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Misratah: A city of tears

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International crisis researcher

By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International crisis researcher

Some of these homes had already been shot at or shelled before they left and many of those returning expected to find more damage. What some of them did find, however, was far worse than they had feared.

Several houses had been badly damaged by rockets, mortars and tank shells and some had been ransacked of their contents. At one house, returning residents say they found a military tank parked right in their large living room.

The entire front wall of the room had been smashed through and there were tank tracks still plainly visible in the dust and rubble strewn in the room and the nearby courtyard. By the time I arrived at the scene, the tank had already been moved out to an empty space across the main road and then set alight by opposition fighters.

There was clear evidence that the house had been used as a base by Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces. On the roof terrace, holes had been created in the surrounding wall, apparently to provide loopholes for sniper fire, and the floor was littered with spent bullet cartridges. The retreating forces had also left military boots and bits of uniforms scattered about but they had totally ransacked the house.

In every room, the contents had been thrown onto the floor and virtually every breakable item had been smashed. The aim clearly had been to destroy as much as possible of what the family who lived there owned. Worse still, the owner of the house, a father of eight children, had been seized and taken from his home by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces on 20 March, his distraught wife told me, and since then she has had no word of him.

He, like so many others, has disappeared.

One of the couple's sons, a final year medical student pointed to the books and papers scattered among the debris in his room and on the staircase and said to me despairingly:

“These are my books, my work of the past six years. What can I do now?”.

He told me he had not yet summoned up the courage to take his mother to see the house.

I met her later at the house of some of her family's relatives where she and her children have been staying since they fled their home.  She told me how worried she was because she had heard that many of the houses in the area had been badly damaged. I could not bring myself to tell her what I had seen and the destruction that has been wrought at what was her family's cherished home.

Across the street from that house a bakery and a grocery shop had similarly been smashed up and ransacked. Close by, two other tanks belonging to the Libyan leader’s forces had been parked next to the walls of residents' houses but then destroyed, apparently by NATO air strikes.

They had obviously been parked there, next to civilian buildings, in a vain attempt to shield them from possible air strikes.

At another house deeper inside the neighbourhood I met a group of women who had fled their homes.  One of them told me:  “The soldiers came into the area with tanks and shooting.  Initially the shooting was a bit far but from 16 March al-Gaddafi’s forces got closer and closer. There were hundreds of soldiers around and they were shooting and shelling.  It became impossible to stay in our homes and so we came here to our relatives, but we are overcrowded.  We are five families, more than 40 people and we are staying in a house meant for five people. 

Before we were able to leave we got stuck for several days in our home as al-Gaddafi’s soldiers advanced from the south through the farms. They were shooting and shelling.  We could not go out; it was dangerous even to go to get water in the courtyard. My aunt has renal failure and she needs dialysis three times a week but for more than 10 days she could not leave to go to hospital.  In the end some youth helped us and they carried her to the car and managed to get her to hospital by sneaking thorough small streets and avoiding the main roads where al-Gaddafi forces were positioned”.

In the centre of town, around the now infamous Tripoli street - the “frontline” where fierce street battles have been fought out for weeks between Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces and opposition fighters - families have been hiding in their houses, not daring to go out and fearing that their homes could come under fire at any time.  In fact, many have been hit by bullets and flying shrapnel.

Here too, in recent days Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces had been pushed back, albeit a few hundred meters, though they had left some of their snipers in place in some buildings who were continuing to fire into the neighbourhood.

Khadija, who takes care of children in an orphanage near Tripoli street, told me:
“When the kata`ib (Colonel al-Gaddafi’s armed forces) came to the area they were shooting in all directions and it became very unsafe.  I saw one of their tanks 200 meters from our building, in between the houses. Many residents fled the area and some were killed as they were fleeing.  We had 92 children in the orphanage, most of them small and the youngest a little baby of three months. Now we have 101 children there. We could not leave and most of our colleagues could not come to work anymore.  We took all the children to the basement and stayed there for a week.  There was no electricity, running water or telephone network anymore; we had water in the underground storage reservoir but no electricity to pump it into the system so we used buckets and then used the water very sparingly. The kitchen staff could not come to work anymore so we broke the lock of the store room and used the rice, pasta and basic food and bottled water we had in storage.  We were only a handful of staff and we did our best to entertain the children and to keep them safe.  Sometimes I went to upstairs to try and see what was happening outside. It was very scary; the courtyard was littered with bullets and shrapnel. Then the driver and some other people came to get us out and take us to this school.  As we got the children in the buses there was intensive shooting and shelling all around and we had to leave quickly and could not take many things – clothes, food, milk bottles and diapers.  We are safe here and we have received a lot of help but the situation in Misratah is very difficult for everyone.  There is a shortage of many things. We used to change the small children's diapers six times a day but now we do that no more than five or even four times a day, and there are only three toilets and one shower here.  Many of our colleagues are still unable to come to work because they live in areas under the control of al-Gaddafi’s forces and cannot move in and out of the area.  We used to have 58 staff but now we are only six, plus three who come for night duty.  I have not been to my own home for two months and I have no idea where my parents are or what is happening with them.”

