I had no idea what to expect of the conflict in Misrata. For six weeks, the city had been under siege as a rebellion inside the city largely ousted the Qaddafi forces there. Few foreign journalists had been there, and telecommunications in Libya’s third largest city had long since been cut.
The only way into the city was by boat, and from what I could understand of the situation, there were at least three, fluid front-lines surrounding the city. From behind these lines, mortars, rockets and shells rained in, injuring and killing rebel fighters and civilians alike.
Cutting through the city is Tripoli Street, a major thoroughfare that has now become a street of killing. Along this road lie several buildings, still occupied by the Qaddafi troops, who from their vantage points, snipe at the rebels below.
I was surprised by the normality of certain districts of Misrata. I expected to find a city bunkered down for cover, but there are streets where traffic flows regularly and people walk to the few shops still both open and stocked.
But taking a turn towards Tripoli Street, through the make-shift road-blocks, the streets become deserted. And then begin the pockmarks on the walls. A few blocks from this lethal street, houses have been destroyed by shell fire.
On this first day in Misrata, I visited a house where a group of rebels took shelter from the constant fighting. Throughout our conversation, the sound of mortars landing nearby shattered through the frequent gunfire. Surrounded by a group of men clutching their rifles, an exhausted rebel holds a grenade in one hand, whilst smoking a cigarette in the other.
“Where exactly is Tripoli Street?” we ask. “You are on it” he replies. The neighbouring houses connect to it. Back outside the house, we stand on a road perpendicular to the thoroughfare, joining it at the end. My first sight of the infamous road.
As ageing man wearing a flak-jacket and a keffiyeh hauls his rifle onto his shoulder and walks down the street, the destruction of the buildings behind him is devastating. With talk of sniper alleys, and this amount of shelling and gunning, I am reminded of what I have read about Sarajevo, and of the scars of Lebanon’s war that I had seen in Beirut.
A short drive away, we walk through the alleyways of what used to be a bustling souq. The roof bears the scars of fighting, punctured by bullet- and shell-holes. One lone store stands out as clothes hang from the shopfront, its owner having fled before having had time to pack away his wares.
It is not the place to dawdle. Small groups of fighters peek around some corners, binoculars draped around their necks. At the ends of these adjoining alleyways lie buildings containing the “Qaddafi snipers”. We run across these openings, hoping not to attract their bullets.
The uprising here began several days after that of Benghazi, with fighters here describing their struggle as being one of solidarity with the demonstrators killed in the east. In Misrata, they were initially protesting the killing of civilians by the regime.
Now, however, they are united in a common struggle: to oust Qaddafi. Familiar graffiti lines the walls, and the derogatory names given to Libya’s leader are shared by the fighters in the desert.
What sets them apart, however, is the destruction inflicted on their city, for which they are fighting with such zeal. But then they have to. The Mediterranean offers the only escape route, they have their backs against the sea.