now comes from a generating plant at a steel factory in the city but that “is not enough for Misurata,” he said, adding that the city’s fuel supply is also running low.

At a private clinic that for months served as an emergency hospital, doctors are beginning to slow down.

“It is a little easier now, but we are still working hard,” said Ibrahim Beheih, an orthopaedic surgeon from Benghazi, the opposition’s de facto capital in eastern Libya who had come to Misurata to help the doctors at the hospital here. Doctors from as far away as Switzerland and even Canada has also come, he said.

“For 90 days we are working and sleeping here,” said Abu Bakr Traina, the head of Misurata’s medical committee, said at the clinic. “We are so tired, really so tired. I don’t know what is the day now.”

Like the other doctors in the city, he was working as a volunteer. “Three months we haven’t been paid our salaries,” he said, explaining that their payments through a centralized system in the capital, Tripoli, stopped after the uprising began.

While aid has arrived at the port in ships from Benghazi, there are still shortages. Yusef Erfaider, who manages medical supplies for the city, said the situation has improved “but I need more supplies.” Bandages, painkillers and anesthetics are available, but X-ray films, vaccines and chemotherapy drugs are in short supply, he said.

Communications equipment such as satellite dishes and phones have been donated by wealthy individuals. One donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns, said he had provided 40 satellite dishes and 100 satellite phones to families here. But communications remain difficult. There is no cellphone network, and Internet connections are available in only a limited number of locations in the city, where private citizens have installed two-way satellites.

A supermarket in the center of the city was well-stocked with high-quality Western brands, but no fresh food. People lined up to buy food, but there was no sign of panic buying or inflated prices.

Ali Naairi, 27, manages the supermarket, which is owned by his family. He said the supermarket had only 40 percent of its usual goods, and that milk and pasta were especially difficult to find. Throughout the city, fruits and vegetables, eggs and dairy products are scarce. The shops that usually sell these remain closed.

Despite the efforts of its enterprising citizens, Misurata is still a city in a state of emergency. Sheikh Khalifa Zuwawi, the chairman of the new city council, dismissed any suggestion that the siege had been lifted.

“We are still at war,” he said. “The city of Misurata is still fighting in the outskirts and on three front lines. Our families are still suffering from the casualties, and they are feeling the sorrow. The blood is still running.”

Walker is a special correspondent.

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