On a shoestring, Libya's Misrata seeks normality

Reuters News
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Posted: Jun 17, 2011 4:58 AM
On a shoestring, Libya's Misrata seeks normality

Matt Robinson

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Police colonel Hisham Dweni knows the sense of community spirit in the rebel-held Libyan city of Misrata will only last so long. Soon, the men manning the bullet-marked front desk at the central police station will need to be paid.

"We know the NTC (National Transitional Council) doesn't have much money. But we hope to receive some, soon," said Dweni, a stocky 43-year-old police investigator in this battered Mediterranean coastal city.

He was among dozens of police officers who answered the call last month of the provisional rebel authority in Misrata to return to work, without pay.

Just weeks since it was the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the Libyan war so far, Misrata is dragging itself to its feet thanks to a volunteer workforce and a deep sense of pride in what was once an affluent trading hub.

Rebel council leaders describe it as the minimum level of service that could be expected given the fight that continues to rage between forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and rebels trying to end his 41-year rule, on three fronts some 20-30 kilometers (12-20 miles) from Misrata.

Most public utilities are functioning thanks to employees working without pay, and concerned parents have reopened a number of schools on at least a part-time basis to keep their children occupied.

But officials say they will need money soon.

"The idea is to make sure the rubbish doesn't pile high, that the streets are clean, but it's not a resumption of normal services," said Saddoun El-Misurati, a member of the city council and Misrata native who was schooled in the London borough of Chelsea.

Much of it is window-dressing, for a city that has had its insides torn out.

Behind trees that still hold their delicately-trimmed shape, buildings have been strafed and bombed beyond recognition. The central Tripoli street is a picture of devastation.

Now, police direct traffic at certain busy junctions, unarmed but uniformed. With so many young men fighting at the front, serious crime is rare, said Dweni.

He spends much of his time taking testimony from captured pro-Gaddafi soldiers, or mediating petty disputes between neighbors.

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"We bring them here, they shake hands, and they go," he said. He clocks out at 3 p.m. to collect his children from school.

Misrata would struggle to do more, given the number of men -- including many educated professionals -- manning the front, and the thousands of migrant workers who fled on boats, some under artillery fire during the worst days of the siege.

The exodus of mainly sub-Saharan African workers has deprived parts of the economy -- farming and construction, in particular -- of labor.

"The flight of foreign labor has paralyzed some economic sectors," said Khalifa Zuwawi, a bespectacled former judge and now chairman of the rebel city council.

"We have enough volunteers to provide public services."

He called on the West to release to the rebels billions of dollars held abroad by Gaddafi's regime in now-frozen bank accounts, "so we can pay these people."

At a school in central Misrata, parents and local residents are running classes in computers, music and drawing. Caricatures of Gaddafi are gradually filling the walls.

"Finding people to work is not the problem, it's finding the money for the upkeep of the school and the classes," said 52-year-old Shukri Abdullah, a former hotel manager who took charge of running the school.

He said they had managed so far on donations from the wealthier residents of Misrata, long one of Libya's more prosperous cities.

"We don't fight for money," said 42-year-old Adnan Meatek, who used to work for the Libyan Insurance Co. before pro-Gaddafi snipers took over his offices in central Misrata and it was all but destroyed in fighting to root them out.

Now he runs art classes for children three days per week, and hopes to make them daily.

In the street, a plumber named Ahmed Abdullah fixed a water main. He said he had not been paid since January. "I work for free," he said.

"I want to serve my country. If I don't, who will?"