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Bristol to Misrata (Part 3)
This is the third in a series of articles I have written about my decision to travel to Libya, initially to support the rebels and then what I saw and heard over here (Benghazi and Misrata) that has led me to stay and help the Libyan people on a humanitarian level only.When I crossed the border from Egypt the war was only 5 weeks old and I didnt have a lot of information about what was happening but i admit I did have a grand preintention of wanting to support a rebel army ousting a dictator. The more time I spent in (east) Libya, talking to and working with locals, living with journalists and reading/heeding comments on Indymedia about articles I have put up already the more my opinion formed.
BRISTOL TO MISRATA
They say a week is a long time in politics, over here in Misrata it definitely is. Ive been in this country for over 4 months now since about the 24 March and was just about to leave. I have my place booked on the World Food Programme (UN) boat to Malta , its the last one. But then in the last 4 days it all seems to be happening for the rebels Zlitan has fallen, Taurghas been overrun and now Tripoli is crumbling. I'm glad I'm still here to witness what surely must be the end to a bloody civil war.
The first 5 weeks of my stay in Libya were spent in Benghazi. During this period i spend most of my time running around trying to find work with organisations or people. I never settled there or "lived" in the city as for Tobruk and Ajdabia I only passed through spending a day in each. It wasn't till I took a boat to Misrata (36 hours) and lived and worked there that I really got to see a bit more as to what is going on in this country and what motivates people to kill each other
The fishing boat docked in the morning while it was still dark and unloaded us into the hands of the local rebels . I was the only non Libyan out of a complement of 10 passengers, 2 were soldiers returning from a family visit 6 seemed to be Misrata residents returning from "exile" and one guy who was found with a couple of kilos of hash (we were all searched coming in) He was promptly arrested ,some things never change.
I was driven from the port into town to stay at a physiotherapy clinic beside the main (only) hospital. It housed volunteer doctors and medics from all over the world , mainly Middle Eastern and Libyan ex-pat. They had no organisation just showed up and offered their services , a pretty laid back friendly bunch considering what they have to deal with sometimes 7 days a week.The next morning I showed up at the Media Centre and registered my Benghazi press pass , was given my letter of permission for the press hotel and access code for the Internet. The hotel is situated in the city centre a few minutes from the worst hit areas, it had been closed for renovations before the war started and as it stood it didn't have a lot going for it , no hot water, no air conditioning, no food except some random concoction once a day if you were "lucky" . It was run by a team of well meaning but increasingly cranky volunteers. On the plus side it was free, the rooms were huge and private, the cold showers cancelled out the lack of air con., About 20 people were housed there mostly journos including Guardian, Telegraph, Times, Economist, Figaro, Le monde, Figaro, Reuters, Photojournalists, freelancers and a couple of war tourists. (BBC, CNN, Al Jazeera and Fox News all stayed in the most expensive hotel in town Al Baraka at $120 a night). This damp and dusty place complete with compliment of lizards and stray cats was our home for the next 5 weeks until a new team came to take over and without improving anything decided to charge up to $300 dollars a week for the same rooms! Some how this crass attempt to cash in was a comforting indication that normality was beginning to return. Misrata has always been a town that has had money, its port is deep water (18 metres) so the biggest ships can dock there , most vehicles in Libya get imported there , a lot of civil engineering projects road and water schemes are based out of here. The largest steel manufacturing plant in North Africa is in Misrata. It is this wealth that has kept Misrata alive they bought most of there weapons and all there ammunition (from Benghazi). What this rent increase did bring about was me making a decision as to weather I wanted to stay on in Libya or not . Up to this I had joined the Libyan Red Crescent on its maintenance team, working in its social service centres, refugee camp and field hospital. I also volunteered with the Engineering Support Group who did non military work in the city, electrics and sewage to defence barricades and rubbish clearance. But neither of these jobs offered accommodation. So I reluctantly went to the NGO office and applied with the charities that were starting to set up there. I say reluctantly because i came to Libya to work as directly with Libyans not with a bunch of Europeans. Within an hour i was hired and accommodated by a french charity. They put me up in an empty but clean apartment in the city and paid me $300 a month , the rate of an intern. My job was electrics ,woodwork and general maintenance on there office and out reach premises. This turns out to have been a good move I still got to work for Red Crescent 2 days a week and most of their staff including drivers, interpreters, finance, human resources, logistics, admin, data entry, reception, cleaning and security are local Misratans it was through these people and others that i got a look at what Libyans think.
