Saturday, 28 January 2012

Libyan city continues to fight, but this time for normality

The pigeons barely moved in their small cages. The ducks, free, gathered around each other on the asphalt as the bulbuls chirped in the background.

In Misrata’s Friday makeshift birds market, simple Libyan peasants, children and few old men stood by their goods in unintended rows. Potential buyers walked to and fro, inspecting the birds. Misrata was a big city of half a million residents but it still had the spirit of a small village. For few months, it has been trying to regain its normality after a heroic fight against Gaddafi’s forces.

“Get that yellow paper please,” said the security officer at the gate of Misrata airport. Me and Mohamed Madi had just arrived from Benghazi. We understood quickly. It is Misrata, and you have to get your details entered into a database before you enter the city even if you came from another Libyan city.

January 25 2012. Five months since the end of Gaddafi’s siege and his intensive offensive against Libya’s third biggest city. Misrata has not yet recovered from its deep wounds.

How quickly will that happen? The experience at the airport left bitterness in my throat. “Did the war turn them into xenophobes?” I wondered.

I met Ahmad Ben Wafaa, a 20-something Libyan blogger from the city. He took me around to show me the scars of a bitter fight for survival. Gaddafi thought that by taking Misrata, 200 km east of Tripoli, his grip would be maintained on western Libya. The resistance by the Misratans was not only about their lives or their city. It was about the unity of Libya that had then been split in two: the east (Benghazi and Green Mountain) and the west (Tripoli).

In most of the buildings near the city centre, holes in the walls of many houses from tank and mortar shells remain gaping in awe. Every building was dotted with what looked like indiscriminate machine gun fire. A bank stood closed, while the storeys above it were pitch-black from fire. Another, which housed a pension fund, was completely charred and its silver metal façade turned into a scary structure of burnt aluminium.

Building in Shari Tripoli st. (from
Between February and August 2011, the fighting in Misrata was focused on its main streets: Tripoli St in the west and in the east Benghazi st. On the sides of Tripoli streets, houses and businesses were still closed and many were partially destroyed. A mosque nearby was decapitated, as the upper part of its minaret was shelled out of this world.

The cool and humility of Misratans hid scars of trauma that I – the Gazan – recognized very well. The last real war Misrata saw was probably WWII, but 2011 was not only about fighting, either. It was about betrayal and solidarity.

Bin-Wafaa told me various stories about the efforts made to take care of the city’s inhabitants under the rain of Gaddafi’s Grad rockets and Mortar shells. The distribution of food, the supply of medical services and the prayers. The prayers that were uttered day an night by the frightened civilians.

The war is over now. The wounds of Misrata will take time to heal, however.

Bin Wafaa spoke bitterly about the residents of Taourga, the smaller city 45 km to the south, whose residents always worked in and traded with Misrata.

But Taourga, or most of its residents, sided with Gaddafi’s forces. They were promised to take half of Misrata if Gaddafi wins. Bin-Wafaa went on to say that the good ties with Misrata had been forgotten as the Taourgans pillaged Misrata and according to him committed horrific crimes, such as gang rape of Misratan women and men, murder and theft.

Things didn’t work according to plan and Taourga now is a ghost town after its residents fled quickly before the wrath of Misratans reached them. For Bin-Wafaa, this was a better outcome since massacres were averted.

I already knew about what happened in Taourga. Like many others, I cried racism. Taourga’s residents were descendants of African slaves and news reports spoke about black Africans being singled out. Bin-Wafaa categorically said no. It was not racism. He added that Gaddafi’s forces were based in nearby Zliten (20 km to the west), but there was no vengeance from Misrata. Unlike Taourga’s, the civilians of Zliten did not join Gaddafi’s forces with promises of the spoils from Misrata’s defeat. I also saw many black Libyans in shops, cafes and streets of Misrata. While I and Bin-Wafaa walked on, an old man said hello. “Saw him? He is from Taourga but has lived here with us for a long time,” said Bin-Wafaa

In Misrata’s tiny market, businesses have reopened and some repairs were done to few buildings. In a nearby café, young Libyans sat smoking their Shishas and sipping macchiatos but the grimness in the faces is startling.

The six-month-long season of fear has turned into a sense of pride of what Misrata did to protect itself and keep the push against Gaddafi alive. I understand now why the excessive security measures and graffiti on the walls declare: “no to reconciliation”.  Misrata is now sarcastically known by other Libyans as the “emirate of Misrata”.

Libyans in a café were looking at TV, but their eyes were almost aimless. Smiles can hardly be seen, even though teens were drifting their cars dangerously in Misrata's tiny streets in an expression of their freedom. 

It is possible to deal with physical pain, but overcoming the trauma within is not going to be easy, for Misrata will never be the same.

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