The residents of Misratah have been finding it more and more difficult to find safe shelter.

Many of the families I have met are staying with relatives or in schools which are now functioning as shelters for those displaced by the conflict. Some told me they have had to move several times in the past few weeks, as one area after another in which they sought refuge came under attack with rocket and mortar fire.

As so often in areas of conflict such as that going on here in Misrata, Libya's third largest city, humanitarian conditions are becoming more and more challenging, almost by the hour.

There is no electricity or running water.  Only a few places that provide essential services, such as hospitals, have their own generators. For everyone else, there is no power supply.

Engineers from the electricity board say that it is the main transmission cables that have been damaged or destroyed and these cannot be repaired because they are in the large parts of the city controlled by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces.

The little water that remains in the reservoirs is being distributed to residents in small quantities by water tankers.  Engineers from the water board showed me handwritten lists of families who are on the list to receive water. It is, of course, a slow and laborious process to try and keep everyone supplied and resources are stretched.

The water reservoir and the city's sewerage treatment plant are also both located in areas controlled by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces, so the engineers cannot go there to operate or repair the facilities.  With these now out of action, public health and sanitation concerns are becoming more acute.

Residents have started to re-use old wells which had not been used for decades and whose water is of dubious quality, to say the least, and may be contaminated by sewage.

The director of what now functions as the main hospital said they are running short of some essential drugs, including those needed for treating cancer patients, dialysis solution and pain killers.

The city's central drug store is inaccessible - it too is located in an area controlled by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces. As well, there are simply not enough doctors with the necessary skills, expertise and experience to deal with the high volume of patients being brought in and the types of wounds and other injuries that they have sustained. Fortunately, some foreign doctors and nurses have come here to lend a much-needed hand to their fellow medical professionals in Misratah, but more help is urgently, desperately needed.

Yesterday morning, most tragically, a Ukrainian doctor was killed and a Ukrainian nurse was seriously injured. They were hit by shrapnel from a projectile - it appears that it was from a mortar that had just been fired - as they were leaving their home in downtown Misratah.

Only that very morning, one of their colleagues told me,  they had decided to leave their home because they felt that the area had become too unsafe.

A few hours after this awful event, there was another involving four foreign photographers who were trying to capture in pictures to show the rest of the world the confrontations now taking place between Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces and opposition fighters along the frontline in the centre of Misratah. While they were there a projectile seemingly fired by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces struck, fatally injuring two of them and injuring their colleagues. The bodies of the slain journalists and that of the Ukranian doctor are now being taken back to Benghazi, in eastern Libya, on a ship chartered by the International Organization for Migration (OIM), which has been making the journey to Misratah to evacuate some of the  thousands of foreign migrant workers, mostly from countries in sub-Saharan Africa, who have been stranded there and increasingly desperate to leave this strife-torn city under siege.

In Misratah, many families are searching anxiously  for their children and other relatives who have disappeared since they were seized and taken forcibly from their homes, in front of their families, by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces. One man told me that all seven of his sons and three of his nephews, one of whom is only 15 and another aged only 16, were taken from his home on 18 March when Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces took control of the Gheiran neighbourhood in which he lives.

At first, he said, the soldiers had also made him and his brother also get into their truck but they had then released them before driving off with the 10 members of their family who they have not seen or heard of since. These are 10 more who have disappeared.

One of the man's neighbours told me that his five sons too, including two who were married with young children, were taken by soldiers from their home by Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces in front of the rest of the family on 16 March.  They too are disappeared.

And so it goes on. Similar cases are being reported from other of Misratah's neighbourhoods that are controlled by the Libyan leader’s forces. Several women from one of these neighbourhoods, Tammina, who are now sheltering with their families in other parts of Misratah, told me that their husbands, sons and brothers were taken from their homes by Colonel al-Gaddafi's soldiers and have since then disappeared.

Amid the continuing carnage and suffering, most of the people that I have spoken to in Misratah in the past week have asked one persistent question - why is the international community not living up to its promise to give them protection, protection that they and their families so desperately need?