Al Jazeera obtains exclusive access to site where some of the fiercest fighting took place.
|The cruise ship costs more than $50,000 per day to operate and is funded by Libyan business tycoon Mohammed Raied [George Henton/Al Jazeera]|
Hundreds of families gathered at Benghazi dock, pushing and jostling their way onto the cruise ship bound for war. A prominent business man has chartered the passenger ferry to open a commercial line between Benghazi and the besieged west Libya town of Misurata.
Limping and waving crutches, injured fighters joined throngs of women and children on the first commercial ferry to travel to the city since the war began.
“I was looking for a way to take injured Misuratans who were treated in Benghazi back to their homes,” said Libyan business tycoon Mohammed Raied, who chartered the ship. “By law the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) boat that brought the injured out, cannot take people to Misurata. So it would travel to the city loaded only with aid.”
“We finalised the contract in the morning,” added Raied. Just a few hours later, the Azurra line – crammed with over 700 passengers, a field hospital and medical crew, and supplies, pulled away from Benghazi’s shores.
Reports that the heavy bombardments that for weeks wracked Misurata’s residential areas are lessening, have prompted hundreds of stranded Misuratans to return to their homes. “I miss everything in Misurata. My friends, my cousins, my pillow, my bed,” said Noha Obeid, 19, holding her sister’s three-year-old daughter in her arms. The family of nine paid more than $800 to buy ferry tickets home.
Scarred for life
Obeid’s home is on the edge of the devastated Tripoli street in Misurata; the scene of violent street battles between Gaddafi forces and Misurata fighters. “The snipers were so close. The bullets came down our street. A bomb hit our home, but it didn’t explode. We were almost used to the constant rocket and mortar fire.”
“My sister lives in Benghazi. When we came to her we couldn’t believe how safe it was. You can eat good, sleep good. But you cannot be calm, we still have our cousins in Misurata, our friends are in Misurata,” said Obeid.
Leaving the hell hole into which their homes had been transformed proved a near impossible task for Misurata residents. “We were told there were no boats that could take us. The ones that came only had space for foreign refugees.” In desperation, Obeid’s friend Huda, had risked a perilous journey in a rickety fishing boat to escape.
The lower decks of the Azzura line ferry are a poignant reminder of the continuing dangers of living in the besieged city. Among the stacked boxes of food and medical aid, a huge tent makes an impromptu field hospital. Inside reveals three sectioned wards with more than 30 beds, an examination chamber and intensive care unit. All are empty, waiting to take more of Misurata’s injured to Benghazi.
“We are expecting to take back cancer patients. They are not getting treatment they need in hospital. We have shortages in Benghazi too, but there at least they have the chance to go abroad,” said Dr Anis Hwairis, who is leading the operation. “The hospital in Misurata depends on the evacuations. If you evacuate patients then they can work – especially in the intensive care unit.”
Hwairis had with him 13 fifth year medical student volunteers. “You can’t get home and say ‘I have done everything I can’. There is always more that can be done. I want to be part of this,” said volunteer Mohammed Fallah. Last month, he battled on the front lines at Ajdabiya, and next week he plans to fight in the western mountains that has seen the fiercest fighting of recent weeks.
Lying among the casino and bar on the upper decks of the ferry were the treated citizens returning home. Many will bear the brutal scars of this war for the remainder of their lives.
Eight-year-old Mohammed Hassan lay curled in an oversize wheel chair. He lost his leg and an arm to shrapnel from a rocket attack on his neighbourhood. Younis Hadid, 23, was fighting on Tripoli street, ‘Sniper Alley’, when a mortar hit nearby, and the fallout shattered his legs. Metal rods now protrude from his left leg, holding the bones together, while his right leg is cased in green plaster.
More than 500 injured Misuratans, currently recovering in Qatar, Turkey and Greece will soon wish to come home, estimates Raied. “I am thinking to buy a vessel to establish a regular Benghazi – Misurata line for the next three months,” he said.
It costs more than $50,000 per day to operate the chartered ship. “We have rented this vessel for 14 days, we will try to make five or six trips,” said Raied. The Libyan dairy business tycoon said he has shipped more than 200 containers of food to Misurata. He also chartered to planes to fly from Benghazi to Tunisia. A tanker full of gas, renovated by Raied, travelled behind the passenger vessel.
The Azzure line usually travels the waters of the tourist route between Tripoli and Lebanon. With the Misurata port still being sporadically shelled, the voyage is a dangerous trip, and a difficult decision for the ship’s Lebanese Captain, Ghassan El Bakri to make. “I want to help these people. This is the Azzure’s tenth trip in Libya’s war- torn waters in the last three months. I have been to the ports of Sirte and Tripoli and Misurata to evacuate refugees. We took away more than 10,000 people in the last three months.”
As the twinkling lights of Misurata’s shoreline became visible on the horizon, a NATO helicopter whirred protectively above the ship – a reminder that Misurata civilians were returning home to a situation that remains everything but normal.