Night boat to Misrata
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“I request that I be investigated for my role in the old regime, even as president, by a new judicial…” http://t.co/gkjSDUAg
— LIBYAN REVOLUTION (@LIBYANREVOLT) November 23, 2011
Tobruck from Cairo: the humble donkey cart stopped at Saloum, intimidated by the wealth beyond the custom barrier. In the waste land to the border, we took several lifts from private cars and quite a few among them, even if welcoming, did not shy away from recommending tips.
That wouldn’t happen in Libya: if you are a foreigner, don’t try to pay for buns at the bread line in Misrata, and don’t try to wait for your turn either. When the oven doors open, you are invited to take a cloth and help yourself to the hot buns, then at the cash, a flashed open palm, slightly pushed forward, indicates that even if you are a regular with two baguettes you are free to go.
Benghazi Freedom Square had been rehearsing for months, the celebration of the impending mad dog’s fall, 4 months before a bullet blew his head: 40 km west of Misrata, the rebels were pushing the front line further west every day, “container by container”, boasted Tribute fm 92.4, the English-speaking radio operated by Libyan expats returned from London in order not to miss the inevitable.
On the promenade along the sea, amongst the loads of wearable memorabilia with the Libyan star and moon, the colors of the European creditors of the revolution were for sale as bracelets, or waving tall on flags, together with those of the overseas allies of the free world. Whoever engaged in conversation prized their favorite western sponsor: “Sarkozy, Italia, myamya!” (Libyan for excellent, they never heard it in Syria). Some kids were passing USB keys to the journalists, containing images of babies burned by white phosphorous in Misrata. The facade of the Courthouse was completely covered by a mosaic of faces. The man requested who they were lowered his head and shut his eyes: “They are the “shahids”, the martyrs of the regime from 1969 until the battle of the Katiba, the government garrison conquered by the rebels in February 2011.”
The women in black from Freedom Square, then aging, where holding framed portraits, bearing the likenesses of their own children, between their twenties and thirties, victims of the Abu Salim massacre, back in 1996, when 1200 regime opponents were machined-gunned in barely 137 minutes.
Back to the hotel, the manager himself was watching burned bodies from the Misrata shelling, and so did we, some were babies wrapped in white shrouds. Then he recommended to get black veils to go around, which we did at the souk, for 5 dinars, from a merchant who took 20 and forgot to give us back the change. At the ensuing riot, the Libyan men at the souk deliberated that the merchant was “No Libyan people”, claiming that national moral code which came up up again subsequently for, perhaps amongst other reasons, the sake of the Libyan reputation abroad. Misrata committee, Benghazi port. We were ordered to enter the ladies’ waiting room for the ship to Misrata, which was also a prayer area. The ferry fare was 70 dinar for Libyans and 150 for foreigners (one way), a surprising double standard because “everybody must pay according to their means”. The night passage of about 450 km west was secure, the staff guaranteed, because “NATO approved”; the boat, full. The passengers were so closely packed together, that a man’s toe, who was lucky enough to have found a chair, was dangling on the open mouth of a snoring man, lying on the deck. Most of them were Misrata residents, bringing back rare goods, like cheese, coffee, cigarettes. The free alternative, a fishermen’s boat, which was also carrying a few shababs, the men at war, was expected to have a duration of 50 hours.
The magic word to reach the front line sounded like a code name: Dafniya, literally Land of Farmers, End of Misrata, seemed to stand for the front line as well. Just mentioning to the rebels when they stopped their pickups, would provide us a lift 40 miles west to a shipping container, overflowing with sand, as a makeshift rampart to block the road. Further up, more containers were marking subsequent gains of ground. With civilian cars it didn’t work, we were sent back to the checkpoint. The advance “container by container” from Tribute radio was finally realized: a fresh container, marking the farthest position of the front line, was added each time a jump ahead was produced, thus leaving the preceding ones behind, a line up of staggered blocks where the pickups would zig-zag right through, a quite familiar maze for them. Overflowing with sand to deter the impact of bullets, the containers were an ingenious concept born out of necessity, like the UB-16 Soviet rocket launchers, effectively recycled from old choppers and mounted on pick ups.
A distant heir, for astuteness, of the Stalingrad soldiers who would send dogs with dynamite into the nazi lines, (the rebels have actually been known for sending out reconnaissance dogs with flashlights in the outskirts of Tripoli), this army of its own shared with its precursors the strategy of provisioning: 75% of the ammo, affirmed a rebel, had been looted from the enemy forces. The statement seemed reliable, if we consider the often bare footed state these troops were in: the only Nato-vehicles in sight on this side of the front were local black cars with a large white N painted on the hood, not a joke, as one might think, but a measure of protection from possible friendly fire from above, they said.
