By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International crisis researcher
Yesterday, at the home of the Dbeish family in Hay Dollar, a wealthy neighbourhood in the south-west of Benghazi, Hanan, a mother of six, showed me the smashed up bedroom where she had been sleeping with three of her children when a rocket smashed through the ceiling last Saturday morning, 19 March. Not only Hanan but also Mohab, her nine-year-old son and Bariq, her daughter aged 11, sustained multiple shrapnel injuries all over their bodies. By great good fortune, their injuries are mostly superficial and Hanan’s baby son, Fawzi, just six months old, escaped unharmed. All are now back at home and recovering.
Hanan told me: “I was breastfeeding the baby and shielded him with my body and the blanket. It was terrifying. As the sound of shelling and shooting in the distance got closer I told my husband and the children to come to this side of the house which is further away from the street. I was afraid of the shooting, I never thought that a rocket would hit the house”.
Surveying the damage in the bedroom, I could see that Hanan and her children were very lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries. There was a large gaping hole in the ceiling where the rocket had come through from the roof-terrace and smashed through the floor between the two beds where Hanan and her children were sleeping; much of the furniture was broken by shrapnel from the rocket and flying debris.
Rockets like the one that hit the Dbeish family home landed in several other locations, fortunately without causing casualties among the civilian residents of the area but damaging property. At least two rockets, both packed with small metal balls, had landed nearby. One landed in the courtyard of the Souissi family home, where it destroyed several cars and damaged windows and walls. The other landed in the street, severing power cables.
Yet another rocket landed that morning in the car park of the hotel where I was staying; again, there were no casualties, only damage to some vehicles. These rockets were seemingly launched from some distance away to the south-west of Benghazi, where Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces were present and advancing towards the city.
As Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces penetrated into the south-west outskirts of Benghazi with tanks and heavy armour, other houses and buildings, including a hospital, were hit by other projectiles, including artillery/tank shells and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades).
In the wealthy neighbourhood of Taballino a tank shell landed on the roof-terrace of the al-Farsi family home, injuring two women – Nadia and Inas. They too were lucky to escape with relatively minor injuries. In the same neighbourhood a private hospital also came under fire. Fortunately, there were few patients and neither they nor any of the staff were harmed. At the hospital’s main gate the ambulance drivers’ sitting room took a hit – fortunately no one was in the room at the time.
Hospital staff showed me the remains of a tank shell and an RPG but it was not immediately clear which of these had hit the room. The main hospital building, the staff accommodation block and a wall that surrounds the hospital compound had been hit by bullets. Bullets also went through the windows of the OT (operating theatre) and of a patient’s room in the maternity ward but, again, fortunately, no-one was present in these at the time.
However, doctors and nurses at the hospital told me that six new-born babies and four female patients (three post-caesarean and one pre-caesarean section) had been in the ward and even though all escaped physical injury it had been a harrowing few hours for patients and staff alike. They said too that a hospital employee had been threatened and shot at by armed men who had wanted to prevent him locking the side gate of the hospital compound but he had ducked and luckily managed to dodge the bullets and reach relative safety.
In the same neighbourhood I viewed another house that had been hit by an RPG. Again, the family who lived there had a lucky escape as the RPG went through the outer wall and into the living room, where the elderly owner of the house was then sitting but fortunately without causing him or anyone else injury.
Sadly, other residents of the Taballino neighbourhood were much less fortunate, though doctors are now optimistic that four-year-old Mohammad Ahmad al-Ma’adani, who I first saw in hospital on Sunday, the day after the attack, will recover from the serious chest injury he sustained the previous morning.
He and his family were shot at as they fled from their home to the home of some relatives who lived a few streets away. But little Mohammad does not yet know what happened to his parents. His father, Ahmad, was shot in the head and chest and died a few hours later. His mother, Asma, was also shot in the head. Doctors say she has no chance of survival.
Mohammad’s 21-year-old aunt, Ghalia, is still in hospital; two bullets went through her left arm and hand, causing multiple fractures in her hand.
She told me yesterday about the family’s ordeal: “We had a sleepless night as we heard that Gaddafi’s troops were approaching on the road to Benghazi. By the morning the tanks were on the main road which goes past our neighbourhood, just down the road from our house, and they were shooting and shelling the area. We left our home and drove to our relatives a few streets away, further away from the main roads where the tanks were. As we turned into the street where our relatives live our car was shot at. Ahmad, who was driving, was injured first and the car stopped against the wall of a house.
“They continued to shoot at us, lots of bullets came through the car and everyone was injured, there was blood everywhere. I grabbed little ‘Omar (Mohammad’s brother), who is three years old, and ran into our relatives’ house. He was the only one who was not injured. He was sitting on my lap and I tried to shield him with my arms. My husband lost his left thumb and his other brother was injured in the thigh.”
When armed clashes occur in residential areas, where there is no clear and defined front line, it is often particularly difficult, if not impossible, to establish with certainty which party was responsible for launching which projectiles.
The difficulty is all the greater when, as in eastern Libya right now, the same projectiles are being used by both sides. The weapons and vehicles, including tanks, used by those opposing Colonel al-Gaddafi were taken from Libyan army barracks when his forces were earlier made to withdraw, and are thus largely indistinguishable from some of those used by the forces loyal to the Libyan leader.
That said, the evidence available so far indicates that the rockets mentioned above were most likely launched by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces as they mounted their attack on Benghazi but it is more difficult to determine which parties fired the artillery, tank shells, RPGs and bullets.
With armed al-Gaddafi loyalists in plain clothes, working as individuals or in groups, reported to have stepped up their attacks and activities in the past week, many people here in Benghazi, mostly youth, are now carrying firearms and weapons, ostensibly for their own protection against these “dormant cells” – the Lijan al-Thawriya, or revolutionary committee, as they are known.
The increased tension, coupled with the lack of training, inexperience and the sheer bravado of many of the, mostly young, opposition fighters results in a fair amount of reckless use of weapons, which also endangers the lives of residents.
While many people here privately express their concern about this development, there is for now little space for public debate around the issue, as people continue to feel threatened by forces and groups loyal to Colonel al-Gaddafi, both here in eastern Libya and in the rest of the country. The fact that telephone communications between the east and the rest of the country have now been cut for many days – except for the fortunate few who have access to satellite phones and internet connection – only adds to and fuels the sense of fear and anxiety.