Friday, 29 April 2011

Misrata misery

Misrata is a City in tatters. Every street has been shelled, every house has been hit and every road has craters in it. It is a charred and blackened city engaged in such fierce fighting that it is hard to know which images to share, or what stories to tell, so extensive is the damage and the destruction. It is hard also to describe the feeling in a city that is torn between pride for its revolution and a sinking dread as the situation deteriorates.

Quadaffi has the city surrounded and besieged and resources are dwindling. The queues for gas stretch round the block (as do the ones for cigarettes) and food is mainly limited to tuna, bread and rice. The only access now is through the port, and this too has been under bombardment for the last few weeks. We arrived ourselves 24 hours after leaving the relative peace of Benghazzi in the dead of night and on a boat laden with antiquated RPG’s, grenades, ammo and missiles, though claiming that our cargo was “for the children”. We only just made it through the NATO blockade. This influx of weapons, stored even in the shower room, the engine room and the galley, when pitted against the heavy and advanced weaponry of Quadaffi will not stop the bombardment.

Walking around the streets it is impossible not to tread on bullets, mortar casings, rubble, broken glass or in blood and smoke hangs in the air - it is sheer chaos. The bodies of Quadaffi troops lie rotting on the ground and the stench can be overbearing. Buildings crumble around you and bullet ridden or bombed out cars and tanks litter the city. The hospital is low on medicine, doctors, and has run out of beds, so a tent has been set up in the parking lot to deal with the overflow. The morgue is a refrigerated lorry used usually for food and a trail of blood leads towards it.

The sounds here are as varied and imposing as the sights. Rockets, cluster bombs, mortars, heavy artillery, sniper fire, NATO planes and the eponymous Kalashnikovs can be heard night and day, alongside cries of Allah Akbar and sirens. The walls shake even in the basement where we are staying, but this has become such a constant that it’s barely noticed. At night the press gather on the roof to watch NATO bombs and tracer fire light up the sky. There’s little rest here, and as the battle rages constantly, exhausted fighters and doctors are replaced by new ones either arriving at the port or from among the 300,000 men who have stayed.

The two ‘armies’ are so close that it is never easy to know who is firing and it is easy to become caught in a crossfire. I say armies, but these battles are always between groups no larger than 100 and often as small as 10 and they spring up in different parts of the city without warning. They are also such a rag tag lot that armies might be an overstatement. Often the rebels fire at each other because of the lack of communication between them, and I have seen them run in front of each others guns and fire RPG’s in a crowd. If they need to contact NATO they must call the council in Benghazzi 240 miles away who then pass on the request. This is no way to fight a war, and yet they know no other way.

The sad loss of 2 experienced war correspondents last week is testament to the danger, and very few journalists now remain. Crossing each road involves a mad dash to find cover and often you may only be a street away from Qadaffi’s forces and bullets pepper the walls around you.

Quadaffi however has stopped short of sending in large numbers of ground troops, preferring instead to bomb and shell while sending in small teams to harass the rebels. His tanks have been hit by precision NATO bombs when they enter the city, so he is forced to remain in the outskirts while starving it and destroying it. He is also afraid of large numbers of his troops deserting, so keeps the numbers small.

Another reason that his troops are reluctant to enter the city is that Misrata is a twisting web of small and intertwined dirt roads. The rebels know these like the back of their hands and are therefore able to outmanoeuvre Qadaffi’s troops and surround them. They have knocked through walls between houses and gardens and we have run with them as they dart from street to street, roof to roof, encircling his forces. Snipers now pose the greatest danger and he places them wherever he can. Occasionally a bullet will whistle past and everybody will hit the ground, last night a French journalist was hit in the neck by a sniper only 100m from where we are staying, and it appears he will be paralysed for life.

Much has been written in the media about the use of mercenaries, however there are as many Libyans fighting for him here. They are uneducated and bitterly poor so both believe Quadaffi’s propaganda but are also willing to accept his huge sums of money. We have also been told that mercenaries have orders to shoot any defectors, and many people have told us of families being held hostage in Tripoli. At the same time, the punishment for helping the rebels if caught are beyond belief. I have seen a video of a boy no older than 10 years old who had had a 6 foot metal spike inserted into his anus until it came out of his shoulder – he was still alive, and his crime had been to deliver water.

