Salih Kailani, 48, returned to Ras Lanuf, a key oil port in eastern Libya, Monday. The low-slung houses with white stucco walls wouldn’t seem out of place in an American suburb but then there’s the graffiti scrawled across one wall in brown paint: “Allah and Moammar [Gaddafi] and Libya and that’s all.” The town has been under the control of Gaddafi’s forces for the past two weeks and Kailani, a communications engineer for an oil company, had come back to check the situation for the first time.
It didn’t look good. His Toyota SUV in the carport had a bullet hole in the windshield and a bullet hole in the engine block. One of the tires had been stolen. Inside the house, his kids’ room had been trashed and his wife’s clothes had been pulled out of a closet and strewn across their bedroom. His fishing poles and the nets he used for hunting hawks were gone. And there was no trace of the most important thing Kailani was searching for: his 24-year-old son, also named Salih, who had stayed behind to guard the house.
In their last phone conversation, Salih told him about the heavy attacks around the house. “He said the house is being bombed and there are airstrikes,” said Kailani, a skinny man with graying hair. “I was very scared. It was very difficult on me.” The reality of that loss hit Kailani in his bedroom; he dropped his keys and began to sob. “To me it isn’t a big deal losing gold or money,” said Kailani, as tears streamed down his face. “Finding him is my main concern.”
The coalition airstrikes have clearly swung the momentum behind the rebels and they’ve pushed ahead hundreds of miles to regain much of the ground they lost in recent battles. Sert, Gaddafi’s hometown, is in their sights. And as the rebels advance, thousands of ordinary Libyans displaced by the fighting, like Kailani, have quickly followed to get news about missing family members, assess the damage done to their homes, and try to piece their lives together. Amnesty International issued a report Tuesday calling for the Libyan government to end “enforced disappearances” in their fight against the opposition.
“We felt the strikes would hit our house because the sound was getting louder and louder,” says a 30 year old, who has red, glazed eyes and doesn’t appear to have slept in days.
Kailani, a father of 14, has no plans to bring his family back to their house right away. His neighbor, Bashir Maghrebi, 25, doesn’t plan to come back soon, either. Maghrebi, a stocky young man wearing a baseball cap, also returned to Ras Lanuf with roughly a dozen members of his family in a small bus Monday. Their house, which the family has owned for 28 years, had been hit by an artillery shell, gouging a large hole into one wall and spraying the area with shrapnel. Inside, there were small chunks of concrete and bits of glass scattered across the floor. The house had been stripped nearly bare: their furniture, clothes and even a car had been stolen. “We didn’t expect the house to be that bad. We expected to stay,” said Maghrebi, noting that several of his family members started crying when they first walked in.
Maghrebi and his family retreated town by town as the Gaddafi troops advanced two weeks ago—to Brega, Ajdabiya, Zuweitina and eventually a desert settlement called Baydan, where the men in the family are now in tents and the women have taken shelter in small homes. Maghrebi’s brother Abdullah was captured by Gaddafi’s troops as they fled. He also has no news about his father, who was cut off from the family outside the area of rebel control. “We are the richest country and the poorest people,” Maghrebi said, reflecting on his grim situation.
Some families stuck it out through the fighting. Abdul Karim Ben Tahir, 63, who works in the purchasing department of an oil company, hunkered down in the nearby town of Brega with his six kids. Their neighbors cleared out two weeks ago and it wasn’t long before shells began hammering the area around their house. “We felt the strikes would hit our house because the sound was getting louder and louder,” says Ben Tahir’s son Tamim, 30, who has red, glazed eyes and doesn’t appear to have slept in days.
The family argued constantly whether they should stay or go. Ben Tahir wouldn’t let his sons leave the house, in case the troops mistook them for rebel fighters. He went to the oil company’s commissary to purchase basic goods like pasta and rice, trying his best to avoid contact with the government troops. The only entertainment the family had was watching TV. Dozens of abandoned cats in the neighborhood clustered around their house everyday to receive food scraps. The family had to deal with the harsh reality of being back under government control after briefly experiencing freedom. “We had to accept destiny and pretend we’re loyal again to Gaddafi,” said Ben Tahir. When the family heard a car pull up in front of their house on Saturday, they froze in terror, expecting Gaddafi’s troops to storm the house. They were overjoyed to see a rebel fighter at their door who had come to tell them the government troops had been pushed out.
Now, it’s up to the rebels to ensure that this territory, which was regained with coalition help, doesn’t fall back into Gaddafi’s hands. It won’t be easy: Rebel fighters are currently pinned down by government loyalists some 50 miles west of Ras Lanuf. The hospital in Ras Lanuf, which is the closest to the frontline, received five bodies Monday—two were fighters killed on the battlefield and the other three were rebel detainees who had been executed with a single shot to the back of the head. As loyalists hold their ground, the conflict could drag on and become even bloodier.
Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek's Beirut Bureau Chief. He's been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 2001.