Published November 17, 2014
Tripoli Street is a bullet-scarred wasteland — littered with charred cars and tanks, its cafes and offices shattered. Yet for Misrata's civilians-turned-fighters, the boulevard is a prized trophy, paid for in blood, won with grit and guile.
It took five weeks of fierce street battles — on rooftops, in alleyways — for Misrata's inexperienced rebels to wrest control of their city's commercial heart from forces loyal to Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi. Up against armored units and professional sniper squads, they turned bottles, tires and trailer trucks into tools of war.
When they finally succeeded in pushing government forces out of Libya's third-largest city in late April, it was the greatest head-to-head military victory yet in the uprising that threatens Gadhafi's 42-year hold on power. The opposition controls much of eastern Libya, but Misrata is the only city in the west rebels have managed to hold.
"Our fighters weren't fighting from experience," said the local military spokesman, Ibrahim Beatelmal, noting that most had never touched a gun before joining the fight. "They had to make it all up as they went along."
The city remains surrounded, accessible only through its port and subjected to daily bombardments. The port was shelled Wednesday while an international aid ship was docked there, killing four people. After two months of siege, cemeteries accommodate rows of new graves and hospitals have transformed into battlefield clinics; doctors estimate that the siege's death toll has passed 1,000.
Yet amid the carnage, residents have organized to stave off hunger, allocate fuel and protect the city. They've erected sand berms along streets to absorb blasts, hacked down palm trees to delineate ambulance fast lanes, formed an array of administrative committees — all with a community spirit that revealed itself in many ways during an Associated Press reporter's weeklong stay.
Misrata is a merchant city, with a large professional class whose expertise has paid off in distinctive ways. Dermatologists treat blast victims. University students master street-fighting tactics.
"All of a sudden I became responsible for macaroni and onions," said Majdi Shibani, a telecommunications professor put in charge of food distribution — a daunting task in a sprawling city where all phone lines have been cut. His team oversees distribution of 400 tons of food per week from a room in the back of a hookah lounge, where customers smoke water pipes.
Donations of food have streamed in on boats from the Libyan diaspora, foreign countries and international organizations. There's little coordination, resulting in huge surpluses of, say, canned corn — which Shibani said Libyans hate.
The stalemate in Misrata mirrors the situation nationwide. Soon after the uprising against Gadhafi broke out on Feb. 15, the opposition took over Benghazi and other eastern towns, but its patchwork forces proved unable to make further gains even after U.S. and NATO airstrikes on Gadhafi's troops began in late March.
Meanwhile, government forces surrounded Misrata, 125 miles (200 kilometers) southeast of the capital Tripoli, cutting it off and attacking from three sides. Unlike fighters in eastern Libya, who retreat across stretches of desert when attacked, Misrata's rebels can't run; their backs are to the Mediterranean Sea.
After several failed attacks on Misrata, government commanders sent a column of tanks blasting its way down Tripoli Street on March 16. Residents fled, and regime sniper teams moved in, building nests on a dozen of the city's tallest buildings, notably a nine-story insurance building. Gunfire from the rooftops killed and wounded scores of civilians.
The city's youth organized resistance. Led by a handful of retired army officers, they formed brigades of dozens of fighters, each assigned to a side street, said Samir al-Hadi, a grocer who led a group at Tripoli Street's southern end.
Local youths used their intimate knowledge of the area to dodge sniper fire, serving as scouts, gunmen, messengers and supply runners. Over walkie-talkies, group leaders let others know when tanks or supply trucks arrived so they could attack them with Molotov cocktails or rocket-propelled grenades.
They first fought with only light arms. With each ambush, they captured more — mostly anti-aircraft and heavy artillery guns — which they welded to the backs of pickup trucks.
The Gadhafi regime imported the pickups — cheap Chinese imitations of name-brand trucks — in 2007, but they sat unwanted in a lot until the war. Now, the rebels have registered about 2,000, even issuing photo IDs to their drivers to prevent theft.
The fleet is essential to the rebel cause, ferrying fighters to battle, aid to families, and casualties to hospitals. Although the trucks often break down, the rebels call them a blessing.