I had the chance to briefly interview a Qadaffi fighter who had been taken to the hospital. Having leapt into his van as it left I was quickly able to ask why he fought for Qadaffi and why he fought against his own people – he claimed he had been told that he was fighting foreigners, that he believed the rebels were the invaders and that he was protecting his country. Whether this is true or not I do not know, however he was terrified and I don’t know what happened to him. One person has told me “We kill all quadaffi soldiers, we have no time to take care of them”, but everybody else claims they are in a secret location – we have not been allowed to see them.

There is also evidence also for the presence of mercenaries. One pilot who defected had previously been asked to fly south and pick up a planeload from Chad. In another case, a truck was found full of Serbian fighters – 180 of them. Apparently the truck refused to stop and they were all killed. I have also seen numerous passports from Chad, Sudan and Mauritania so there is no doubt this is true.

Mercenaries are not the biggest concern for the rebels though. Many suspect that Quadaffi troops may have infiltrated the civilians who remain and may be waiting to counter atttack. Countless military license plates have been found discarded, presumably swapped for civilian ones and uniforms are also in many buildings. Every few streets checkpoints have been set up to identify possible enemy fighters but quite how they intend to pick them out is unknown.

Last night at about 12.30 Qadaffi forces began shelling the city from an airfield about 15km away. They indiscriminately targeted residential areas, and his bombs killed whole families as they slept. We watched as body after body arrived at the hospital, and in total 31 men, women and children died. Some were torn apart by the blasts, and others burnt beyond recognition. Dismembered body parts were laid out on the floor next to the bodies, and as people cried out in anguish, the measures to which Qadaffi will go became very apparent. Throughout the night ambulance after ambulance arrived and as one mother wept inconsolably by the body of her dead son the crowd outside began chanting to the heavens. They continued all night but could not drown out the explosions around us.

This morning we walked through streets and buildings where the bombs had dropped. Whole houses were destroyed, their kitchens and bedrooms caved in. Blood marked the spots where many had died and charred remains lay in the street. The area was very poor and families who had little to start now have nothing at all. There is no longer any doubt that Qadaffi is willing to do whatever it takes to regain this city, and every time it appears things the situation can get no worse it does.


At the moment Quadaffi is on the back foot inside the city; he can’t get a stronghold in the centre, but this means little when he continues to bombard with his huge aresenal of weapons and continues to starve the people. The humanitarian situation here is dire and unless the blockade is broken soon it will get a lot worse, as this is the only main city in the West of Libya to be held by rebels; if it falls, much hope will fall with it.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Brits in Libya

Glistening with pride the young boy pulled 2 shiny Kalashnikov bullets out of his pocket. Holding them aloft he announced with absolute certainty that with these two he would single handedly free Libya, bring down Colonel Ghadaffi, and right the wrongs of the last 40 years. He was serious.

The young boy in question, Mohammed, is merely 15 years old and has come from Manchester. He is one of many people from Libyan families who have flocked here as part of this “glorious revolution” despite never have lived here. His mother packed him a tiny bag some weeks ago and sent him on his way, then told his school that he was going to Spain.

He announced very bravely that he had come to fight and possibly to die, and that he would do anything for his country and his people, and I have no doubt that at first he meant it. But very quickly it became clear that he no longer believes this. His romantic ideas have been replaced by fear, and despite his brave rhetoric he soon admitted that he just wants to go home, see his friends and talk to girls. Having seen the wounded in hospital, including a boy his own age, and having lived with the sporadic gunfire, he has quickly decided this is no place for him.

Mohammed is not alone. There are countless other people here who have come to help, from Canada, America and Australia. One man from Chicago handed the keys to his car shop over to his friend before leaving to join the fight. When I last spoke to him he was now looking for ways out. The majority of these Libyan expats were born here, but there are also a number of second-generation exiles; born abroad, raised abroad and educated abroad. As they sit around the lobbies of hotels and in free apartments most of them soon discover that there is neither a weapon for them to use nor even a role, and that they have become mere voyeurs at the edge of a chaotic rag tag movement – a movement that has stalled.