Here are three of the common topics that i came across
Reason For FightingIve been to two places in Libya, Benghazi and Misrata, in Benghazi people stick to the party line of anything but Gadafi, they talk a good game but not with a lot of emotion or feeling. I guess this is because there was no real war in Benghazi beyond the initial Feb 17 uprising and burning of every single police station, courthouse and army building in town. Even the attack on the main army barracks, when most of the people were killed, ended in a negotiated ceasefire and safe passage out of town for the soldiers inside.I got the feeling that the average Benghazian was happily taking the historic role of being part of the rebellious east, embracing the long history of anti Gadafi activities embittered by decades of obvious neglect. My abiding memory of Benghazi streets is the smell of open/blocked sewers and burning rubbish. In Misrata its a lot clearer why they are fighting, the city when i arrived had two major fronts both quite close to the city centre with bombs falling everyday, some times all day.An average of 6 people were dying everyday (38 a week). The city's 500,000 population had their backs up against the sea and no good reason to stop fighting.The markets area and main street were the worst hit with all buildings damaged some burned completely. When a fire started there was nothing to stop it. When I asked people the obvious question about why they are fighting I was suprised by the lack of bravado or front. I guess after 3 months of war ,food and water shortages, power cuts, constant threat of bombs the people were just quietly resolute in their will to continue, they talked of the fear of losing more than winning they can see whats in store if that happens. Everyone at this stage has a family member who has been killed either civilian or rebel . They are still enthusiastic its an all volunteer army with no conscription and they believe the worst has passed. No one I talked to appears bloodthirsty or talked of retribution they want to get back on with their lives, no schools or colleges have been open since Feb, few wages have been paid, peoples visas to travel are invalid but everyone seems convinced that the future is going to be better than the past.
This is the one topic that has thrown me, Ive seen no occurrence of it , but having been made aware and watched the You Tubed footage of beatings and lynchings it is this issue alone that has made me switch to helping the Libyan people on a humanitarian basis only. Misrata is the only place I've really researched what the attitudes are to black people and its not good. Besides the myth/fact of black mercenaries there is an issue closer to home , Taurgha. Taurgha is 30km from Misrata its population is mainly black, for most of the war, up until last week, it was on the Gaddafi side of the front line. By most local accounts a militia was raised that entered Misrata and did "terrible things" looting , sexual assaults and kidnapping. Weather this is true or not I don't know but what is important is that a lot of the locals believe it. It has worked its way into history, people even want to rename Taurgha street to Martyr street. Some thing similar is alleged to have happened on a local level. When Gaddafi's troops occupied and held the Misrata people say that from the mainly black and poor areas militias were formed and armed they fought on the side of Gaddafi army and they left with it when Misrata was liberated.The houses in these areas have already been re allocated to others. The "housing authority" that is doing this seems to be doing it as officially as possible including doing an audit to whats in the house at hand over cookers, fridges etc. and talks of facilitating the owner if or when they return.
What gets me about all of this is that on the other (western) front line is the town of Zlitan it was in the same situation as Taurgha and resisted for three months only a few people in Misrata speak ill of its people. Zlitan has no significant black population.
The attitude to GaddafiMy usual icebreaker question with people was what do you think of Gadafi? Apart from the initial mandatory condemnation came a few interesting views. In Benghazi the views in general were about how he had neglected them and people conveyed a sense of hurt at this, he has been part of their lives forty years . Hamdi, a Derna school teacher and committed rebel said that Gadafi ripped off 90% off the oil money coming in to the country but if he had of spend this amount on the people and kept 10% "He would still be our king and all his sons our princes". People I talked to in Misrata still cant believe that he attacked them the way he did with such force and armour "his own people". Some younger people tend to look at him like hes a freak some old military hippie with a different costume or eccentricity for every rambling TV appearance. After getting to know a neighbour for about 6 weeks he confided in me that it may not have been such a good idea to get rid of Gadafi it seemed to be a sense of normality and security that the guy wanted to return not so much Gadafi. At a stretch I could feel sorry for Gadafi if he had of given power over to his son 5 years ago he would be enjoying his retirement probably visiting Europe winding up old enemies including the USA, polishing his legacy, rehabilitating his past, but no now hes holed up in a shrinking Tripoli, cant go north because of war crimes arrest warrants, cant stay in Libya because he will never be safe. Saudi Arabia will be his best bet.
This brings my article and time in Libya to a close i hope to be back in bristol with 2 weeks. Ive been here long enough, longer than I expected. I didnt think they would let me in at the border if I had of been refused I would have crossed Egypt and got into Gaza. Sometimes I thought that would have been an easier conflict to have gotten my head around. But Ive no regrets just a few mistakes along the way. Writing on Indymedia was a good idea it helped me shape what i was doing and made me feel more accountable , the comments that came in helped a lot some were harsh some were bonkers, about a third of them seemed to be arguing with each other.The Indymedia audience is a learned well read one. I ended up writing more words in response to comments than in the original articles.