MISRATA, Libya – Less than two weeks after wresting itself free from a brutal siege and pushing Moammar Gadhafi's forces out of rocket range, the rebel-held city of Misrata is taking its first steps toward normalcy.
The city, the only major urban center in western Libya under rebel control, was the scene of some of the heaviest fighting between government troops and rebels since the Libyan uprising began Feb. 15. The ferocity of the struggle over Misrata's fate is stamped across the downtown streets — the charred hulks of tanks, the pockmarked and blown-out buildings, the sand berms strewn across intersections.
The rebels expelled the last of Gadhafi's troops from the city, gaining a bit of breathing room. Since then, the city's beleaguered residents have moved quickly to bring back at least a semblance of daily life shattered during the siege. Electricity is being restored, many of the once ubiquitous checkpoints have been taken down, and the availability — and variety — of food is improving.
"Things are getting better," said 26-year-old Zarouk Tanashi at his shoe store near the city's center. "Shops are opening, there are people buying things and people are on the streets again, even families."
Misrata, situated near Gadhafi's stronghold in the capital of Tripoli, is a powerful symbol for both sides. Other rebel strongholds are in the east.
Gadhafi's troops laid siege to Misrata in mid-March, pounding the city of 600,000 for weeks with rockets, mortars and tank shells. Hundreds of people — civilians and combatants alike — were killed in the fighting before the rebels pushed out the last government troops. The front lines now lie at least 13 miles (20 kilometers) outside the city, leaving the heart of Misrata out of range of Gadhafi's heavy weapons and pushing the fighting to outlying areas.
Rebel forces fired truck-mounted anti-aircraft guns Monday over sand berms they'd built for protection at one of their frontline position about 15 miles (24 kilometers) west of the city.
Using a winning tactic from their battle for the city center, they had blocked the main road west toward the capital, Tripoli, with shipping containers, and coordinated their defenses behind them. The four-lane road is lined with pine trees and has street lamps running down the middle, many of which have been shattered in the fighting.
A rebel commander who gave his name only as Hamza said his fighters repelled a government tank advance Monday morning, capturing 15 government soldiers. One, who appeared no older than 18, looked terrified as rebels loaded him into a pickup truck and drove off.
"They came at us with tanks from three places, with mortar fire for cover," Hamza said. "They advanced to within a kilometer of our line, but we were able to fight them off." He said no rebels were killed or captured.
Hamza said the fighters' current goal is to keep the city safe, not to advance.
City residents still hear frequent explosions on the horizon, providing a sharp reminder of the threat that remains.
One of the top priorities since the siege lifted has been restoring electric power to homes, bakeries and hospitals. The power grid was never fully knocked out across Misrata, but extensive damage to the system from shelling left most of the city dark during the siege.
One of the city's main power stations was destroyed and two others heavily damaged. As a result, power supplies dropped to around 15 percent of normal levels, said Hassan Sagayer, a senior official with the power company.
In the past two weeks, engineers have scrambled to bring online a power generator located at a steel plant on the south side of the city, and it now supplies around 60 megawatts of power to homes, bakeries and hospitals, Sagayer said. It meets about 60 percent of the city's needs, he added. Factories, however, are a secondary concern and remain shuttered.
"We will rebuild," Sagayer, vowed, tapping his heart with his hand. "Only now that the shelling is out of range do we have the chance to work."
The task ahead is daunting.
"There are problems from every angle," Sagayer said, sitting in the office of an undamaged substation, a map of the city's power grid covering one wall. "We need cables, aluminum wires, transformers, oil for transformer terminals, a lot of stuff in all."
"In a best case scenario, at least six months are needed to get things back to normal," Sagayer said.
"This is my city, and these are my people," he added, before halting as tears welled in his eyes and slipped down his cheek, testament to the strain of patching up the wounds to his hometown. "Many houses are without light, hospitals are without light," he said before breaking off.
At the Misrata Polyclinic, the city's main hospital and an early target of shelling by Gadhafi's forces, the smell of fresh paint fills the halls as volunteers slap on a final coat on the now glistening white walls. Dusty gurneys, office chairs and desks sit in a pile outside the main entrance and litter the corridors inside.
Salem, an electrical engineer who is helping repair the clinic, said about 90 volunteers have fixed the facility's emergency generator, patched up the damage from shelling to the roof and walls and replaced blown-out windows.
"We've been at it almost three weeks now," said Salem, who asked not to provide his last name for fear of reprisals against family living in territory under Gadhafi control. "We expect to hand the clinic over to health authorities this week."
The strain on food supplies also appears to be easing. Vegetable vendors have returned to street corners and the supply of many goods, while still far short of the days before the uprising, has improved.
"A month ago, there was nothing," said vendor Abdullah Sadi, 42, as he surveyed the heaps of fresh carrots and tomatoes, red onions and potatoes that covered the tables in his shop. "We were open the whole time, but there was nothing to sell, everything was out. Now it's coming back a bit."
The same can be said for all of Misrata.