Thursday, May 12, 2011

Libya: Misrata Fighters Bloodied But Unbowed

This article originally appeared in the Institute for War and Peace Reporting,

Misrata Fighters Bloodied But Unbowed

Morale amongst injured fighters high with many determined to return to the front once they recover.

In the coastal town of Sousse in Tunisia, we met a shipload of injured people who had managed to get out of Misrata. There were about 400 of them, mostly fighters – some who were in a bad way and others who were walking wounded. Some had been hit by anti-aircraft fire, others by shrapnel.

Around 90 per cent of them were young men between 20 and 30 years of age; all of them, without exception, had never experienced a combat situation before or used a weapon in their lives. One said to me, “How different fighting in real life is to how it appears on the Playstation.”

It was scary that these men had never been in the military and had no training, but it was also inspiring. They said they took no pleasure from war, and would have avoided it if at all possible – but all said they were fighting to be free and to build a modern society.

These guys were bright and enthusiastic and their morale was still very high. Most said they wanted to recover from their injuries and return to continue fighting to free Misrata. They were happy about the international intervention, but perhaps puzzled as to why more wasn’t being done and more bombing raids weren’t taking place. However, they said that without the help they had received, they would never have been able to keep the port open and there was great gratitude for this.

Though they lack expertise in handling weapons, in my opinion 90 per cent of fighting is courage and they are not short of that. They told me stories of how they were learning to organise themselves better – working out how to operate in groups and how to set up command structures. There are a few soldiers who have defected from Gaddafi’s forces and that has helped with their training.

In Sousse, there were also doctors from Misrata who had been driving ambulances when they were wounded. I was told horrendous stories about Gaddafi’s forces and how they would literally shoot anything that moved, even animals. They burned down farms, shot horses, cows - the idea being to break the city’s spirit.

We heard that conditions were terrible in Misrata. They have been living on whatever food was in the city when the siege started, and a lot of warehouses have been opened up by businessmen to help supply the city. As for weapons, they mostly have been captured from the regime’s forces.

Some of the young men told me that in the first week or so all they had were sticks and baseball bats and rocks. The more we captured, they said, the more we could defend ourselves. Eventually supplies started to arrive but there is still a lack of medication.

These people want the world to help as much as they can, but know they are the only ones who can fight on the ground. They also want the world to know what is happening in Misrata as it has been difficult for the media to gain access. And they want to send the message that it is not a tribal conflict, Libya is not divided, and all of us want Gaddafi gone.

The writer is a 35-year-old Tripoli-born banker who has lived in London for the last 19 years.