As fighters loyal to Libya's revolutionary government gain on the holdout city of Surt, residents are making it clear that the battle for hearts and minds is far from won.
The scrublands that surround Moammar Kadafi's hometown have become a confused patchwork of loyalties. As vehicles of the revolutionary forces patrolled the dusty villages in newly seized territory Sunday, many residents peered angrily from their homes.
"The rebels are worse than rats. NATO is the same as Osama bin Laden," said a father, his seven children crowding around him.
Surt has been a primary target in the seven-month NATO bombing campaign that helped rebel forces gain control of most of Libya. The intensity of the bombing, coupled with recent rocket attacks by the opposition forces, has turned Surt into a "living hell," several families said.
Hundreds of families fled the city Sunday, anticipating a new assault. But too frightened, angry or mistrustful to flee to opposition-controlled territory, many sought refuge in nearby loyalist homes.
"We have 10 families staying with us now," said the angry father, who, like many others, declined to be identified for fear of recrimination. "There is little food, not enough clean water and no gas. Before, we lived wealthy lives. I had two homes. Now we live worse than animals."
Fleeing families also set up home in an abandoned school, crammed 30 people to a room, sleeping on the tile floor.
Revolutionary leaders say they are supported by a mandate to oust a brutal dictator. But many residents from Surt said they longed for Libya to be "just as it was" before the uprising began in February.
"We lived in democracy under Moammar Kadafi; he was not a dictator," said another Surt resident, Susan Farjan, who said she had been an on-screen journalist for Libyan state television. "I lived in freedom; Libyan women had full human rights. It isn't that we need Moammar Kadafi again, but we want to live just as we did before."
Despite the living conditions and her dust-ridden clothes, Farjan's makeup, Chanel perfume, diamante earrings and gold necklace told of a better life in times past.
"Everyone loves Kadafi. My father loves him so much, the blood is green in his veins," Farjan said as tears welled in her eyes, alluding to Kadafi's use of green as the national color.
Women and children gathered around Farjan suddenly burst into a raucous, tearful chorus: "God, Moammar, Libya. This is all we need!"
With no electricity and only state news stations operating inside the city, families in Surt had little knowledge of events of the last six months. Many believed that the city of Misurata, an anti-Kadafi stronghold to the west, where local fighters pushed out loyalist forces, had been overrun by an odd mix of North Atlantic Treaty Organization ground forces and Islamic extremists.
Revolutionary fighters on the outskirts of Surt have run an informal public relations campaign, supplying fleeing residents of a city they deeply mistrust with food, fuel and medical supplies. "We have to show them that we are not the people Kadafi claimed we were," said Ahmed Zubair, 27.
Splits and confusion have appeared among some of the refugees. In the abandoned school, as some women shouted for Kadafi, others hissed and professed their support for the rebels.
"We are a one-family democracy," joked Mohammed Farjan, 25.
Though his parents decry the fall of the regime, Farjan said he had been against Kadafi since before the uprising. He said authorities had offered him thousands of dollars to stop a Facebook campaign against the longtime leader.
Internet service was cut after the eruption of mass protests in February, he said. Then he and three colleagues played "hide and seek" with regime forces, leaving anti-Kadafi graffiti on Surt's walls, he said.
The vast majority of city's 100,000 people didn't like Kadafi, he alleged. "But when the bombing started, most began to support him again," he said.
Sherlock is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell in Cairo contributed to this report.