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In Misurata, residents live with death and dread

In the largest opposition-held city in western Libya, a father wonders when his luck will run out, a rebel braces himself to relay bad news, and a doctor reflects on the deaths of his four young children.

April 22, 2011|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • A Libyan opposition fighter opens fire at government troops in the city of Misurata, the largest remaining rebel-held city in western Libya.
A Libyan opposition fighter opens fire at government troops in the city… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Misurata, Libya — The roar of machine guns and the boom of artillery fill the city, but no one flinches anymore, from the hospital orderlies who wash the blood off the streets to the families who have fled their bombarded homes.

This is Misurata, and its people are under siege: The father who can't stop wondering if his luck is about to run out after he narrowly misses a deadly rocket attack on people waiting in line for bread.

The rebel who waits outside the morgue and dreads telling another mother that her son is a martyr.

The doctor who wipes the blood and gore from his cheek and knows his children are dead before he even sees their devastated little bodies.

Residents utter a ubiquitous slogan: We will win or die. But increasingly they're afraid that dying is more likely.

*

Dr. Ali Abu Fanas walks across the parking lot of the Hikma hospital. Everything there is a blessing — the screech of a car as it stops outside, the rush of the gurney. They call upon the anesthesiologist to save lives, not helplessly watch them end.

But sometimes he can't work, and he leaves after a few hours. The memories are too much for him.

On March 21 at 4 p.m., he was driving his wife and four children to his mother-in-law's house when a road they always took turned into a battlefield for rebels and forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi in what is the largest remaining rebel-held city in western Libya.

Gunfire boomed. He urged his wife and children to lie down in the car. He stopped the car and a blast shook them and glass fell in. He put his hand to his cheek and saw blood and brain matter. He had already guessed what he would see: his children decapitated, almost unrecognizable. His wife cried their names.

Soldiers from Kadafi's army pulled the couple from the car and started to question them outside. His wife begged to go back, screaming that one of the children might be alive. But Abu Fanas knew they were gone.

He worried about defending his wife from the men. He begged her to be quiet, even as he struggled to stop sobbing, but couldn't completely.

They pleaded with the soldiers to let them go, and after several hours, a soldier allowed them to run down an alley. They banged on a red door and begged the stranger inside to let them stay the night. In the morning, they went to the hospital. Their children were in the morgue: sons Salem, 15, and Adam, 3; and daughters Hawa, 11, and Fatma, 7.

He carries the pieces of shrapnel from his own minor wounds in a small white cloth, and on his phone he has pictures of his children.

After the deaths, he and his wife couldn't bear to be in their old house, to see their children's toys and clothing. They decided to stay at his in-laws', even though their house is in the middle of the city, not far from the fighting.

It was better than being with their memories.

"My children are gone. I know if God wants, he will give me another. If he doesn't, I am good. I am with my wife and that's what God wills," he says. "I will remember my children, how I played with them. I will not forget."

After a week, Abu Fanas decided to go back to work because he told himself there was nothing he could do about his loved ones. They were gone and his city was under attack.

"Sometimes when I come here, I see children. I remember my daughter," he says, his eyes welling up with tears. "I try to help the children wounded by Kadafi."

*

Rajab Ali waits nervously in line outside a bakery for nearly 90 minutes to pick up baguettes for his family. He had waited in a similar line at a bakery by the port the day before a rocket exploded there, killing others waiting for bread.

He keeps wondering whether his luck is about to run out. Yet he has no choice.

He and his wife and two young daughters have been forced from their home because of unrelenting shelling. They fled with his father and his brother's family to their sister's home, in a neighborhood that's less vulnerable.

With many shops closed and the remaining groceries rationing essentials, Ali struggles to find enough food. He searches to buy powdered milk for his year-old baby and seeks enough extra water in case shortages result from the government's shelling of an industrial area from which the city's drinking supply is now disseminated.

Rockets and mortars target power plants, hospitals, fuel reserves, food warehouses and factories.

"The situation has become worse," Ali says. "Really, I think [Kadafi's forces] want to destroy everything."

The family debates what to do if the heavy fire continues. His father and brother-in-law want to leave. But his brother refuses. They sit together at night and argue.

"It's hard to leave your house in the city," Ali said.

He reaches the front of the line and delights in the toasty smell of baked bread. He watches a young boy carry loaves off to his parents and listens to a graying man describe how he walked across Misurata to find an open shop. He knows everyone around him has stories like his own.

*

At the Hikma hospital, Usama Fortia holds two black Belgian assault rifles and waits for friends to return from dropping off a rebel fighter's corpse, wrapped in a gray blanket, at the morgue. Then they will go tell the man's family the news.

Fortia is unsmiling, dreading what will be his second time notifying a family of the dead in less than two hours. They will tell the parents, simply: "Your son is a martyr."

It is not the time for reflection, he says. A certain coldness is required.

"I have lost a lot of my friends now," Fortia says. "In the future, I will remember everybody who was killed, the times we spent together and talked together. But now we are fighting."

ned.parker@latimes.com

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