In the early days of the revolution, for those who wanted to fight there was always room. Ghadaffi’s arsenals had been looted and anyone who could get their hands on a gun could head to the front. A couple of Libyan expats died early on in the shelling and others were wounded while bringing supplies to the soldiers, but now that rebels are trying to impose a stricter order to this chaos, there is little for them to do, and slowly they are now heading home.

Technically nobody is supposed to fight without having gone to one of the training camps but many locals continue to do so. The expats will not. Locals who looted guns had also looted uniforms and now they often stroll to the front line smoking pot, hop into a pickup truck and charge forward screaming ‘god is great’, only to come pelting back soon after encountering incoming fire. The confusion at the front is palpable, and this is one of the reasons the rebels can make no headway. I doubt however that attending training camps will change this, for the system leaves much to be desired.

I have spent some time observing the training and watched it in bemusement. As people sit around being taught how to fire rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and other weapons, many of them play on their mobile phones. Others are out of earshot of the instructors, and I saw some who simply walked away from their groups. As they attempted to drill I could not resist a smile, such was the haphazard nature. This is a direct legacy of Ghadaffi’s paranoia though for he was terrified of coups.

For those who have travelled from abroad there are even fewer defined roles, and talking to many of the foreigners here it appears that they have started to realise this. Although they came with great intentions it is now slowly dawning on them that having rushed over there is nothing for them to do.

Some have become translators and some fixers - but many others just seem to wait around. They came here to fight but can no longer do so, or in some cases no longer have the stomach to. One Libyan man born in England, who came with us to the front spent the day hunched down in the back seat of our car, terrified, even before fighting had begun. He’s very keen however to have a picture of him holding an RPG, and will no doubt return to his commnity a hero. For him as with others, the Libya that he had grew up dreaming is a far cry from the reality on the ground, and further still from the life to which he had become accustomed in Britain.

Herein lies the greatest irony though. All of the expats identify themselves as Libyans first, though they may never have lived here. Second generation emigrants in particular seem to feel more Libyan than western, and now face a crisis of identity. They have grown up thinking of their adopted countries as a foreign land, and yet can no longer feel at home back here either. It remains to be seen how many will move back when or if Ghadaffi falls.


I have encountered a number of conspiracy theories regarding the evil west, as is typical throughout the middle east, but not as many as I had expected given that this country has been virtually cut off for 40 years. Many claim that Europe is afraid of a free, united, oil rich and Islamic Libya on their doorstep, hence the stalling – and in this case they may not be wrong.

It must be said that Libyans who have lived under the fearful Ghadaffi regime show much more gratitude towards the west’s involvement than some of their compatriots from abroad– at least for the moment. While being understandably suspicious of the West, having lived for decades under a propaganda machine and having seen Western leaders prop him up, they are still grateful for the support. How long this sentiment will last however is unknown, and what is certain is that if this revolution does not pan out the way they hoped, it will again be the West that they blame. When NATO accidently bombs rebel tanks, this makes things much worse.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

A few thoughts

A few thoughts:

The latest talks offering dialogue were held by African Union representatives a few days ago. They first visited Ghadaffi in Tripoli and then the rebel council in Benghazi. Ghadaffi agreed to a cease fire in principal but said nothing about his leaving, and he continues to shell towns including Misrata and Brega.

The involvement of the AU will lead nowhere, it can't. The rebels won't even talk until Ghadaffi and his family step down but there is no chance this will happen. Firstly Ghadaffi has nowhere to go - he has isolated himself from every country - only uganda and zimbabwe will have him (maybe Venezuela), and while usually Saudi arabia usually takes the tin pot dictators who side with arabs (case in point ben ali and idi amin) Ghadaffi managed to personally insult the King during his first speech to the UN.

Secondly, many countries in the AU have received huge sums of money from Ghadaffi and will be reluctant to see a neighbouring leader overthrown by western force - they would rather just see a cease fire. Thirdly he's a megolamaniac who believes fully in his right to rule.


Ghadaffi will also have watched the cases of Charles Taylor in Liberia, and Karadic in Yugoslavia who were both promised immunity but ended up at the ICC in the Hague. Most recently he will have seen Mubarak being arrested and will now be certain that he will be caught and brought to trial at some point irrespective of where he goes.

