Libyans return to Misrata's devastated main street

AP News
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Posted: Sep 03, 2011 6:05 AM
Libyans return to Misrata's devastated main street

Just months after the siege of Misrata, this port city is bustling. Stores are open, water is running and there is steady electricity _ a sharp contrast to Libya's recently conquered capital just 125 miles (200 kilometers) away.

But running through the heart of the city, like a raw wound, is Tripoli Street, once its commercial heart and later its main battleground.

It looks like it was lifted from a documentary about the siege of Stalingrad. Every building on the long, wide street has been marked by war, some with just a spattering of heavy machine gun fire across the facade, others with huge bites torn out by artillery.

The rebels pushed Gadhafi's forces from Misrata in February, just a few weeks into the revolt. But its proximity to the capital meant it quickly felt the full force of a government counterattack. For months the city's rebels, their backs against the sea, faced ground attacks, air bombardments and shelling by Gadhafi's forces from three sides. The rebels finally took complete control of the city in May.

Three months later, the resilience of Misrata's population is obvious, poignantly symbolized by the sight of fresh laundry fluttering from a second-story balcony above a demolished ground floor.

"This is my only place, I had nowhere else to go," said Ramadan Abu Shaela. His house, one block from Tripoli street, has large chunks torn from it, and heavy machinegun-fire ripped through a bedroom wall, leaving it exposed to the sky.

So, months after fleeing to safer parts of the city Abu Shaela returned, along with many of his relatives. They live in houses just across from the main market, the Souq al-Khadra, a focal point of the battle for the city.

Moammar Gadhafi's forces concealed their tanks in the covered market until a relentless series of NATO bombings twisted the hulking war machines into fantastic shapes that parents now take their children to see.

Today, where the street was once lined with the city's best shops, buildings lie shattered by artillery rounds. A rebel tank squats in what was once a car showroom.

When Khaled al-Massoudi finally returned to his Tripoli Street home, it looked as if tanks had used it for target practice. The top floor was devastated, and so much of the ground floor was punched through with holes that it looked like Swiss cheese.

"The home was destroyed, so I've just been spending all my money trying to repair it _ a little piece at a time," said al-Massoudi, who once ran a tire store but now makes a living painting murals of fallen rebel fighters on the city walls.

At first glance, in places the house still looks fine. The receiving room for guests appears almost untouched, with intact air conditioners and a television. But cushions arranged along the walls mask plastered-over holes.

On the upper floor, his brother's apartment is a blackened mass of destroyed furniture and melted electrical fixtures. A plasma television is shattered on the floor. But a back bedroom is nearly untouched, except for two bullet holes that went into a mirror, through the back wall and into the next house.

During the siege, his family was trapped in the house for days while he and his brothers were fighting in the streets of another neighborhood.

"We couldn't reach them because of the fighting," he said.

His mother, Halima, tearfully recounts how 17 people, including their neighbors and children, crammed into a tiny hallway for four days while the battle raged around them.

They drank water from the toilet tank and fed terrified infants juice from a tiny store. At one point, a piece of shrapnel tore through Halima's leg.

Three soldiers barged in on the last day of the siege, lining everyone up and stripping them of their valuables.

Khaled and his brothers eventually got within a few blocks of the house, but were stopped by withering machinegun fire and omnipresent snipers.

Finally, they hopped through their neighbors' courtyards, working their way house to house to get back to their families.

For most of the residents of Tripoli street, escape came when an officer in Gadhafi's army ordered a brief cease-fire in March and let everyone evacuate.

Two months and several adopted homes later they're back, slowly rebuilding.

Al-Massoudi said the city council has promised aid to rebuild the ruins of Tripoli Street and the surrounding neighborhoods. But the money will only come once Libya is completely free.

For now, he has his own money and the 1,000 dinars (about $800) he received from the rebels after his older brother Fawzi was killed in the fighting.