Libyan rebels' stronghold becomes ghostly war zone

A rebel supporter shoots an AK-47 rifle as she reacts to the news of the withdrawal of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's forces from Benghazi.
A rebel supporter shoots an AK-47 rifle as she reacts to the news of the withdrawal of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's forces from Benghazi. (Reuters)
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By Sudarsan Raghavan
Sunday, March 20, 2011; 12:57 PM

IN BENGHAZI, LIBYA No one knew his age, but he looked no older than 5. He lay unconscious in a hospital intensive care room, tubes attached to his thin arms. A bullet had entered his chest, ripping through his frail body. His mother, too, was fighting for her life. Surgeons in the operating room were pulling shrapnel from her brain.

"Only God knows if they will survive," said Ali Bashir, an emergency room doctor at Benghazi's Jalla Hospital.

Mother and son were inside their car, fleeing the onslaught of Moammar Gaddafi's forces that invaded their Benghazi neighborhood in tanks and trucks Saturday morning. After fierce street battles, after barrages of artillery and rockets pounding this rebel stronghold and cradle of Libya's populist uprising, Gaddafi's troops withdrew in the afternoon.

They left behind a city ruled by anguish and fear. It was a city that, at least for a few hours, felt a collective sense of betrayal by the international community for delaying action to stop Gaddafi from attacking its civilians.

It was a city startled by what it quickly metamorphosed into: a ghostly war zone filled with barricaded roads and shuttered shops, its rhythm dictated by armed men, heavy shelling and tons of bullets. As black plumes of smoke rose over this eastern coastal hamlet, thousands packed their cars and fled in the direction of the Egyptian border.

Bullets, perhaps stronger objects, tore into the car carrying the mother and her son, then tore through their bodies.

"We don't need U.N. resolutions, words or meetings. We need action," the doctor said with bitterness in his voice. "Where is the international community? We are running out of time."

'We haven't lost'

Late Friday night, Gaddafi's forces, backed by tanks, by pickup trucks with mounted machine guns and by groups of snipers, swiftly rolled down the highway linking Benghazi to the city of Ajdabiya, about 100 miles south. They reached the entrance to Benghazi early Saturday morning and began to bombard parts of the city.

//About 6 a.m., shells began to rain down on Hay-al-Dolar, an affluent enclave. In one house, they destroyed two cars and peppered the walls with holes the size of baseballs. In another house, they shattered the windows.

Abdul Hakim Fadhil al-Bargati pointed at the gaping hole in the ceiling of his bedroom, where a shell hit as his wife, 9-year-old son, 11-year-old daughter and 4-month-old baby were sleeping. It sent debris and shrapnel onto the bed, injuring his wife and the two older children. Nearby were two blood-soaked pillows.

"As the roof fell, I leaned over to protect my baby," said his wife, Hanan, who had a cast on her leg. "That's why he survived."

Their neighbor Mohammed, who feared giving his last name, was preparing to leave with his family of nine. A shell fell opposite his house. "We'll look for another place safer than this," he said. "Egypt, perhaps."

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