The western Libyan city of Misurata is under siege by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces. Darrin Zammit Lupi spent a few hours in the city harbour before all hell broke loose.
It’s a familiar sound I can hear rolling in from the distance, but I know right away it is not the cacophony of petards and fireworks.
This is no village feast, no festa season. It’s Misurata, a city that has been under siege by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces for close to two months. The sound is the constant thud of artillery and mortar shells crashing into the city. Nato fighter jets and bombers can be heard flying overhead.
Misurata is the last remaining rebel-held stronghold in the west of Libya, 210 kilometres from Tripoli. Its only lifelines are the sea routes to Benghazi, Tunis, and Malta, from where a steady stream of supplies has been trickling in over the past few weeks.
The trip was one of the humanitarian aid missions – a 43-metre French trawler, chartered by the Malta Red Cross and the French Red Cross, bringing 86 tonnes to supplies – water, food, medicines, nappies – to the beleaguered city, in its second such mission within a week.
The ship had arrived off the Libyan coast at dusk on Tuesday. It was too dangerous to enter harbour at night – there is no lighting, and even if there were, lighting up part of the port at night would be an invitation to be targeted by artillery.
A Nato helicopter flew over us, talking to the captain via radio and checking us out. Just outside Libyan territorial waters, the Canadian frigate HMCS Charlottetown was monitoring the area.
Radio contact was made with us to verify that the vessel was actually carrying humanitarian supplies. For those on board the aid ship, it was a reassuring sight. Should we run into serious trouble, help would not be far.
The approach to the port on Wednesday morning was fraught with apprehension – distant columns of black smoke could be seen rising into the sky. A small vessel was spotted approaching us. Several crew members on the bridge grabbed binoculars, straining to make out what it was.
For around five minutes, you could cut the tension with a knife. Was the boat hostile or friendly? It turned out to be the sort of boat one would expect when entering a harbour – nothing more innocuous than the harbour tugboat coming to direct us to our berth.
Misurata has two ports – a commercial port on the northern side, and a private port alongside a steel factory further south. The plan was to dock at the private port, but as we approached we could see a number of refugees had set up camp on the jetty by the water’s edge.
Beyond the port’s gates, out of sight, thousands of Egyptian refugees on the road leading to the city were clamouring to get in. Tension between them and the rebels was rising. Docking there would only stir trouble.
The French captain turned the boat around and headed for the main commercial port. Since then, many of the Egyptians have been evacuated to Benghazi by sea.
The ship docked on the quay closest to the harbour mouth. It looked dilapidated and deserted, save for a few people waiting.
Remains of destroyed vehicles, containers and an anti-aircraft gun were scattered around. Within moments, we could see clouds of dust whipped up by vehicles approaching us.
Rebel soldiers were in their technicals – civilian open-backed pick-up trucks turned into fighting vehicles, with 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns mounted on top.
They were quickly followed by Red Crescent personnel and a steady stream of volunteers arriving in cars and trucks.
The rebels were asked by the Red Cross to leave their weapons in their vehicles when they approached the ship to help with the unloading, both for safety reasons and because the Red Cross strictly maintains its neutral status during armed conflict, concentrating on its humanitarian role.
The ship’s French crew, all wearing Red Cross vests, and the three Red Cross representatives, two French and one Maltese, quickly set about organising the unloading of the supplies.
Human chains were formed, Red Cross and Red Crescent people working side by side. The ship’s cranes activated, and within minutes a highly efficient operation was underway. To cries of “Allah hu akbar” boxes were hastily passed from one man to another, while the cranes disgorged the heavy pallets of mineral water directly onto the backs of trucks.
The director of Misurata Red Crescent, Omar Abouzeid, appeared visibly moved by the activity and is fiercely proud of his society’s involvement in the humanitarian efforts.
“This is the proof that the Red Cross and the Red Crescent are noble societies, supporting people everywhere, especially in Misurata and Libya at the moment.”
Stressing that Misurata is a city under siege, he pleaded for more supplies, offering the Red Crescent’s assistance to any non-governmental organisations coming to Libya to offer support.
The unloading took around four hours, far less than originally anticipated. Everyone was keen to get the job over and done with as quickly as possible.
The situation appeared safe, but only because military action at the time was happening closer to the city itself, as well as in the city centre, confirmed by two rebels I spoke to.
In retrospect, we were not safe at all. Just lucky. Only hours after we departed to Malta, evacuating six Ukrainian medics and a family of seven Syrians as well as a British ITN TV crew, the port was heavily bombarded, leaving several casualties. It has not let up since.
A group of youngsters played on the cannibalised Soviet-built quad ZPU-4 anti-aircraft gun, its four gun barrels missing, facing the open mouth of the harbour.
Next to it was a container which must have served as a temporary home for the gun crew. It was riddled with holes from a bomb. A shattered television set, charred remains of a TV satellite dish, kettles, food and milk cartons littered the floor.
Shrapnel fragments were scattered all around. Spent gun cartridges from the ZPU-4 were half-buried in the dust. Further along, I came across more destroyed containers and the remains of vehicles which had been bulldozed into piles. A hundred or so metres away a truck lay abandoned, tyres burst, its side riddled with shrapnel marks.
In the city itself, the situation was critical. Misurata is split in two. The resistance fighters, few of whom are professional soldiers, have their backs to the sea and are under attack on three fronts.
Pro-regime snipers target anything or anyone that moves while mortar and artillery shells rain down onto residential areas. Tanks have taken up position close to the city centre, safe from Nato attack because of the confined space and vicinity to innocent civilians.
The resourceful rebels have rolled container trucks packed solid with sand into the middle of the city’s main thoroughfare, in effect making gigantic sandbags trying to offer some form of protection to people attempting to cross from one side to another, as well as blocking the tanks’ passage deeper into the city.
There have been reports of regime soldiers being chained to their posts inside their tanks to ensure they do not run away or stop fighting. One dead tank driver was found handcuffed to the steering tiller, with the words ‘Sorry Misurata’ next to him, scrawled in his own blood.
The local hospital is unable to cope with the influx of injured, most of whom are not fighters at all. Photos and video clips shown to me by a member of Red Crescent are too graphic to publish.
They form a gallery of stomach-churning horrors: dead and injured children with the most horrendous wounds. One picture shows a child whose body is riddled with bullet wounds. It is evident that many were deliberately gunned down by snipers.
Echoes of the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s ring loudly. US President Barak Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, writing a joint newspaper article, described it as a “medieval siege”.
This is a city Col. Gaddafi is determined to subdue at all costs, pounding it into submission by targeting its civilian population and infrastructure. Residents know they will be slaughtered should the regime’s forces break through the rebel defences.
There is no easy solution. Delivering humanitarian aid, of course, helps the people on the ground, increases their odds of survival, but it will not stop Col. Gaddafi’s assault. International leaders are aware of that, and now openly say they need to go beyond the remit of UN Security Council resolution 1973 in order to remove the Gaddafi family from power and in doing so secure the safety of civilians in Libya.
A ship delivering 350,000 litres of drinking water to a city with a population of 550,000 means less than one litre for each person for a day. It’s a drop in the ocean. It will take many more drops to make a tangible difference. And many more drops will surely follow.
The Malta Red Cross and French Red Cross, as well as other NGOs, are determined to keep the aid flowing, and are planning further trips. Malta has been the main aid lifeline to the city.
There has been talk among government officials of shipping wounded people from Misurata to Malta. Every day of waiting and talking about what to do means more innocent people on the ground die.
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