Misratah: the spiralling human cost in a city under fire
By Donatella Rovera, Amnesty International’s crisis researcher.
Here in Misratah, Libya's third city, we have just experienced four more days of relentless shelling by Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces. In just two of the residential neighbourhoods I have been able to visit in the past four days - Qasr Ahmad in the east of the city and Zawia al-Mahjoub in the west - hundreds of rockets and mortar shells have rained down, literally all over the place. I have lost count of how many homes I’ve seen that have been hit in these clearly indiscriminate attacks.
Medical clinics, schools, mosques, factories and the port – where thousands of foreign workers are stranded and waiting to be rescued – are just some of the locations that have come under attack. Fortunately, many of the residents of the houses that took direct hits escaped injury but others were not so lucky. Adults and children alike have been killed and injured in their homes and on the streets by flying shrapnel from these projectiles.
In the centre of town, where the “frontline” between Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces and opposition fighters keeps shifting from street to street, the devastation is extensive. In this area I found cluster bombs all over the place - they present an enormous danger, not least because these munitions have a high "dud" rate, meaning that unexploded bombs litter the area.
We know from other situations such as in southern Lebanon, where these lethal weapons were used extensively by Israeli forces in 2006, that they can continue to kill and maim civilians, often children who pick them up in ignorance of the danger they contain, long after the actual conflict has ended and people have returned to their homes.
As the long siege of this city continues, Misratah’s valiant but terrified residents are finding it increasingly difficult to find any safe shelter.
This morning in the Zawia al-Mahjoub neighbourhood in the west of the city, I found that house after house had been damaged as a result of the firing of indiscriminate rockets and mortars into the area. More of these projectiles continued to rain down in and around the neighbourhood all morning. Some residents had already fled after previous attacks but many others were still there, wondering what to do and where to go to seek shelter, to find safety.
In one damaged house I found four families, numbering more than 40 people in all, who were huddled together in one room in the centre of the house on the ground floor - in the hope that this would offer the greatest protection if another rocket or mortar should hit the house.
‘Ali, the home's owner, told me that he and his family had taken in the three other families when they had been forced to flee from their homes in other neighbourhoods.
‘Ali’s brother, who has suffered from paralysis for the past five years, was weeping and shaking as he lay in his bed. The unfortunate man cannot speak but his hearing is good and so every time we heard a rocket landing he shuddered at the loud bang.
‘Ali and other members of the family were trying to comfort and reassure him but they themselves were also terrified and feeling a sense of awful helplessness at what is going on around them. Earlier in the morning, ‘Ali’s 34-year-old son and a 53-year-old neighbour had both been wounded when a rocket struck just in front of the house as they were standing by the front gate.
Later, I found them both in hospital. Both have sustained serious injuries as a result of shrapnel - ‘Ali’s son has a deep wound in his neck and his neighbour suffered a wound to his abdomen and a fractured arm, where the shrapnel also severed an artery.
Even the local clinic in Zawia al-Mahjoub was not spared. On Saturday afternoon (16 April) a mortar shell landed in the car park injuring a staff member and a visitor. Mohammed, a 42-year-old anaesthesia technician, told me: “While I was getting a cup of coffee in the courtyard of the hospital, two rockets landed nearby and I rushed into the hospital but when I reached the door a third rocket landed in the car park”
The other casualty from the attack, Faraj, a 45-year-old teacher, told me that he was at the clinic to visit a friend who had been injured earlier when a rocket or mortar had exploded in front of his house. Doctors treating Mohammed and Faraj told me that they had sustained deep shrapnel injuries to the chest and abdomen respectively, while Faraj’s arm had also been broken.
The neighbourhood had previously been shelled on several occasions by Colonel al-Gaddafi's forces. One of these attacks, carried out on 5 April, killed Maryam, a10-year-old girl who had been playing in the courtyard of her house when a mortar shell landed there. She was killed by shrapnel.
The same day, two other young children, Ahmad and ‘Abdelsalam, both aged only two, were injured while they were inside their homes by flying shrapnel from rockets that fell nearby. Ahmad’s right arm was broken and ‘Abdelsalam’s left femur was fractured.
In one of the schools where families displaced by the conflict have taken what they hope may need to be only temporary refuge, 35-year-old Kamila, who is expecting her first child, told me: “Gaddafi’s soldiers came to our neighbourhood and so we fled to my relatives in another area. After two days I was in pain and thought I was having a miscarriage and so my husband took me to hospital but on the way there our car was shelled. My husband was badly wounded; his left leg had to be amputated and his right leg was burned down to the bone. I was also injured by shrapnel in my left leg and side and some of the fragments are still in my leg (still clearly visible).
"He was evacuated to Turkey two weeks ago and I have not been able to get any news from him because there is no telephone network here any more that works. I had to move again because the place where I was staying was not safe, so I came to this school with my sisters. I left home with only the clothes I had on my back and now we live off charity. My husband’s parents had gone to stay with other relatives in Tammina, but then that neighbourhood too was attacked and many people left and I don’t know where they are now.”
Kamila’s sister-in-law, a mother of seven, and her cousin, a mother of two, are also sheltering in the same school with tens of other people. They too have spent the past few weeks fleeing from one place to another in a vain search for safety.
In the same school I met a Sudanese family who have been living in Libya for decades. Yusouf told me that in the early evening of 23 March their home was hit by two shells as the area was being pounded by Colonel al-Gaddafi’s forces.
“When our apartment was shelled I took my wife and children and we rushed out immediately. We thought we would go back home in a day or so but then the building was taken over by al-Gaddafi's forces and we have not been able to go back. All our possessions, including our passports, the children’s school certificates and everything else remained in the apartment. Now we have nothing,” he said.
Some of the displaced people I met in the school came from Qasr Ahmad, a neighbourhood of eastern Misratah, near the port where a dozen people were killed on 14 April, several of them while waiting in a queue to buy bread.
One who died was Mohammad ‘Ali Sha’ib, a 47-year-old father of two boys aged four and five. Another was 69-year-old Mostepha Hamrouche, whose neighbour, ‘Omar, told me: “We were sitting by the wall of his house with other neighbours when rockets started to fall very close by. We got up and ran off in different directions. Mostepha took cover under a tree across the road but a rocket landed right by that tree and killed him.”
Misratah’s residents are now feeling very scared. They can neither find safety in the city, nor can they leave. They are trapped and remain prey to the ongoing rain of indiscriminate explosives being fired at their neighbourhoods by the Libyan leader's forces.
The question on virtually everyone's lips is the same one - where is the international community and why is it not doing anything to provide the protection that it promised, and which they crave, to the vulnerable and increasingly desperate inhabitants of Misratah?