Misrata was besieged on two principal front lines: on the west side, Dafnyia, 40 km from Mysratah, was facing Zlitan. On the eastern outskirts, Karareem confronted Tawergha, where the population of color was traditionally loyalist: also a civil war of black vs white, the conflict uprooted people from east to west and vice versa, out of allegiances or coercion.
Gozeelteek, a ghostly hotel with a bombed-out wing, had been deserted even by journalists: in order to encourage them, the media center and radio Misrata were courteously putting up the brave ones left, breakfast included. There we had, at 5 am in mid june, our first unconscious grad missile experience, likening a thunderclap from a 35 pounds dumbbells being dropped a couple of floors up.
At Gozeelteek, as an unconventional security measure, you couldn’t even lock yourself up in your room, because there was no key. Next door right, Portia Walker of the Washington Post and Ruth Sherlock of The Telegraph had blocked their door with furniture for good, they used the balcony we shared to get in, the first time with a vigorous jump, which scared the daylight out of this writer’s soul, screaming her guts out and ready to surrender her throat to the knife wielding cutter.
Next door left, the beautiful face of Chris Stephen of The Guardian, never to be seen again on the screen, protectively blurred in his You tube interviews, probably from the name he has to carry.
Kahlil, a guest of the hotel originally from Zlitan, had come back from London “to help his brothers” by fighting his former city from the Dafnyia front. Those who had been deported by Gadhafi from Misrata to Zlitan, during the Misrata Spring, were forced to bomb their city of origin. Kahlil recounted, at breakfast, that when a grad missile was launched into town, massacres of large proportions were avoided thanks to them, the deported rebels, who didn’t screw the self-destructor on the grad at the moment of launching. The devices, which normally would provoke the grad explosion and were rigorously kept apart from the rocket for security, were surreptitiously hidden in the sand by the “traitors”.
On the other hand, the “desaparecidos” from Misrata were men of the opposition taken away from their family in the same period, but not for fighting. We met them when talking to the people: in one day only, two fathers claimed back their sons, and a son claimed back his father: they all wanted to have the kidnappings reported on Al Jazeera.
On the 16th of June, the pick-up driver had taken us to the path beyond the last container, most probably the Dafnyia dirt beltway, protected by berms of shoveled up earth, along which we could ride looking for best shot, but beyond which we dared not go. Our fixer was the commander of the katiba Al Sumud, “The Non Surrenders”, same as Saddam Hussein’s resilient, UN banned missiles. He explained that Katibas often included men sharing the same occupation in civilian life.
Here the shababs sipped and shared their tea with us, in a moment of pause, where the language barrier was overcome by all of us, by reiterating the mantra “Gadhafi out” ad nauseam, accompanied by the hand gesture of slitting one’s own throat. We stayed until 6 pm, when the mortar bombs started to fall. The commander turned his face up and lifted his arms up and out, as if contemplating a benevolent rain, identifying them as “hown, hown!!” (Arabic for mortar). These bombs were usually responsible for the typical black halo around the breaches in the walls of Tripoli street, Misrata’s main avenue whose videos got blanket media coverage.
In order to see the howns, since we had to live with them, we went where Gadhafi forces left them: on Tripoli street there was a weapon’s fair displaying exploded mortar bombs, the tail fitted with a full around crown, and not much else, the tip and body mostly blasted out. The grad, a 3 meter long missile with a range of up to 40 km, was the main showpiece of that blasted arsenal, made of artifacts of the springtime slaughtering.
27 th June. Dafniya was most of the time off limits. A colleague at the hotel suggested to jump in an ambulance. We requested a lift to the Al Hikma hospital, situated at the beginning of the road to Dafniya, which served quite well as an indicator of the situation at the front: empty emergency area, Dafnyia “myamya”. The strategy was almost perfect, the driver not allowing us into Dafniya, and dropping us off at the field hospital, at approximately 4 km from the front line. “This is where the wounded soldiers are first taken”, said a doctor, so they won’t die before they are taken back to Misrata. A man was dousing the ambulance floor with a water hose, turning the saturated red to clear.
At the gate of the driveway to the hospital, at approximately 5 pm, multiple grads hit the ground, like craters erupting in near unison. Too close for comfort. One turns around, and around, and there are no craters, and one is afraid to step into the next crater, or to stay and become the next crater. The drivers coming from Dafnyia, who usually slowed down to say hello with the V sign for victory, were zooming by like bullets flying into the city, and so did a car coming from the hospital, leaving us standing there.