He may also now feel that he actually has a chance to win, or at least to hold a stalemate. The reluctance of NATO to help the rebels on the offensive (the UN charter only permits them to protect civilians, rather than help in regime change) will have boosted this.

It also seems that many countries are now wary of what might happen to Libya post Ghadaffi, hence the inaction. The council have written up a 2 page constitution, but it focuses on removing ghadaffi and talks only in very vague ways about democracy and elections. It is more rhetoric than anything else and offers no viable solution for a new state.


The IMF says he has $6 billion in gold reserves and his recently defected interior minister suggests he may have as much as $10 billion in cash. So he can continue to pay his mercenaries and buy loyalty for some time to come.

The only thing that will change this situation is if the rebels are armed or if NATO commits more forces. If NATO and the west are reluctant to do this then it is likely that eventually Quatar will. They are trying to position themselves as a regional political powerhouse - (they've hosted a number of summits recently including the most recent libyan one. They have huge infulence in the region and are the most wealthy country here)

Giving the rebels arms however will take time (both to get here and to train people), so yet again it looks like this will drag on for a very long time.


Ajdabiya

For the lasts few days the city of Ajdabiya has been the front line in the war between Ghadaffi troops and rebel forces. It is the last city before the rebel stronghold of Benghazi and therefore hugely symbolic in this battle.

We had been trying to enter for a couple of days, but were being kept behind a rebel checkpoint near the eastern gate. While sheltering in a bombed out mosque we watched fighters return from the front, drained and exhausted. The next batch was always ready to go however and so a constant flow of men continued the fight.

With growing impatience we waited, never allowed more than a few streets inside before being rushed back amid gunfire. For two days heavy bombardment and sniper fire could be heard constantly, and as smoke billowed from the city we watched rockets streak across the sky. Nobody knew exactly what was going on but from the sounds alone it was clear that a battle was raging.

Finally following much persuasion we were allowed forward. There had been an apparent lull in the fighting and we had told the commander how we needed to see the hospital. One thing they have learnt very quickly is how important the media are and so we were given an escort and allowed to creep slowly forward.

Ajdabiya is normally a bustling city of about 170,000 but has since become a ghost town. The silence as we entered was eerie, interrupted only occasionally by bursts of gunfire and birds singing. Cars had been left abandoned in the streets, most of them burnt out. Make shift roadblocks had been put up on almost every intersection – though these had long since been abandoned. Countless buildings were gutted by fire and due to the shelling many had been reduced to rubble. Apartment blocks, shops, Mosques and offices had all been hit and it was clear that Ghadaffi’s troops were being indiscriminate in their shelling.

As we neared the centre of town, we could see rebel troops hiding in doorways. Many signalled for us to go back. We made it to the hospital however without any incidents and were allowed in. Most of the wounded that day had already been evacuated to Benghazi but some still remained, and the morgue was full. The wounded were either gun shot or shrapnel victims and many were in pain. It was an awful sight to see, and standing amid pools of their blood while trying to talk them, I felt suddenly guilty. Surely they deserved a little more respect, but as I moved to leave the room one called me back and almost unable to talk wanted to tell me what a monster Ghadaffi was.

Most of the doctors in Libya came from abroad; Egypt or the Emirates, and all of them have all now fled. There are therefore only a few left and many nurses now do the jobs of surgeons. We recognised a doctor we had met on the front line some days earlier and on that occasion he had just lost a fellow doctor in a NATO friendly fire accident. He appeared to have had no sleep since but was still running the surgery.

Leaving the hospital we decided to go further in. Ghadaffi’s artillery could reach to about the city centre and we wanted to see the level of devastation. Rumours of bodies lying in the road up ahead had also reached us at the hospital, and we wanted to verify this. Apparently their hands had been bound and their necks cut.

Ghadaffi’s tactics have been to bombard the centre then send in fast moving teams of pick up trucks - about 40 people total, to try and capture ground. These roving war parties are liable to come from any side and so it is easy to get cut off from the rebels – this is how many of them have been caught. These troops loyal to the regime are made up almost exclusively of foreign mercenaries and later in the day I was shown the photocopied passports of 44 men from Tunisia, Mauritania and Chad. We were told that these passports had been taken off dead bodies, but there is no way of verifying this.

