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World & Nation

Misurata, proud of its role in Libya revolt, looks to the future

Its principal commercial drag, Tripoli Street, could be the Hollywood set for an urban warfare action thriller: Charred tanks and pulverized shipping containers sit in front of blackened buildings pockmarked with rounds from bullets, rockets and sundry other lethal ordnance.

But the hellish scene in the western port city of Misurata has nothing to do with fiction. More than a thousand people were killed here and many more injured in a months-long series of street battles that ousted the forces of Moammar Kadafi from the city and eventually, its environs. No one has cataloged the vast scope of damage to homes and factories, businesses and infrastructure.

Yet, despite the devastating tableau, Misurata — which became an international emblem of the uprising against Libya’s longtime autocratic leader — has already made strides in reclaiming a sense of normality amid the disarray. Even as Kadafi remains on the lam and his loyalists continue to hold out, or wreak havoc, in several towns, a certain commercial bustle is now evident amid the ruins of Misurata, dubbed “Libya’s Stalingrad” during the protracted siege.

Backpack-bearing elementary school students have returned to their classes, sidestepping mounds of rubble en route. And though a colossal reconstruction effort looms — and many of the city’s young men have joined the forces still seeking to liberate Kadafi’s lingering strongholds — residents seem determined to get back to a semblance of everyday life.

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“Things are getting better,” said Mustafa Abu Shaala, who nonchalantly sells milk, yogurt and other dairy products from his small shop, one of the few commercial establishments on Tripoli Street to escape destruction.

Libya’s third most populous city seems to be moving ahead confidently, even buoyantly, into a hopeful future, despite the many uncertainties surrounding the country’s post-revolutionary prospects. A city of 350,000 people — many of whom fled during the fighting — long known for its industriousness, Misurata is now widely acclaimed for its heroism and heart.

There is, of course, a profound sense of mourning for the dead, and deep concern for the fate of thousands of others injured or still unaccounted for. More than 200 residents lost limbs. No Libyan city has suffered more than Misurata during the more than six months of fighting that has roiled this North African nation.

“We are with the missing,” declares one poster, while another warns about unexploded ordnance strewn seemingly everywhere.

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But pride and optimism infuse the city 125 miles east of Tripoli, the national capital. No one seems to be second-guessing the fateful decision to rise up and engage in armed struggle when the odds seemed stacked against the coastal community isolated between Tripoli, Kadafi’s longtime stronghold, and Benghazi, the de facto rebel capital.

“Now we have our dignity back,” said Suliman M. Fortia, a Misurata architect and businessman who also sits on the nation’s transitional governing council. “Yes, we have a lot of rebuilding to do. It will take time. But Misurata is a rich city.”

The rebellion here began, as it did elsewhere in Libya, with street protests in February that quickly evolved into armed clashes between government forces and residents. Kadafi’s troops were driven from Misurata but mounted a new assault in March, shelling the city and also attacking with tanks and snipers positioned in buildings along Tripoli Street.

By May, rebel fighters, aided by North Atlantic Treaty Organization airstrikes, had ejected Kadafi’s forces, leaving Misurata as the sole insurgent beachhead along Libya’s western Mediterranean coast.

The improbable accomplishment of ousting Kadafi’s forces with an all-volunteer army of individuals who had mostly never fired a weapon before seems to have unleashed a sense that anything is possible.

“We are civilians who learned to fight,” Fortia said. “We can also learn to rebuild.”

Officials here have already signaled their intention to push for their share of Libya’s wealth to rebuild water and power facilities, schools, government buildings and other war-battered sites.

There is little evidence of self-pity, or griping, about the cataclysmic damage and the obstacles ahead.

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Everyone seems to have a story of loss, or near-miraculous survival.

The son of Shaala, the shopkeeper, survived four days in the rubble of a building blasted by a government tank round.

“We all thought he was gone,” the shopkeeper said of Emad, 17, who sat next to him in the shop the other day, smiling somewhat sheepishly as his father recalled his ordeal.

The city’s media chief, Mohammed Darrat, lost his brother, a doctor, Ali Ibrahim, who had returned from Germany to help the wounded. One day he took a wrong turn and ended up in the custody of government troops. He was executed at a prison in Tripoli as rebels were poised to take the capital, Darrat said.

Darrat’s son, Hassan, meantime, lost his left leg facing up to a tank with a rocket-propelled-grenade launcher in a confrontation that has assumed legendary status.

Residents exude a soaring sense of accomplishment about their city’s signature role in the revolution.

“Misurata now has a place in history,” said Muspah Ahmed, 24, who left his studies in England to enlist in the revolution in his hometown, was wounded twice and says he lost many friends in battle.

Ahmed, a part-time English teacher, stood the other day at the foot of Tripoli Street, across from the infamous Tamim Life Insurance tower, the final redoubt of government snipers who long occupied the city’s tallest buildings.

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After weeks of tough fighting, insurgents who ruled the side streets drove the deadly marksmen away with the help of a novel strategy: blocking Tripoli Street with dirt-filled shipping containers scavenged from the port, thus cutting the snipers off from their supply lines while providing cover. The riflemen were forced to fall back. The Misurata rebels then pushed forward, eventually playing a pivotal role in the liberation of Tripoli.

The containers remain fixtures on many streets, some now blasted apart, some still used at checkpoints, vestiges of the warfare that has left both physical and psychological scars.

“Sometimes I feel a bit lost,” acknowledged Ahmed, recounting how one of his best friends was killed after Misurata was liberated, in the battle for Tripoli. “Everything we went through can make you a bit crazy sometimes. But I feel our future is bright.”

The city’s revolutionary pedigree has generated a palpable sense of entitlement. Some might label it arrogance. Misurata’s leaders have left no doubt that they believe their town will be a major player as a new Libya emerges.

Last month, residents mounted a vociferous protest when Libya’s transitional leaders signaled their intention to name an ex-Kadafi commander — implicated in the brutal siege of Misurata — as the new security chief in Tripoli. Protesters even suggested that Misurata’s fighters might refuse to obey orders. The appointment was shelved.

Misurata’s valiant narrative has even prompted some awe-inspired Libyans from elsewhere to make a pilgrimage here.

“Misurata made Libya’s revolution famous all over the world,” said a thankful Khereia Awayed, one of a group of women from a Tripoli-area charity snapping photos in front of a shelled shopping complex, its windows blown out, holes gaping in its facade. “We all owe a lot to Misurata.”

The trip to Misurata, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from the capital, seems to highlight the city’s singular status. Visitors unaccompanied by locals need special permission — a kind of visa — and are obliged to pass through a phalanx of checkpoints, where questions are asked and names are noted. Papers must be in order.

Once inside the town, the atmosphere is businesslike.

A hotel manager seemed to think it odd that a client was surprised that services, including Internet connections, appeared to be functioning well.

“We are going forward,” the manager, Omar Madi, explained at the counter of a hotel where the photos of Kadafi have been replaced with portraits of the royal family of Qatar, the Persian Gulf nation that helped finance the revolution.

Misurata seems somewhat devoid of young men, and there is a reason for that: Thousands are gathered about 110 miles to the east, poised for a new assault on Kadafi’s hometown, the city of Surt, one of Libya’s last loyalist strongholds.

Despite the prospect of new bloodshed, people here seem to think it only appropriate that their men will be at the vanguard of the battle. Few doubt the outcome.

“Once our people start,” said Darrat, the city media director, " they won’t stop.”

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com


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