"The bad cars Gadhafi brought us we now use to fight him," said Hisham Bansasi, who helps coordinate the fleet. "You can call it a joke of destiny."
Bigger trucks were used when the rebels — unable to blast the snipers from their positions — decided instead to cut their supply lines. While rooftop gunmen provided cover, rebels drove trucks full of sand onto Tripoli Street, dumped their trailers and shot out their tires, forming heavy roadblocks.
"When we blocked the road, there was no way to get supplies to the snipers," al-Hadi said.
The rebels then circled in, closing off back routes with destroyed cars and concrete sewage pipes.
Street battles raged while they besieged the snipers. Government forces peppered the area with mortars, killing many rebels. Al-Hadi guesses that about 400 died in the fighting on Tripoli Street alone, although no one has exact figures.
Among the victims were two Western photojournalists who had accompanied rebels to the street — Chris Hondros, a New York-based photographer for Getty Images, and British-born Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Oscar-nominated documentary "Restrepo" about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.
As the snipers gradually weakened, rebel fighters went building by building, clearing them any way they could.
Near the battle's end, a team of snipers held out in a multistory furniture store called "Make Yourself at Home," al-Hadi said. Rebels fired on the building with anti-aircraft guns, forcing the snipers into the basement.
Gunmen then stormed the building and rolled burning tires down the stairs. Days later, its stairwell was charred black, and the smell of burnt rubber and dead bodies fouled the air.
The battle turned in late April, al-Hadi said, as government troops ran low on supplies and fled from the high-rises to nearby homes. The rebels raised their flag on the insurance building on April 21.
Rebel fighter Mustafa Zredi, 18, said he watched one of the last sniper groups seize a house on April 26 and punch holes for their rifles in the stairway walls.
"We knew we could easily put gas in a bottle and throw it over the wall to burn them out," Zredi said.
Before doing so, the fighters asked permission from the owner, 66-year-old Mohammed Labbiz. With regret, he said OK.
"That was the only way to get those dogs out," Labbiz recalled, standing in the charred shell of his home of 30 years. "I hope that God will reimburse me."
Two days later, curious families walked down Tripoli Street, snapping photos of their children next to burned-out tanks.
The fighting has caused massive displacement throughout Misrata. Thousands of residents now squat in schools or crowd in with family members.
The Refayda family, from a semi-rural area to the east, evacuated into the city in mid-April after a surge of sniper fire and bombardments.
Some 70 clan members now stay in an unfinished, four-room house near the ocean. They've divided the rooms by age and gender — women in the bedrooms, girls in the living room, boys in the garage. The oldest is 77, the youngest 4 months. About 30 of the clan's grown men are on the battlefield but visit regularly.
Demand is high for the home's three bathrooms; three children shower at a time.
Ali Hameida built the house in 2003 for his wife and five children, never imagining so many guests.
"If I had known, I'd have dug a basement," he said.
It's been impossible to keep a precise count of Misrata's death toll; doctors' estimates range between 1,000 and 2,000. The central hospital, Hikma, has registered more than 550 dead since mid-February, but others were brought to outlying clinics or buried straightaway.
The Libyan government has provided no information on how many soldiers it has lost, further blurring the picture.
Hikma, originally a private clinic, has been transformed by the war. A tent in the parking lot houses the triage unit. Another serves as a mosque. Wards are crowded around the clock, and doctors bed down in alcoves hidden behind sheets. Outside, families cluster to await news, erupting in tears and chants when a new death is confirmed.
Dr. Ali Mustafa Ali, like many of his colleagues, often sleeps at Hikma but returns home to his wife and children during lulls, snipping a few roses from his garden to bring back to work.
"The severity of the situation has made everyone pull together in a way I've never seen before," Ali said.
A group of men emerged from the hospital carrying a wooden coffin covered in a blanket — the first of 11 "martyrs" who would reach the hospital before nightfall.
"God is great," Ali said as the men passed. Then he entered the hospital to put the flowers on his desk.
"They're for the people inside," he said, "to keep their spirits up."