The Malta Independent 16 June 2019, Sunday

The Price of freedom

Malta Independent Wednesday, 30 November 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

It started out as a riot in Benghazi and then spread to other Eastern towns in Libya. Eventually, the small city of Misurata came to symbolise the face of the Libyan revolution. Michael Carabott writes about the experience of visiting the shell-shocked city

­Not many people might realise it, but to the people of Misurata, Malta was a saviour. When I first heard them say so, I thought it was the typical Libyan way. Praise your visitors to the utmost and shower them with attention. But on a visit there earlier this week, it became clear that to these people, Malta really was a saviour – just as much as the US, the UK and France were.

I could not understand why they would possibly feel this way, until I actually spoke to them and heard what the city council had to say to Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi. The people of Misurata were almost dead on their feet. They had no water, no medical supplies and no baby formula and, from all accounts, they were about ready to fold.

But city council members said that Malta provided a lifeline. The city was surrounded by Gaddafi tanks and soldiers. Shelling, as I saw with my own eyes, was indiscriminate.

Office blocks and apartments were left with gaping holes in them where Gaddafi’s men had attacked. The council said that just when they thought everything was getting too desperate, aid began to trickle in from Malta. Sometimes it was fishing boats, sometimes it was tugs. But those vessels carried the things they needed the most to carry on their struggle.

Flying into Misurata from Tripoli was surreal. There is only one hangar left. All the buildings were razed to the ground in the fight for the city and wrecked military aircraft littered the aprons and parking bays. We landed and our hosts picked us up by the side of the apron, as there is no functioning airport.

Evidence of the struggle hits you straight away as small arms fire has pockmarked the whole boundary wall of the airfield. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer carnage and devastation that you see in the main street, the one we all saw on the news reels as the fight unfolded, Tripoli Avenue.

The damage starts off about 200 metres down the two-kilometre stretch. It starts slowly, a few bullet holes here and there, a small crater, a damaged car… but as you steadily make progress down the road, the sheer indiscriminate devastation just slams into you.

Shops, apartment blocks, office buildings and more are just burnt out hulks of what they were. It is not carpet artillery either. There were sustained attacks on homes and people, and it is evident. Some houses are just peppered with small arms fire, rockets, shell holes and fire damage.

There were three Maltese in our vehicle, and we simply could not grasp the sheer horror of what had happened. Every so often, our driver and ‘guide’ would point something out to us. We saw the hospital where the regime forces holed up to prevent being attacked by Nato. At the same time, they took people hostage, to use them as human shields, while the people of Misurata bled in the arms of comrades and loved ones. It is extremely hard to try and convey what these people went through in these few columns of newsprint, and the author feels that he could never do their struggle justice, no matter what is written. But one can only try to help others understand. The problem of modern TV news is that it all looks like a movie.

We can sometimes forget that these are real stories, featuring real people. Whole blocks were flattened in the repeated shelling that went on for 70 days and many hundreds and thousands of people died as a result.

You only begin to comprehend what these people went through when you visit their hastily set up War Museum. The people of Misurata are regarded as the heroes of Libya’s 17 February revolution. It was only their breakout from the city that encouraged tribes from the Nafusa Mountains to sweep in from the west, and at the same time, rally the people of Tripoli to tear down the Bab Aziziya Complex, which they hated so much.

The respect that they command is so great that Gaddafi’s defiant monument of the 1986 US air attack was given to the city and it is now proudly displayed at the museum. But when one ventures inside, the reality hits you. It is a 30-foot long room which is covered in posters. The posters show the faces and names of men, along with a date. They represent the dead and the missing of Misurata and there are thousands of them. Just walking along and seeing face after face is enough to make you wonder what they went through.

We have heard the stories. People had fingernails ripped out; others were put in slow suffocation chambers and left in the desert. Others were beaten to death. Others shot. And this is the price that these people paid for freedom. They were all innocent, all they wanted was a life free of the iron grip of Gaddafi.

Seeing how they fought against tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery is also mind-boggling. When touring the ad hoc exhibits outside, one cannot help but stare, mouth open as one of the commanders explained how they used Molotov cocktails and homemade soda can bombs to attack tanks. One soldier explained how they would sneak up on a tank and jump on top of it and hurl these bombs into any opening they could find. Sadly, he explained, one out of every five or so blew up in soldiers’ hands, maiming and killing tens of them.

The weapons that they used were in stark contrast to those of the regime. Machine guns mounted on kids’ tricycles and homemade cross bows against tanks, mortars and cluster bombs. The latter are banned as they cause widespread civilian casualties, and yet, despite protesting his innocence, Muammar Gaddafi launched thousands of them against defenceless civilians.

Misurata is still in mourning. They lost many sons and daughters, but they are fiercely proud of what they have accomplished. They spotted us from miles off and the hugs and handshakes we received – as people of Malta who helped them so much – was enough to move us to tears. When a 16-year-old boy on crutches and quarter of his leg missing comes up to hug you and thank you, you do not know what to say. I could only say: “You are so brave”.

Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi felt exactly the same. He also was moved to tears when he toured the museum. But even worse was when we were shown a video of the whole struggle. When one saw babies and small children suffering shrapnel wounds and horrific burns, it is hard to swallow that lump in the throat. I don’t think I have ever seen the PM look so aghast, yet so inspired, by that video. The truth is that we all felt the same. We were in awe, shocked, sad, happy and proud of these people who made us so welcome.

Everywhere we went, both in Tripoli and Misurata, people would hoot their horns at us and give us the “V” for Victory sign and shout “Allah u Akbar”. Giving them the sign back and giving them a smile made their day. We felt truly welcome, and it must be reiterated, we do not even know how much we contributed to the revolution.

I was the first to demand more of the Prime Minister when the conflict broke out. I thought we needed to do more. But it was only in hindsight that I realised we were one of the first nations to recognise the National Transitional Council, something which they hold us in very high regard for. They pointed out that we were closer to Tripoli and Gaddafi’s missiles than Benghazi was, and that we were very brave for accepting the defecting pilots and to condemn Gaddafi for his atrocities.

The truth is that we were not brave. We only did the decent thing and it was the PM who guided Malta through this crisis. Irrespective of politics and other shortcomings of the government, seeing the gratitude showered on him was enough to make any Maltese person proud of their country.

The trip to Misurata was hard on the emotions, for all of us. But it is also a reminder that even tiny Malta, the bastion that held out against the Ottoman invasion and the Axis attacks in WWII, is still strategically important and played its small part in the 17 February revolution. The people of Libya have changed. Libya has changed. And perhaps anyone who has visited Misurata has also changed.

More stories on the Libya visit will be published this week

  • don't miss