Libya’s ‘Stalingrad’ struggles to its feet

Libya’s ‘Stalingrad’ struggles to its feet

Far from the nearest rebel bastion and perched provocatively on Tripoli’s doorstep, residents of the western Libyan city of Misrata have not had an easy war, but slowly the city is getting to its feet.

The port city of 500,000 has been the scene of the fiercest fighting in the near six-month-old conflict and it continues to see a near daily rain of fire from Muammar Gaddafi’s rockets.

Loyalist troops are still stationed as close as 40 kilometres away – to the west at Zliten, to the southwest and to the south at Tuarga. Only Nato jets and a volunteer rebel army keep them at bay.

Inside the city the fighting has very visibly taken its toll.

The city centre more closely resembles post-war Sarajevo or post-earthquake Port-au-Prince than the sister cities of Benghazi or Ajdabiya in Libya’s east.

As one history-minded graffiti artist dubbed it, this is “Misratagrad,” a reference to the Russian city of Stalingrad which was destroyed in fierce fighting during World War II.

Along two grim kilometres of Tripoli Street – the city’s main thoroughfare – no building has been left untouched.

Such was the intensity of the battle that the most badly pock-marked shops, apartments and offices still resemble giant rebar sculptures, with a touch of masonry added as an afterthought.

By the roadside charred shipping containers, tanks and cars have been disfigured and contorted into forms worthy of the Turner Prize for modern art.

But now that Col. Gaddafi’s forces have been pushed away from the city’s suburbs, it is among this detritus that Misratis are trying to reconstruct their lives.

Shaaban Mustafa Badi, aged 38, says his shop Badi Car Parts was the first to open on the strip at the end of May.

Like many others the store was looted by Col. Gaddafi’s forces; car batteries were a particularly popular item. Now he is forced to sell what stock the troops left behind.

But pointing to the street, which is largely empty of vehicles, Mr Badi explains that business is not good.

“The people don’t have money, so I am either giving away the parts for free, or I am putting them on credit accounts. People just don’t have the money.”

“The situation is better than before, but I wish the street was being rebuilt faster,” says the father of seven.

Across the road at number 159, Hasan Abdullah Zubi is another businessman who has recently reopened his store. He sells an improbable mix of soft-drinks and hardware.

But he tells a similar story. This year the normal Ramadan boom has not materialised.

He says that like much of Libya, Misrata is dependent on government salaries to get by. So with the government now gone, money is tight. And everywhere there are reminders of how close the war is.

Pick-up trucks and ambulances regularly race through the city to and from the three fronts which encircle the town. Travel is made complicated by multi-hour-long queues for gasoline.

But more than anything else residents are concerned by the regular bombardments of grad rockets.

Many fall in open areas, or cause limited damage, but just enough hit their random targets for the psychological impact to be intense.

Mr Badi reports that his six-month-old daughter seems to be shaking too much and the other kids cry and run away with every bang; this in a city where bangs of one sort or another are common.

Just metres from Mr Badi and Mr Zubi’s shops there is evidence of the ongoing siege, a piece of grad rocket is nestled among the rubble where children are playing.

Above Mr Badi’s shop are the gutted and bullet-ridden remains of what was once a government ID centre. Papers and documents are still strewn on the floor amid the food, sleeping blankets and uniforms of Col Gaddafi’s soldiers.

There are few building that are not abandoned or unoccupied.

Yet despite enduring months of hell and facing an uphill struggle to clean up their city the Misratis remain resolute.

“Misrata will be rebuilt,” said Mr Badi, “we just need this guy to go”.

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