A city besieged and battered, those of its people who remain living without food, water or power for days and facing daily attacks: that was Ajdabiya yesterday as Muammar Gaddafi's forces fought to retain their hold on this strategic gateway to the east of Libya.
Despite the destruction of the regime's tanks and artillery by pulverizing Western air strikes and the terrified retreat of its troops, the rebels, not for the first time in this war, failed to press home their advantage and retake the city. Instead, they had fled in abject panic at the first sign of a counter-attack.
There is, however, a resilient resistance inside Ajdabiya, and its members guided me through desert tracks into the areas they had wrested back by battling the enemy day after day. Why, these fighters wondered, had the protest movement's leadership in Benghazi failed to tap into local knowledge and use these routes to come to their aid and outflank the regime's troops.
The desert roads had also been used by the desperate residents of the city to escape. Only a quarter of the population of 135,000 are now left inside. The empty streets reverberate with the sound of explosions, and every shop is shuttered; the hospital is still dealing with casualties, but its dwindling medical supplies cannot cope with any of the serious cases who have had to be moved out by ambulances often risking crossfire.
Although the revolutionary fighters, the Shabaab, have fought their way to control of the centre and some of the suburbs, there is still a near-constant threat from Gaddafi's soldiers. My Libyan interpreter and I had to repeatedly move through side roads and alleyways as fresh salvoes of rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov fire came from different directions.
Much of the shooting took place with careless disregard for who was at the receiving end. "Look what they had done," said Hamza Zwas, a 26-year-old militant, pointing at a large hole on the side of a house which had just been hit by a mortar round. "That is the way they have fired, we have had people killed, injured, because they don't care about what they do. People are frightened and that is why they left."
The house which had been hit was empty, the owners leaving last week. The 18-year-old son of the family next door, Selim Ansabi, died three days ago when a car on the high street was hit by an artillery shell. "He was a passenger, his friend was driving. He lost his arm," said Selim's father, Abdullah, shaking his head. "Neither of the boys were Shabaab, they were not fighting, why did they use something so bad in the middle of our city? They must have known that people will be killed, they will be hurt."
Some of the killings had been targeted from lists supplied by informers, local people claimed. Shawad Mohammed was shot in the front of his home; Jadullah Bakhti was taken away, his body dumped on a stretch of waste-ground two days later. Naji Yunis Ali did not wait for the secret policemen accompanying the soldiers to come for him and fled with his family.
"So they damaged the place, they were angry, they came with a big metal [armoured] car and knocked down the wall, then they came inside and smashed everything," said Mr Ali's cousin Mukhtar Issa. "They had a picture of Naji. They said even if he had run away to Benghazi they will catch him and hang him. This could have happened to many of us, we are very afraid."
It is, however, not just the local population that has reasons to be deeply afraid. In a back room on the ground floor of a house nearby are three prisoners taken by the rebels. Two of them, from Chad, are allegedly mercenaries, among a group Gaddafi is accused of recruiting from sub-Saharan Africa. The third, a man in his 60s, claims to be Libyan, but his captors say they are convinced that he is Tunisian.
The detainees are brought out from behind a heavy door, bolted from the outside with a metal bar. They all look frightened. The oldest one bursts into tears. The man, who says his name is Milud Miukhtar, pleads between sobs that he is poor and had been sleeping rough since he had arrived in the city a little while ago. "They arrested me because I was a stranger, they are very suspicious of outsiders. They did this to my hands," he said, raising swollen wrists and fingers. "How can they think I am in the army, I am too old to fight. What will happen to me, will they kill me, do you think, sir?"
The local commander, Captain Adil Zwei, hugs Mr Mukhtar and reassures that no one will harm him. "His hands were damaged when he was first detained, my men are not responsible. We shall protect all of them, but it is a problem," said the captain. "The people around here are very angry, we cannot tell them where we are holding these men."
The two men from Chad, Asil Hussein Baqua and Hussein Abdulrahab al-Hussein, say they were working in Tripoli when officials told them that they must go to fight 'terrorists'. In return for their service they were offered money, a flat each and Libyan citizenship.
Mr Baqua, 38, who said he had been in Libya for eight years and worked in a ceramics factory, said: "What choice did we have? The police would have put us in prison if we refused. We were told that we would only be used on checkpoint duties, that is all." Mr al-Hussein, 27 and unemployed, added "I have lived in Libya for three years, I have nothing against the revolution. I am really sorry I got involved in this."
Both the men were bandaged, results of injuries they received, they said, when the truck they were in was hit in an air-strike on Sunday. Captain Zwei was anxious to hand his prisoners over to the rebel authorities. "This will happen when the officials from Benghazi get here" he said. "But I do not know when that is going to be. We thought it was going to be today after all the bombings by the foreign powers. We are going in and out of here, we can show them."
Col Gaddafi's forces were in control of the west and east entrances to Ajdabiya when we left, firing shells into the city at people he had repeatedly stressed loved him, and who he loved. "There had not been any big bombings today, we are worried the foreigners will not maintain it," said the fighter Hamza Zwas, rubbing his shoulder beneath an Abercrombie&Fitch T-shirt. He had been struck by a bullet in the early days of the uprising, but returned to the fray after surgery in Egypt. "But we have been fighting for some time now, and we will continue," he said.
On the way out we met 37-year-old Abu-Gadi Mohammed. His family were camped out in the countryside to get away from the violence. His wife, Zahiya, has been forced to give birth there. "I was very worried and upset that she had to go through this hardship," he said. "But she is alright and I have now got a little daughter who is healthy. I shall call her Amal." – hope.Reuse content