In Misratah, a city under siege

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s crisis researcher.

I reached Misratah today after an 18-hour journey by sea. As we approached the port, it appeared that we might have to turn back because the area near the port was coming under heavy rocket fire from Colonel M’uammar al-Gaddafi’s armed forces.

Several journalists were also on board our ship, including reporters from major international media from the US, the UK and France, as well as some freelancers. At last, through these efforts the wider world will come to learn more of what is and has been happening in this besieged port city, home to more than 300,000 people.

As we waited offshore we were alongside other boats, bringing much needed medical and other humanitarian supplies, that were also waiting off the coast until the artillery shelling came to a stop.

Eventually, we docked. But as we did so plumes of smoke were still clearly visible rising above a point where yet another projectile had smashed into the port area.  I did not hang around – nor did anyone else from what I could see – to find out what sort of rocket it was or, indeed, whether it was a rocket or a mortar shell.

Previously, the area around the port had been considered relatively “safe” – inasmuch as anywhere can be deemed “safe” in a city where indiscriminate rockets are being launched into residential areas by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces.  The neighbourhoods to the west of the port looked eerily deserted and empty – residents have either fled the area or are stuck indoors, taking what cover they can. I will find out in the coming days.

I went immediately to the hospital where, in the intensive care unit (ICU), I saw little Arwa, a little girl aged about five or six, who had been brought in earlier in the day with very serious shrapnel injuries to her neck and abdomen.  Doctors said that both her parents and her grandmother had also been injured when a rocket struck their home earlier today, 14 April, in Zawia al-Mahjoub, a neighbourhood on the western side of the city.  They were being treated at a local clinic and it was only the little girl who was brought into this hospital. The journey to get here is a perilous one and so only those with the most serious injuries who cannot be treated locally are brought here.

I also saw a 44-year-old man from the same neighbourhood lying unconscious in the bed next to the little girl. I cannot give his name or those of others due to fears for their safety. This man had been shot in the neck twice – it was said to have been done by members of Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces – while he was in his home on 2 April.  Doctors showed me his X ray and medical file. Both bullets had entered the left side of his neck, one damaging the oesophagus and the other severing his spinal cord.  If he survives he will remain quadriplegic – completely paralyzed from the head down – for the rest of his life. A terrible, tragic sight.

Another patient in the ICU, a man aged 26, was also lying unconscious having sustained serious head injuries as a result of shrapnel that remains lodged in his head.  One surgeon told me that the operation he requires is a difficult and delicate one that should really be carried out by an experienced neurosurgeon. But there are no neurosurgeons available in Misratah and so the doctors will just need to do their best. A friend of the wounded man who had been injured in the same attack is being treated in another ward of this hospital.  He was in obvious and severe pain but he told me brief details of the attack.

“It was about 7.30 pm and me and two friends were at the home of another friend.  We had just finished our ablutions before prayer when a rocket hit the garage where we were,” he said.

His wounds are serious but fortunately not life-threatening.  Doctors told me that the shrapnel in his back was deeply embedded and had to be removed from his abdomen.  He still has shrapnel in his right thigh which will need to be removed when he has recovered sufficiently from the first surgery on his abdomen.

These were just a few of the wounded that I saw.  They were all ordinary people, unarmed civilians who were not taking any part in the hostilities when they sustained their injuries. As well, however, the hospital is treating opposition fighters who have been wounded in armed confrontations with Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces.

The hospital is one of several small hospitals and clinics that are being used now to treat the wounded since Colonel al-Gaddafi’s armed forces seized control of the area where Misratah’s main city hospital is located. Here, a small team of doctors from an Italian NGO have been providing much needed assistance for the past few days.

They and other doctors at the hospital told me that most of the patients they have been receiving in recent weeks have been injured by shrapnel from rockets, as the city’s residential areas have come under more and more rocket attacks from al-Gaddafi forces. Today alone, at least a dozen civilians were killed and many others injured when rockets landed in the Qasr Ahmad area, near the port, in the east of the city.  Eyewitnesses said that several of the victims were standing in a queue outside a bakery waiting to buy bread when rockets hit nearby.

Snipers belonging to Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces are also reported to have been actively deployed in various parts of the city presenting an additional, serious threat to local residents.

In the coming days, I aim to find out more about these attacks and the other abuses being committed against the inhabitants of this city under siege.