04.03.11

Libya Uprising: Gaddafi's Bloody Siege of Misrata

Wounded Libyans rescued by a Turkish ship describe the deadly assault on their town by Gaddafi forces using tanks and snipers. The attack was brutal even by the regime's violent standards, reports Babak Dehghanpisheh.

Ali Bisheikh, 14, and his 12-year-old brother, Mohammed, spotted the rebel fighters on their street in Misrata, a town in western Libya that has been besieged by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces for weeks, and ran out to give them water. They didn’t get far. “We were hit by a round,” said Ali, quietly. The mortar or rocket blasted both boys with shrapnel. They were quickly rushed to a local hospital, which was overflowing with casualties. “I was scared,” Ali said.

Ali and Mohammed were among more than 250 residents of Misrata who were brought to Benghazi aboard a Turkish cruise ship called Ankara. The government of Turkey negotiated a temporary cease-fire with the Gaddafi government to get the wounded out of Misrata, and an additional 100 casualties were being picked up in Benghazi and taken to Cesme, a city in western Turkey. “We sent this ship for humanitarian purposes,” said Ali Davutoglu, the Turkish consul-general in Benghazi who showed up to greet the ship’s passengers and crew.

When the ship rolled into the Benghazi port, other ships in the harbor blared their horns in welcome. A group of the city’s residents gathered at the dock and chanted “Misrata and Benghazi are brothers.” Several passengers swathed in bandages pressed themselves against the railing and chanted “Allah Akbar.” One young man on the top deck raised his arm, still in a full cast, and flashed a “V” for victory. The arrival of the ship offered a rare opportunity to hear firsthand accounts of the attack on Misrata.

Even though the vessel had been previously used for cruises, there was nothing festive about the ship now. The wounded were packed into cabins with bunk beds and some even slept on deck chairs, normally used for tanning, in a storage space for cars. Ali and Mohammed rested on thin mats in a carpeted room on one of the upper floors, with several other patients. Mohammed’s left eye was swollen shut and dark scabs covered his upper chest and neck. His right hand and leg were shredded in the blast and covered in bandages. Ali’s head and legs were also swathed in bandages. “[Gaddafi] uses our petrol money to treat us like animals,” said Mohammed Bisheikh, 64, the boys’ father, who accompanied them on the trip.

Gaddafi’s security forces have hardly shown any restraint in their attempts to squash the uprising in recent weeks. But they seem to have surpassed their own brutal standards in Misrata. The passengers on the ship described a city under violent siege. Tanks in the city center blast away at cars and buildings, and snipers take potshots at civilians. Salah Habary, 26, an unemployed college graduate, was sitting in his car 18 days ago when an antiaircraft round ripped into his leg. “There’s no targeting of anything in particular,” he said. “They’re shooting randomly.”

“Gaddafi uses our petrol money to treat us like animals.”

Residential neighborhoods have been shelled and water and electricity have been cut. Food supplies are running low. “They’re just attacking civilians. There’s no safe place in Misrata,” said Faraj Ahmed, 31, a doctor who spent two weeks at one of Misrata’s hospitals and accompanied patients on the ship. “Bombs are hitting houses and cars. The situation is really bad.”

Many of the patients on the ship had mixed feelings about leaving Misrata and their families behind, with little indication when they could return. The rebels in the city have put up a tough fight but they have not been able to push out Gaddafi’s military. And coalition forces have not carried out widespread airstrikes in the city, probably because of the high risk of hitting civilians. “I felt like I shouldn’t have left Misrata,” said Mohammed Al Arik, a 28-year-old media student who was hit by shrapnel in the stomach and legs, “because the city is besieged and my people are there.”

Babak Dehghanpisheh is Newsweek's Beirut bureau chief. He's been covering the Middle East for Newsweek since 2001.