Families devastated by shelling in Misratah

By Amnesty International’s team in Misratah

After a 36-hour journey on a rather rocky fishing boat braving the Mediterranean sea, we arrived in Misratah – a city where the impact of a two-month long siege and heavy shelling and fighting can be seen and felt in virtually every neighbourhood, street and home.

We started by visiting the residential area of Ruissat, south-east of central Misratah. There on 13 May, a barrage of Grad rockets smashed into homes, streets and stores at 12:45pm, leaving behind a trail of suffering and destruction.
Su’ad was mourning the death of her husband, Hassan Mohamed Al-‘rouj, 36, a father of three, who was heading to the mosque, when he was fatally wounded by shrapnel.

A few blocks away, we saw the remains of a children’s bedroom hit by a Grad rocket at 12:30pm on the same day. Safia Abdallah Shahit, having just bathed her children – five-year-old Malak Mostafa Shami, three-year-old Mohamed Mostafa Shami, and baby Rudaina Mostafa Shami who had just turned one – left the bedroom to fix them lunch.

Minutes later, she heard an explosion, and run back towards her children’s bedroom as a second rocket hit the house. Safia fell on the floor and sustained some minor injuries to her head, hands, and feet from shattered glass.

After hearing the fifth explosion further away, she gathered the courage to enter the children’s bedroom to find them buried under rubble. She recounted to Amnesty International her horrid discovery: “I was lifting the rubble, when I saw Rudaina lying under her bed: the back of her head was just gone, pieces of her flesh scattered around. She was a baby, she wasn’t even walking yet. What has she done to deserve this?”

Malak alone survived, but her right leg was so severely wounded that it had to be amputated. Safia told Amnesty International that the family, who fled their home in Ruissat in March to find safety further north in Zaroug, had only returned home a few days prior to this tragic event, as they felt the area was now secure following the withdrawal of pro-al-Gaddafi forces from central Misratah in late April.

At the nearby house of the Sassi family, we inspected the damage caused by yet another of the many Grad rockets which slammed into the area on the same day.

At the hospital, Lotfiya Shikshaka-Sassi, a 55-year-old mother of six, was barely able to speak and obviously in great pain. She nodded as her daughter Faiza told us how a rocket exploded in the courtyard while the family was in the house at about 12.45.  Shrapnel flew into the house and Lotfiya sustained a large deep wound to the abdomen and multiple wounds to the legs.  Her 30-year-old son Mohamed, sustained injuries to his legs and arms.

We visited the now infamous Tripoli Street, where fierce battles raged for weeks between al-Gaddafi and opposition forces. The latter eventually left around 20 April.

The devastation is striking. Not a single building has been left intact.  Al-Gaddafi forces parked their tanks in buildings and in the vegetable market, in an obvious attempt to shield them from NATO strikes.

They also took position on the tallest buildings along the street, from where they shot at people in the streets and in their homes in the surrounding areas.

While most residents fled their homes some were trapped for days, even weeks, under constant fire.

On 22 March, the house, off Tripoli street, where Moroccan national Lashhab Mohamed Rijraji, his wife Khadija, and their children, 11 year-old Safaa, eight year-old Fatma El-Zahraa and nine month-old Sa’id were renting a room on the roof, came under fire by pro-al-Gaddafi forces.

Lashhab, 33, was instantly killed by a gunshot; but the family could not take his body out for burial until 27 March as the area was surrounded by pro-al-Gaddafi soldiers.

They escaped late that same night, and have now found shelter in a school along with other families who fled the fighting. The family lost all their belongings, including travel documents.

Not far from Tripoli Street, in the Jazira area (north-west of the city centre), Ramadhan ‘Aajaj told us how his wife and three daughters – four and a half year-old twins Rihan and Riyan and one-year-old Taqu’a – were killed as they were desperately trying to flee the building which was being shelled by al-Gaddafi forces’ tanks in the morning of 25 March:

“We were asleep, it was about 8am or so, when we heard shelling right by the building; I ran out and as I got to the courtyard there was another explosion and I was hit by shrapnel all over my body.  I was taken to hospital and minutes later my wife and our three daughters were killed by another shell as they were fleeing the building.  I’ve lost everything, my little girls, my whole family”.

Ramadhan himself was injured in the chest by a large piece of shrapnel and all over his body by smaller fragments.  His neighbour, Hanan told us how she, her husband’s second wife, Khadija and their four children had been running out of their home at the same time as Ramadhan’s wife and children:

“Khadija was clutching baby Taqu’a in one arm and the twins were right by her side. We all run out at the same time.  They were just in front of us.  As we got to the hall of the building, by the front door, another shell exploded just outside and Khadija and the girls were hit.

“Khadija’s legs and head were almost severed and the children were torn to shreads. We were all injured by fragments of shrapnel but our injuries are nothing compared to what happened to them. We are alive by the grace of God. We can’t forget what happened”.

At the building we found shrapnel from tank shells and mortars; several apartments were hit but luckily the families had already left their homes.

In the course of our visit to hospitals in Misratah, we also came upon several casualties – including fatal ones – caused by reckless handling of unexploded munitions, the deadly leftovers of the battles which took place in various areas of the city.

On 12 May, cousins Mahmoud Abdel Latif, nine, and Aiman Abdel Latif, 14, were playing in the courtyard of their home in Maqasba, when Aiman picked-up a metal object – the size of a fist – which immediately exploded in his hand.

Both sustained shrapnel injuries to their hands and legs. Aiman’s right hand had to be amputated. Their home had been used by the thuuwar (revolutionaries, as the opposition fighters are known here) as a base during the heavy fighting around central Misratah in previous weeks.

In the same hospital, Ali Mostafa Al-Gaed, 24, was recovering from injuries sustained when a large calibre bullet some 10cm long, as he  described it, brought to the house by his brother Mohamed, 22, fell on the floor of their living-room and exploded.

The four young men sitting in the living room on the afternoon of 17 May, namely: Ali, Mohamed, their brother Hisham, 19, and their cousin Osama Ahmed Mani, 30, were all wounded. Sadly, Hisham succumbed to his injuries some hours later, and Mohamed remained in critical condition at the time of writing.

In the main hospital’s courtyard, in the tent which serves as the emergency triage centre, we found seven-year-old Mostafa Al-Sanky who was trying to put on a brave face as doctors were dressing his wound.

His father told us that on 5 April, after al-Gaddafi’s forces left the city centre, he and Mostafa went to look at the destruction on Tripoli Street and Mostafa picked up what looked like an already exploded and harmless shell. He took it home and as he was playing with it, it exploded, injuring him in the leg. A large chunk of flesh is missing from his right calf and 12 days later the wound is still far from healed.

As life gradually returns to normal in Misratah – with some stores re-opening, electricity restored some of the time in some parts of the city and some residents returning to their abandoned homes or simply venturing outside in search of relatives and friends – the extent of the heavy toll of the siege and fighting is becoming apparent.

We can only hope that the city has survived the worst. But what will surely be a long and tedious process of healing and reconstruction cannot begin so long as the siege continues.

Read more:Desperation and hope among Misratah’s wounded (Blog, 9 May 2011)