The tragedy of Misratah

If, like me, you caught this week’s gripping Channel 4 News report on the aid ship trying to get into the besieged port of Misratah in Libya, you’ll know what this post is about (if you didn’t, see it here).
Reporter Alex Thomson showed how the Red Star One ship (chartered by the Organisation For Migration and apparently funded by the UK) took a great risk in docking at an under-fire harbour, first to unload supplies (medicines etc) and then to load up with people frantically trying to get out of the city. You saw ambulances arriving with people from the intensive care unit of the hospital and migrant African workers patiently waiting to get on board. (In a follow-up report last night Thomson explained how many migrants were elbowed aside and left behind by well-connected Libyans, but that’s another story).
What the C4News report made all too clear was how dangerous Misratah is and how there’s almost no escape for civilians coming under regular bombardment from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. It’s a terrifying situation.
Watching TV images that were almost hyper-real in their it-could-be-just-down-the-road-it-seems-so-real way, made it all the more terrifying. It was distinctly uncomfortable viewing. (Well done, by the way, to Jon Snow for name-checking the cameraman and producer who were with Thomson, sharing the risk in bringing the report out: it’s the sort of stuff that wins media awards). There are other vivid and equally frightening accounts here and here.
Amnesty’s researcher Donatella Rovera has been blogging from Misratah and now she’s put together a 40-page report on the city’s increasingly hellish conditions. Read it in full here. Here are a few snapshots from it:
* Families are reduced to cowering in cellars to escape indiscriminate shelling and sniper fire from Gaddafi forces.
* Electricity and water supplies in the city are non-existent in many parts of Misratah; telephone lines and internet connections have long since disappeared.
* Food is running out, as are some essential drugs in (understaffed and overwhelmed) hospitals.
* Indiscriminate Grad rockets have been “raining” down on Misratah in salvos of up to 40 rockets at a time.
* In a depressing echo of other recent conflicts, hungry people queuing outside bakery shops have been among those killed and wounded by rocket and mortar attacks.
* People killed by rocket attacks have ranged from a four-year-old girl called ‘Nadia Abu-Shahala, killed by artillery shells on the night of 23-24 April, to an 80-year-old man, Mohammad Belnour ‘Arfa, killed outside his home on 14 April. Another death was that of 10-year-old Maryam Mahmoud al-Hassouni (pictured), hit by a missile in the courtyard of her home on 5 April.
* Hundreds of people have been injured: the report is full of accounts of people suffering horrible injuries (including many amputations), especially from flying shrapnel.
You get the picture. One 28-year-old woman who spoke to Amnesty after being  evacuated out to Tunisia summed it up like this: “Misratah is a tragedy. People are dying every day; snipers are spread out everywhere. There are shortages of the most basic necessities. We are just hiding in our houses, and wait for the arrival of daily bad news.”
The report’s key point is that Gaddafi forces have been using extreme and indiscriminate military tactics in Misratah that have had a grievous impact on its beleaguered civilian population. Along with media and other corroboratory reports from the city, they point strongly toward the conclusion that war crimes are being committed.

This shouldn’t come as any surprise. Just a few days ago (on 29 April, while much of the world was distracted by the Royal Wedding), Gaddafi’s spokesperson in Tripoli, Moussa Ibrahim, warned that “total fire” would be unleashed against Misratah unless the rebels surrendered. Judging from what we’re seeing, that’s the kind of talk that could see him ending up at the International Criminal Court.

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