By Diana Eltahawy, Libya researcher at Amnesty International
About 10 weeks ago I was in Tunisia meeting families of people killed during the popular demonstrations that eventually toppled former President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali from power and inaugurated a period of much-needed change in the country. While understandably grieving at their personal loss, the families clearly also they felt a sense of pride and hope for a better future in Tunisia.
Now, I am again in Tunisia, this time as part of an Amnesty International delegation seeking information about the dreadful events that have been occurring across the country’s eastern border, in Libya.
I have been in Sfax, where we have met people who have managed to get here from Misratah, a city some 250km east of Tripoli, Libya’s capital. They, like Tunisians and Egyptians before them, took to the streets in mid-February to call peacefully for political and other change.
The trajectory of their protests however, took a very different turn compared to the events in Libya’s neighbouring states, and they found themselves in a city literally besieged by the armed forces of Colonel Mu’ammar al-Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with an iron fist since 1969.
One man we met a few days ago was an 87-year-old. We found him lying in a hospital bed in Sfax receiving treatment for an injury to his stomach that he sustained about a month ago. On the day in question, he told Amnesty International, Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces were approaching the outskirts of Misratah. He was in the passenger seat of a pick-up truck heading from his home towards his fields about seven kilometres south of Misratah when the vehicle was struck by two rounds fired from what appears to have been a 14.5mm calibre weapon – he thought it might have been an anti-aircraft machine gun – near the area of Gherian.
The driver escaped injury but the elderly man was wounded and required an operation and three days of treatment at the Mu’gama’ al-‘Iyadat hospital. He then returned to his home a few kilometres west of Misratah expecting to have a happy reunion with his relatives.
But when he got there, he found members of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces present. They entered his home and took away his son-in-law and his 26-year-old grandson. Since, then, he has had no news of them and he does not know their whereabouts.
The rest of his family, comprising women and children, fled from their home and are now hiding with five other families in a house further away from the centre of Misratah. He has no means of contacting them or finding out whether they are safe as telephone and internet networks have been cut in Misratah for several weeks.
In another hospital bed in Sfax, we met a 15-year-old boy who was recovering from an injury to his left leg. He said he had heard explosions at about noon on 1 April near his home on Mugamadat Street, which had been a bubbling commercial centre in Misratah before the unrest started.
He went outside, curious to see what was happening and was with five other youths, when he was hit by machine gun fire. His cousin who was with him at the hospital and who lives in the same part of Misratah, told how the area had come under attack that day by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces, who were targeting small factories and stores in the street used for storing sugar, pasta and flour supplies.
Armed confrontations ensued as local forces opposed to Colonel al-Gaddafi tried to thwart the advance. Following the attack, most of the civilian population of the area fled in fear for their lives.
We also met a 45-year-old Egyptian man who had lived in Libya for 25 years and who has now lost one arm as a result of being hit by shrapnel from an artillery shell fired from a tank.
The shell exploded on Zibla Street on Misratah at about noon on 24 March near a café where the man was meeting with two other Egyptians. They were killed instantly. He wonders why they were targeted as there were no armed confrontations taking place at the time and he and those with him were unarmed.
The tank that he thinks carried out the attack was positioned beside the Ta’min Building on Tripoli Street in central Misratah, which continues to be a stronghold of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces. The wounded man hopes to return to Misratah as soon as he can as he still has two children living there.
These three injured people had arrived in Sfax among a group of 71 wounded residents of Misratah who were brought to Tunisia by boat, together with accompanying relatives. They described Misratah as a city living on guard: most of it remains under the control of forces opposed to Colonel al-Gaddafi forces but it is surrounded by the Libyan leader’s armed forces who also control part of city centre, particularly around Tripoli Street.
They told of a city whose civilian population has been fleeing from the areas of armed confrontations and of people living in neighbourhoods which have no running water and where electricity supplies are disrupted.
They also spoke of trying to survive with diminishing food stocks with medical supplies running low, particularly before humanitarian aid began to be delivered a week or so ago.
They described how around 2,000 foreign nationals including Egyptians, Bengalis, and people from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, are living in makeshift tents near the port, surviving on what handouts they can obtain.
They referred to reports of abductions and rapes by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces, and to civilians being hit with various types of projectiles, including artillery shells, rockets, and rocket propelled grenades. They said some families had been shot in their cars as they were trying to flee.
With communications between Misratah and the outside world virtually severed and while the city remains besieged from all sides but the sea, it is well nigh impossible to verify such allegations, at least for the present, but there can be little doubt that the situation in Misratah remains dire.
For those now in the safety of Sfax, it remains a very difficult time as they worry about their relatives who remain in Misratah.
Mines pose new danger as Libya battles rage on (Blog, 6 April 2011)
Libya: Living in fear and caught in the crossfire (Blog, 1 April 2011)
Libya: Ajdabiya civilians tell of their dead amid the rubble (Blog, 30 March 2011)
Tensions rise in Benghazi as al-Gaddafi forces mount attacks (Blog, 21 March 2011)
Libyan families tell of unfolding nightmare (Blog, 18 March 2011)