Finally we reached the spot where the bodies had been found. They had since been moved, but judging by the blood on the ground, it was clear that 5 bodies had once lain there. A rebel commander pulled us to one side and on his phone showed us the bodies as they had been found. They were indeed bound and the necks slit open. Yet again if became clear that Ghadaffi will take no prisoners.

Just a few minutes later, while walking down a nearby street, gunfire and shelling erupted again and just over our heads a shell whistling by. We were thrown into a car and made our escape as Ghadaffi forces made another attempt to push in.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Benghazi

Walking through the Libyan rebel city of Benghazi, it is impossible to miss the signs of fury. Countless buildings are charred, bullet holes mark the scenes of vicious gun battles and burnt out cars and tanks litter the roads. Each of these images evokes the scarred past of this city and of this country, but each is also a great symbol of achievement to the people. With great pride, they show off their victories, posing for pictures in Ghadaffi’s darkened cells, standing victorious on top of tanks and in true Arab fashion firing Kalahnikovs in the air. Throughout the city people flash peace signs in lieu of handshakes, and the old Libyan flag flies from every building and every car, replacing Ghadaffi’s own. There is a wonderful sense of freedom here.

With each street comes a different story. On one are the holes where unarmed men drove through barrack walls in selfless martyrdom, another where the explosives used to catch fish brought down guard towers. Near our hotel is the ransacked mansion where one of Ghadaffi’s notorious female bodyguard’s lived, and a few streets from that are the secret underground cells that were located only when muffled cries of prisoners were heard from grills in the ground. So thick were the doors that bulldozers had to dig them out from beneath.

The decimated palatial home of Ghadaffi himself which now sits surrounded by burnt out luxury cars, has also become a place of pilgrimage, and people flock here as they try to make sense of everything that has happened. Each of these ruins is of course a reminder of Ghadaffi’s repressive regime, but more importantly it is a reminder of the glorious rebellion and the great victory over the tyrant.

But herein lies the biggest problem and the biggest hurdle facing the rebels. So many people believe that by just having started this revolution, and just by winning back this city, that the war is already won. They seemed to believe that one by one cities would fall before them and that in no time at all they would be in Tripoli. It was their dream that in one fell swoop they could rid this country of its evils and bring about radical change, but how very wrong, and very na├»ve they have been. As we now watch a stalemate developing, it seems that despite their initial joy, they are only now realising how many lives will be lost and how far they have to go. It is also dawning on them, as Ghadaffi’s troops push to within 80 miles of Benghazi that maybe, just maybe, they might not win at all.

So it is that the joyous atmosphere felt throughout this city hides the reality of their predicament, and the scale of the troubles that lie ahead. Rebel fighters here must wake up, and realise that this fight is far from over. They must continue to train, but not just with weapons. They must learn how to hold a line, how to dig in and they must cease to scatter at the first sign of enemy attacks. They must learn how to communicate on the battlefield, and develop a system of ranks, and most importantly they must communicate with NATO. This lack of military knowledge is one of Ghaddaffi’s legacies and stems from his absolute paranoia. So worried was he about any uprising that no man ever received real training or fired a gun.

I have been to the training camps now set up around the city and I have watched men try to drill. In many cases they are no better than the afghan national police and speaking to people it almost seems as if too much planning and premeditation will somehow taint their pure revolution. Most would rather just drive straight at the enemy screaming ‘god is great’ in some kind of modern charge of the light brigade.

The rebels must also continue to offer a viable solution for a free libya and convince the West that they are not just ex Ghadaffi cronies. Most importantly they must not expect NATO to fight this war for them. The initial jubilation that was felt when NATO joined the fight is slowly disappearing as they realise that the west will not deliver the country to them on a plate, and that even if it wanted to, it is constrained by so many factors.

When it comes to the relationship with NATO, immense gratitude is still shown on the streets, and certainly in this city it is acknowledged that the initial airstrikes saved many people from being slaughtered. However this is slowly being overshadowed by a growing suspicion that bigger powers are at play and conspiring against them. After 40 years of brainwashing, and having watched Ghadaffi being propped up by western leaders it is not a big leap of imagination for them to make, and in evening press conferences the council spokesmen is now often forced to deny there is a rift between them. That this is not the case becomes harder and harder to believe, as people continue to ask where are the NATO bombs and why do they not do more.