Back at the hospital, the staff confirmed that three grads had actually hit the tomato field, which provided the main ingredient for the daily-baked pizza for the army, then ordered positively not to disclose to the media where they hit.
The 2nd of July. An empty tent at the Al Hikma hospital, Dafniya myamya, we took off again. The freedom fighter first took us for a tour along the beach to see the Chinese development binge: the construction of the huge condo buildings, about 5 km long, was on hold for the duration of the revolution, he explained, and scheduled to resume, hopefully, quite soon. Then he stopped on the way to Dafniya to practice his machine gun.
Standing up in the back of the pick up, he fired away from behind a flat metal shield all the way up to his neck, making the kalashnikovs on the back seat next to us rattle and shake and nearly drop and hit the car floor. At Dafnyia, a mujah, taking advantage of the endless stalemate, was sleeping right on top of the dunes in the last container (helas the last for the last 6 weeks), holding on to his AK 47 in his sleep. Another was preparing to launch a rpg, which in Libya is usually referred to as rgb, like the acronym of primary colors, red, blue and green.
Dozens of pick-ups, coming from the city were carrying rajima rockets launchers, lodging 12 missiles of 8 km range, to the southern flank of the front. The poor relative of the grad, which can reach as far 40 km, but of the same 122 mm caliber, the rajima is also shorter, and represented the most ubiquitous weapon in the rebels’ sui generis ammunitions’ insalata.
The 8 of july, return to safe haven Benghazi. On Al Jazera, a reporter in Dafnyia showed what just yesterday had been the furthest position for 6 weeks:
the abandoned container where the shabab slept, the dunes on the container covered by a barrage of bullets. “Not to worry” reassured the reporter, they are doubling down exactly 6 km further: after 6 weeks of impasse, a new container had been placed just 160 km west from the snake’s head in Tripoli.
On the road to Ajdabia, at the last check point before the city, some kids in uniform, by then part of a regular army of the revolution, posed proud for the camera with a brand new battery of their own brand new “hown”, made -they said- in South Korea, and a line up of their own grads, just out of the box from Russia, some still in the package marked “explosive”, guarded by a sleepy soldier lying on a mattress.
The 23 of August: it’s hard to sit pretty across the sea when Tripoli is being taken; Rome, Cairo, Xandria, back to the waste swathe before Libya: at the border, the chief inspector was a member of the Abdullah Al Zanussi family, a prominent Tobruk family who was part of the Tobruk PTC (Provincial Transitional Council). He recognized us from our previous entry visa and we congratulated him for the job well done. Next day, three young men stopped their Toyota pick up rolling down the window: “Benghazi?” We jumped in, after 15 km, they made a right turn towards the fourth Italian shore. At the beach, the man next to the driver pulled out a knife and handcuffs, so we threw mac books, cameras, Euros , and shoes at them, in exchange for an open car door, a deal they seemed quite happy with. A handful of Euros, which were meant to fantastically multiply by two, once exchanged into dinars at the black market behind the hotel Dojal!
The gang escaped with their loot, taking along with, them, inshallah, the wacko with the handcuffs calling out “jeans!” from the front seat. The people of Tobruk (who oddly enough, mentioned more often that “Rommel passed by here” rather than Montgomery) picked us up barefooted, and the Abdullah al Zanussi family put us up at the 5 stars family’s hotel, Al-Masira, apparently “march” in arabic, named, it was rumored, by Mussolini.
In the hall, it was Al Jazeera all the time, and that meant Libya all the time. The leader of the rebels in Tripoli, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the Americans were concerned- was supposed to have ties with Al Qaida, and had exhorted the rebels not to hand in their weapons. Also,the emir of Qatar, who financed the revolution, is some kind of a wahabist, leader of an oppressive regime.
Jamel, a Dafniya rebel, however, did wave his index finger at us, declaring: “No bin Laden!” He admitted that his all-time hero was Fracesco Totti, the king of Italian soccer.
During out on the town time we were escorted at all time by Farraj, – his real name – a cop, just in case the wackos would show up again. In downtown Tobruck there is a tiny tiny church, all boarded up. In spite of all the sour feelings, Tobruck residents didn’t take it down, because, he said, the Libyans didn’t mind the Italians after all.
LIBYA IS FREE: Saif al-Islam Gaddafi ‘pretended to be a camel herder’ when captured Captor says dictator’s… http://t.co/9qFUaOxB
— LIBYAN REVOLUTION (@LIBYANREVOLT) November 20, 2011