Artillery barrage kills at least 23 in besieged Libyan city while port entry point for humanitarian aid also attacked.
|Libyan rebel forces have been travelling to Misurata in order to fight against pro-Gaddafi forces that have a stranglehold on the city [EPA]|
Fighters aboard the Victory pelted Kalashnikov rounds into the air as the fishing boat pulled away from the dock.
Friends and relatives cheered the men from Benghazi’s shore, waving, crying and praying they would see their loved ones again.
Minutes before, the ‘martyr’s prayer’ had been read in an earnest tone as the group readied to journey to the besieged western Libyan town of Misurata.
In three days’ time, they would be fighting alongside their Misurata comrades in ferocious street battles against Colonel Gaddafi’s snipers and ground troops.
Sons of Misurata
As the Benghazi coastline faded from view, the Victory undulating in the heavy waves, the fighters wrapped away their machine guns and buried the ammunition in the boxes of tomatoes. If the Victory was to pass NATO offshore controls, she had to look like an aid ship.
The ‘fighters’ are twelve young men, most of whom in reality had never before raised a gun. “I haven’t fired it yet,” said Mohammed Ali, 23, speaking of his Kalashnikov. “My friend and I practiced on glass bottles in the garden of my home.”
As the sun sank on the Mediterranean horizon and sea birds flew alongside the boat, the excited fighters pointed down at the water. “Dolphins! dolphins!” they cried, overjoyed.
Most of the passengers had relatives in Misurata. As Gaddafi forces seek to choke off the town – the last stand of ‘Free’ Libya in the west of the country – an information blackout has reigned, cutting power supplies and phone networks.
“All my family are in Misurata; I haven’t been able to speak with any of them in over a month,” said 19-year-old Salah Edin.
Under the red glow of the boat light, captain Mohammed Hassan – an eccentric man donned in full navy uniform, with a revolutionary scarf banded around his head – recounts the source of the Libyan people’s hatred for Gaddafi.
“He uses us like a pack of cards, and then when he is finished he throws us away.”
Hassan lists the atrocities that have befallen the Libyan people under the dictator. He pauses to answer a question about his family. “My wife? Yes, she is crying now,” and continues.
For the first time in the forty-two years of Gaddafi’s rule, he is able to speak his mind. This is a fight he will not give up on at any cost.
A perilous voyage
The seas are rough, and the wooden boat rocks violently at the behest of the waves. The night is filled with heaving and retching; vomiting of the seasick passengers. Men clasp miserably to the sides of the boat, their faces wet with the salty spray of the waves.
For two days, the weathered vessel battled the sea, heading westward at six knots – almost seven miles per hour.
Her steering was broken and she veered wildly, zig-zagging across the Mediterranean. Twice NATO frigates patrolling the international waters and enforcing the embargo on the warring country approached.
In recent days, ships have travelled from Benghazi to Misurata almost daily; though officially laden with aid, many act as the weapon supply for the front line.
Not all the trips have passed smoothly – one ship’s engine broke, and the crew were stranded at sea for ten days. “They waited and waited, a NATO ship passed and no one stopped. One old man died on board,” says Hassan.
At night the fighters slept under the stars under heavy blankets, contemplating the future that lay before them.
As the GPS signalled only ten miles to Misurata, it seemed that finally the gruelling voyage was nearing its end.
Playing charades with a helicopter
In the late afternoon, out of the fading blue sky, there appeared a Canadian NATO helicopter. The Sea King swooped and circled the Victory three times. And then put a stop to its voyage.
Positioning itself in its path, blades hollowing out the sea below, it hovered, blustering the wooden boat left and right, and flashed warning signals to stop.
From the open, darkened door the menacing shape of the helicopter’s gun was discernable, pointing directly at the boat.
The shebab [youth] fighters frantically tore cardboard boxes into signs; scribbling ‘Misurata logistics’ in barely discernable green ink, shouting “Allahu Akhbar” and reaching out with the ‘V’ for victory hand sign – many of them did it backwards.
Others shook onions and tomatoes at the chopper – an attempt to show them there were no weapons on board. The shebab stopped the salutations to pose for photographs.
They wrote “call us” on flimsy cardboard and waved at a satellite phone, ignoring the radio.
The Canadian NATO force looked on in bafflement at the charades; the rabble of khaki-clad shebab, whose only discernable weapons were water and tomatoes, jumped up and down below them jubilantly giving them two fingers up.
A man in full navy uniform with a revolutionary’s scarf wrapped round his head erratically signalled what they presumed was an attempt at semaphore but translated into a jumbled dance.
Eventually, the Canadians decided the eccentric bunch may be mad but not dangerous and allowed them to pass.
Victory, at last
As the stars emerged and they approached their destination, a nervous tension silenced the boat.
Misurata port was controlled by the thuwar [revolutionaries], they believed, but in a fluid war this information might have changed as they were at sea.
“Keep quiet, whisper, we call this security procedures,” said Mohammed Hassan as the boat silently glided into the darkened port, engine low, lights off.
Seconds later, as the shebab shouted ‘Stop’, ‘Go’ – directing the Victory to dock, the bullets began to fly. They spat past, ricocheting, and splintering the wooden boards of the fishing boat.
A fighter in the sleeping cabin flung himself to the ground, his pudgy figure shaking and hugging his machine gun.
‘Thawar! thawar!’ – Revolutionary, revolutionary! – screamed the rebels desperately. The attack was from their comrade’s fire. The radio being broken on the Victory, there had been no way to warn of their arrival.
Gradually the bullets subsided, rebels leapt off. Shouting followed as each side tried to discern the other’s loyalties. War breeds mistrust.
Eventually the groups bonded – they hugged and shook hands vigorously, both relieved the incident had not ended in tragedy. Not even an injury.
Together they unloaded the Victory.
The port side shook with the constant explosions of artillery fired by nearing Gaddafi forces; a clue to what the rebel’s would face in coming days.