The fact that recent NATO airstrikes have accidently destroyed rebel tanks have only strengthened this view and as confusion grows, so does anger. Now that Turkey has withdrawn it’s initial support for regime change Libyan rebels are feeling ever more isolated. NATO will only attack tanks outside cities but this is not enough for people here. In their eyes collateral damage is merely an unfortunate side effect.

The most widely spread theory here is that the world wants this country split in two. Most people on the streets believe that the west is scared of a powerful, oil rich and strictly Islamic Libya on it’s doorstep, and they may not be wrong. I am told again and again that it was Ghadaffi who split this country in two, in the same way that colonial powers divided and conquered, and that history is now repeating itself. I am also told that it is a ridiculous concept that Al Qaeda is waiting in the wings, but with possibly the worse use of words I have heard, somebody today told me “show me Al Qaeda and I will hang him, and I will take his head”.

One of the other big problems is the naivety about how the international community and NATO work. They do not understand why Ghadaffi’s troops cannot simply be wiped from the ground. They cite Kuwait as an example of this being done in the past, though none will tolerate ground troops on Libyan soil.

There is still hope in this country that the revolution will offer a new beginning, however day by day this dwindles. I suspect that what worries the west most, both in terms of Libya and the wider Middle East, is that when looking at history, it is rarely the people who start revolutions who finish them. Instead it is the most organised and cunning people who hijack otherwise noble causes. Looking at the people currently running this movement I believe there is much cause for concern., but I pray I am wrong.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Rag tag rebels

Confusion reigned today as anti Ghadaffi forces were again pushed back from the front line near Brega. Scenes from the battle leave little doubt that this rag tag group of men are ill-equipped and at present, incapable of taking on the well armed and better organised enemy on their own. Today also illustrated perfectly the issues facing the rebels, and as I watched their repeated attempts to push back enemy troops, it was clear that they are a long way from swaying the balance of power in their favour.

Not only are a number of men armed with the most antiquated weapons, and in some cases even knives, but there is also basic lack of communication between troops, indeed it soon became clear that the soldiers waiting with us to move forward knew no more than we did.

As I watched these men, varying in age from 17 to 50, I was struck once again at how little they know of warfare. Held back about 7 miles from the front line I watched truck after truck retreat while they struggled to reload their heavy calibre weapons, many of them arguing and screaming at each another as they did so. There was an incredible sense of confusion and moral is at a new low; for there have been no recent victories and hope for a fast win faded long ago.

We were about 70 miles from Benghazi, where we are currently staying and today was supposed to be the final push from Ajdabiya to Brega. This has been the front line for almost a week but with NATO’s help this was supposed to change. The mood was jubilant as we rode forward with the tanks and missile batteries but it was not to last.

Having been kept some miles back from the front with the second wave of troops, we waited patiently to move forward. We were in earshot of heavy shelling but the mood still seemed positive. The day darkened suddenly though, when out of the dust ahead came scores of pickup trucks retreating at full speed. They brought with them news of NATO airstrikes hitting their own positions rather than Ghaddaffi’s, devastating their emplacements, their tanks and scattering their troops. It is the second time that NATO has attacked the wrong targets and 6 rebels have been reported dead with 15 injured.

Once again therefore NATO planes have mistakenly targeted rebel tanks, and in the eyes of the rebels NATO has become ever more unhelpful. There seems to be an underlying suggestion that if these mistakes continue, or if NATO does not attack Ghaddaffi soon, then there may be a serious and long-term backlash against the west. Many people now suggest that the west is trying to split the country in two, and that there is a hidden agenda that we cannot read. I must say that it is easy to understand this in a country that has been cut off from the world for the last 40 years, and whose children have been brainwashed with stories of foreign evils. There is so much distrust.

Immediately following news of this NATO mistake, anger on the front lines could barely be contained, and at times it felt as if it might be taken out on us. One man had lost his friend and as he pounded the truck and wept he cried out towards us before crumbling into a heap on the ground, embraced by those around him. The strangest thing though is that for every rebel who shouted and cried out in anger, there were others who could be seen clapping each other on the backs and smiling. For some it seems almost like a game, and there is a strange disconnect here between those have been carried away by the rebellion’s initial success and those who still hope to die for their cause.

