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Libya

Stranded under the shells

“I was asleep upstairs when the shells hit” said Hassan, talking of a few nights previously when this huge crater in front of his shop was made. Qaddafi forces had been shelling this ...

Misrata By Night

  Misrata by night 

 It was fast approaching dusk as Hussein called to me, telling me I had to join him. I had trusted this man with my life on several occasions, and I felt that I couldn’t refuse him. There was a battle raging in the Zawiya district of Misrata, and he had to rush his ambulance there. 

 We arrived to find heavy shelling, as pick-up trucks raced past us, either ferrying more guns to the front-line, or boxes of ammunition. The light was beautiful, but the scene was not. 

 But then night began to draw in, and as we crossed the city again, away from this apocalypse, I was reminded of a fellow journalist’s comment a few nights previously. 

 
   The best advice I’ve ever been given is never go into a gun battle after dark. You can’t report if you’re dead. 
 

 I had never been “out” in Misrata at night, and the city had a deathly calm to it, interrupted only by occasional bursts of gunfire and shelling. 

 At a checkpoint, a group of rebels stood around a fire. Guns over their shoulder, they were chatting as we stopped to see how they were doing. This was a soulless road to be posted on. 

 We later drove around the side-streets that bordered Tripoli Street. They seemed very different come night fall. Our ambulance drove without headlights along the pitch-black streets—the lampposts had long since ceased—and Hussein occasionally flicked on his headlights for the briefest moment to spot the debris the lined the road. A flash of a torch, prompted by our rumbling engine, marked a checkpoint ahead. 

 This was the city by night. Flashes of light.

Misrata by night

It was fast approaching dusk as Hussein called to me, telling me I had to join him. I had trusted this man with my life on several occasions, and I felt that I couldn’t refuse him. There was a battle raging in the Zawiya district of Misrata, and he had to rush his ambulance there.

We arrived to find heavy shelling, as pick-up trucks raced past us, either ferrying more guns to the front-line, or boxes of ammunition. The light was beautiful, but the scene was not.

But then night began to draw in, and as we crossed the city again, away from this apocalypse, I was reminded of a fellow journalist’s comment a few nights previously.

The best advice I’ve ever been given is never go into a gun battle after dark. You can’t report if you’re dead.

I had never been “out” in Misrata at night, and the city had a deathly calm to it, interrupted only by occasional bursts of gunfire and shelling.

At a checkpoint, a group of rebels stood around a fire. Guns over their shoulder, they were chatting as we stopped to see how they were doing. This was a soulless road to be posted on.

We later drove around the side-streets that bordered Tripoli Street. They seemed very different come night fall. Our ambulance drove without headlights along the pitch-black streets—the lampposts had long since ceased—and Hussein occasionally flicked on his headlights for the briefest moment to spot the debris the lined the road. A flash of a torch, prompted by our rumbling engine, marked a checkpoint ahead.

This was the city by night. Flashes of light.

Crossing Tripoli Street

I didn’t register where we were at first. The vehicle I was in stopped behind a building at the corner of a deserted road; on the other side stood a group of rebel fighters.

Hussein, the ambulance driver I was traveling with, is a calm man. But as he started muttering Islamic chants to himself, I realised that something was not right. La ila illa Allah (“there is no god but God”) and Allah akbar (“God is greatest”) betrayed his concern.

And then we sped forward, bouncing over the central reservation as the fighters opposite us waved us on, telling us to hurry.

I glanced left, and saw a familiar sight. This was Tripoli Street, and we were crossing it. To my right was the roadblock behind which I had sheltered from gunfire just the day previously. We were on the other side of it now, driving across a no-man’s land of bullets. I found myself echoing Hussein’s mutterings.

As we pulled into the safety of a side-street opposite, I jumped out to catch some frames of fighters running across in the opposite direction, to where we had just lunged out from. Their guns were blazing, firing aimlessly as they sprinted across the road. The pick-up trucks mounted with heavy machine guns are providing their cover fire.

“We have made some advances since yesterday” a familiar rebel fighter tells me. They have indeed. They are several blocks further towards their target, a building containing the “Qaddafi snipers”.

Over the course of the following hour, the rebels would assault this building with gunfire, rocket-propelled grenades and a deafening 106 recoilless anti-tank gun. The pick-ups would race out into the street, emptying their chain of bullets, and then speed back into cover.

Other fighters would take their place, brazenly stepping out into the street, emptying their belts.

I couldn’t help but think that they were suicidal.

Another group take me into a small building, where a hole from an incoming shell provides them with a glimpse of their enemy’s position. From the buildings corner, a group of three men peer around the corner through binoculars, before firing off rounds from their rifles.

The efficacy was questionable, but their desire was not. This was the battle for Tripoli Street.

The innocence of youth

Bullets lay out on mat, surrounding a shisha pipe, amid the breeze-block walls of a building under construction, surrounded by scrubland.

Inside it, a group of around twenty-five young fighters are holed up, many wearing the white headband of martyrdom with Qur’anic verse written on them. These are young men, many of whom are students, who have picked up arms as they hope to defend their city.

Light from the holes in the walls streams onto these young men’s faces, as they clutch at semi-automatic rifles, watching a green building, opposite.

In this building are Qaddafi fighters, the green a coincidence of their allegiance. The students opposing them describe them as “commando snipers”, Qaddafi’s elite, proving their shot by picking off anything that becomes visible. I can’t help but think of the fragility of the wall behind which these young fighters shelter. One RPG shot and that would be the end of their war. And mine.

Many of those fighting in Misrata are not experienced combatants. They are regular men—and boys—who are fighting to protect their city, and their families. It is their knowledge of the terrain, their organisation, and their numbers, that have prevented their more practiced foe from taking the city.

On the drive here, I had passed a young boy herding his sheep through the lanes of a small residential district. So much for the innocence of youth.

The rising toll of the war

Today was a hard day.

Fighting had been hard on Tripoli Street, today, where I had witnessed the rebels making some gains. But arriving back at the hospital, bringing a man injured on the front-line, it was clear that fighting throughout the rest of the city had been even harder.

The rebels were making a concerted effort to consolidate their positions, but were doing so with heavy losses.

Pick-up trucks and ambulances a steady screech of tyres as they arrived outside the hospital, overwhelming the already exhausted medics working in the triage tent.

“In the theatre now, there are two amputations now” said a doctor, adding that throughout the day, he had seen a lot of gunshot wounds to the head. “This afternoon is getting worse.” The corridors of the hospital are lined with beds, the wounded spilling out from the wards.

And as the afternoon dragged on, the dead became harrowingly apparent. In the space of half an hour, three corpses were brought out of the hospital, taken away for immediate burial in a stream of wooden coffins.

The cries of la illa illa Allah never seemed to stop, as mourners and hospital staff cried out the Muslim chant of “there is no god but God”. This was pushing many here close to breaking point, as they asked “how can Qaddafi do this to his own people?”

It would be a busy night for the grave diggers, and many would wake in the morning to find their family torn apart.