Misrata speaks: We don't want another Gaddafi

On the eve of elections, Kim Sengupta returns to the city where he saw a brutal siege a year earlier

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The Independent Online

The two chairs were placed side by side. One was fitted with straps and manacles, the other a seat of long nails. They had been taken from a regime interrogation centre, but now had a sign stating: "Presents for the new President if he mistreats his people."

They were the only attempts at humour amid exhibits chronicling savagery and sorrow at the Martyrs' Museum in Misrata – the city which became a symbol of defiance as it stood bloody but unbowed through months of a brutal siege by Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

"They were my neighbour's children, killed by tank fire when the family was trying to flee," said Ali Shenaba, the founder and manager of the Museum, pointing at photographs of two pairs of boys and girls, aged between four and 10. "There was no need to do that, do they look like rebel fighters? Those regime men were just wanting to kill."

Mr Shenaba's own house on Tripoli Street, on the urban frontline, was destroyed. The extended family of 12 is now sharing temporary accommodation, hoping the impending elections will pave the way for a government that will lead Misrata and Libya away from strife to stability and prosperity.

"We did not go through so much suffering, lose so many young lives, to tolerate anyone who abuses his power again," Mr Shenaba said. "But it's not just that. This city has suffered so much for the revolution, we need housing, we need jobs, we need help for our warriors who have lost arms, legs, the families of those who have lost lives. We cannot be ignored."

"Free Libya" is now effectively under the control of armed and often competing groups of former rebels who each claim to have played a decisive part in the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi's regime. But there is acknowledgment, sometimes grudging, of Misrata's claim that the revolution would have been stillborn without the tenacious resistance of its people against daily bombardment.

Misrata, while not averse to flexing its military muscle, has taken deliberate political and commercial steps to show autonomy from the government in Tripoli. The port city held elections for a council in February – the first such ballot in Libya since the coup that brought Colonel Gaddafi to power four decades ago – without bothering to consult the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) in Tripoli. That council, pointing to Misrata's mercantile history, subsequently signed a trade agreement with Malta, its nearest international neighbour, without involving Tripoli. I arrived in Misrata last April on a fishing boat carrying food and medicine to a dockyard under fire. Then, at the height of its onslaught, the regime was determined to choke off the only lifeline the defendants had left – the sea. The house where we stayed in that night was hit by missiles the following day, injuring members of the family who had hosted us.

Trucks now form queues to Qasr Ahmed, Libya's biggest container port, with contractors busy ticking off inventories. Mohammed Abu Sameh, whom I recalled leading a bunch of teenage rebels out of a burning building, is one of them. Commercial profit, he said, is not the main motivating factor for Misrata. "Look, we didn't join the revolution because we were poor, we were always a place which did well because we have had business links with other countries.

"We joined because we believe the people should know what happens to the country's wealth and we believe in democracy. What we now wonder is whether those who took power in Tripoli believe in the same things."

Mr Sameh, a 32-year-old who toyed with the idea of standing for election before deciding otherwise, continued: "Oil production has started again and there is now a lot of money coming in, where is that all going? The NTC does not tell us. After the election we must open up the accounts and look at where the money is going. Gaddafi used the oil money to make his family and friends rich and stupid wars in places like Chad. We want ordinary Libyans to benefit now."

Abdul Munam Omar is not sure that he will benefit, however. The 20-year-old student lay in his bed at Al Hikma Hospital with intestinal damage and part of his right arm torn off – injuries suffered while fighting in Tripoli Street last year. The doctors in Misrata thought he would lose the use of his arm, but a German doctor managed to restore partial use. He still needs further surgeries for that, as well as the stomach wounds.

The NTC has been paying for surgery abroad for fighters and civilians, but the rules were altered after claims that the system was being abused with people using it for cosmetic treatment and dental work, especially in countries like Jordan, where there are no visa requirements for Libyans.

"I regret taking part in the fighting now because of what has happened to me. I wanted to finish my education and get a good job, but I don't know whether that is going to be possible. My family is poor – they can't afford the medical care – so I don't know what will happen if the government does not pay. It is very depressing for me," Mr Omar said.

There are hundreds of physically disabled people in Misrata. But that is not the only scar left by the war. A recent World Health Organisation (WHO) study found 21,000 out of the city's population of 250,000 were suffering from psychological trauma.

Dr Mustafa Shegmani, a clinical psychologist who qualified at Rennes University in France, is in charge of a team of 24 specialists who have treated more than 700 patients, aged between two and 80 years in the last three months.

"During the fighting I was helping out other doctors dealing with emergency cases at the hospital. There were casualties, fatalities, body parts on operating tables, stretchers," he said.

"That room was later turned into somewhere the doctors could get some rest. I walked in one day and began to have flashbacks, bodies, blood. So I have a little personal experience of what people are going through myself."

There will be long-term problems that need to be addressed, Dr Shegmani said.

"At the moment we don't really have a government, no real authority, which makes things even more difficult," he said.

"The new government will have to make sure that they provide the money for all the proper treatment which will be needed in the future. We have neurosis, anxiety, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), physical symptoms like diarrhoea. Children are some of the worst affected. There are young fighters who have bursts of anger, drug and alcohol abuse. We are treating their families. But we are also treating regime soldiers who are now prisoners – they have the same kind of problems, they are also suffering from guilt."

The regime forces are not the only ones suffering from a degree of guilt. The population of neighbouring Tawargha, which was accused of collusion with the regime, were driven out and their homes destroyed. Many were killed, others put in prison.

What happened casts a dark cloud over Misrata, with charges that the vengeance meted out on Tawargha's black community had the underlying motivation of racism. Misratis defend their action, insisting that it is they who were the victims of aggression. But a few have now begun to speak about their unease at what took place.

"It is still difficult, but maybe with time we can start examining this," said Abdulhamid, who did not want his full name published.

"Some from Tawargha did very bad things, but there are innocent people among them who suffered as a result. We should have been more careful, some bad things happened. Maybe one day the names of Tawarghans will be in the Museum."