The whole scene, as we waited in the desert heat surrounded by ragged Libyan fighters, all waiting for news from what was going on only a few miles ahead was incredibly surreal, but it was soon to feel a lot more real.


Only one thing was now agreed on by everybody; that Ghadaffi’s troops were moving ever closer to our position. So as more ambulances screamed past us to the front the situation became more and more tense. Guns could still be heard in the distance as we walked among the troops, when suddenly from nowhere the ground shook and the air reverberated as two mortars exploded just a few hundred metres away. There was a loud initial thud followed by a loud explosion and as the ground shook chaos erupted.

People leapt into every available vehicle and scattered. Hundreds of people were now running for their lives and as they sped past us, I could hear more cries of ‘NATO, NATO’. It took us what felt like an eternity to find our own car, and as I dashed backwards with my hands over my head (a rather pointless thing to do) I prayed desperately that there would be no more. We could hear jets overhead and other bombs in the distance but thankfully no more near us.

We regrouped about 20 miles down the road , but nobody could tell us what was happening or whether there would be a counter attack. Nobody knew who was in charge, and everybody was shouting; At us, at each other and at the sky. Most of the cars had just kept driving away anyway and the army had disbanded. Even if we had wanted to go back our driver refused while our translator was panicked. It was close enough for me, and being my first experience with real warfare I felt …….. As I sit here now my heart still races, but I would be nowhere else.






This chaotic picture from the front is repeated throughout the region and very clearly so in the rebel “stronghold” of Bengahzi. Despite the interim government’s insistence that only trained people can now fight it seems that anybody with a looted uniform can join the ranks. It seems that everybody is part of this ‘great movement’ though not many seem to be doing much. Anyone with a gun is more important still, and as the going rate of an AK is now $3500 that is no surprise.

I have seen many other things that point towards the problems being faced here and general lack of coherent plans for the future, if not among the leadership then certainly among the soldiers. Yesterday I saw a boy no older than 10 dressed in uniform and directing traffic, while nearby two Libyan men fought over a gun much as 2 children might a toy. The interim government acknowledges that the troops are badly trained and need help yet this is a massive understatement. Tomorrow I go to the training camps, and from what I hear these somewhat resemble the Afghan national police facilities.

I have met scores of Libyans from abroad who have flocked here for the chance to fight. Many of them go to gawp at Ghadaffi’s palaces or secret prisons, the shear horrors of what went on here only just dawning on them. Yet they come with a carnival atmosphere in mind and when faced with fighting shy away from the dangers around.

One 15 year old from Manchester is currently waiting for training, but like many others who believe they had already won this war he had never really expected to fight. He is just a boy, he is scared and he only wants to go home. I have told him he should and took him to the hospital with me to see the wounded. I hope it will help.

Everybody here has come to help but nobody knows how. Manu are so quick to talk about their experiences near the fighting and all show off bullets but they can do no real good. They blame the west for their past, they are blaming now for their present and will no doubt blaming them in the future. They blame the west for doing nothing or for trying to help. It has been hard work defending us.

I cannot deny the bravery or the commitment of most rebels, and this must never go unsaid. Initial stories of men sacrificing themselves to bring down the walls of gadaffi’s barracks and of becoming martyrs abound. They have fought against a tyrant with their bare hands, risen up against 40 years of oppression and many of them will readily to die for their cause. This is the greatest strength they have. They are also a kind, and welcoming people. They do not hate individual westerners but they all believe that we are being played by big evil governements. Most believe that 9/11 was surely an American conspiracy.

They know full well that in recent years the west turned a blind eye to Ghadaffi’s horrors to secure oil, and this is hard to deny.

There is also no denying the atrocities that Ghadaffi is committing now. When listening to stories from the besieged Misrata, many of which are terrifying, it is clear that the time has come for him to go, indeed it is long overdue. For this to happen though this revolution needs to find its feet and make its plans, but for the tide to turn the West needs to do more – whether it should, whether it can, and whether it will be allowed to are different questions.

This story is far from over, and this country will be mired with trouble for years. As people gather round tv sets each day and watch the action live, one cannot help but think they fail to not grasp the seriousness of their predicament, in the near future, and the far.