One family’s story from the city that broke Gadhafi’s back
Stone and concrete lie folded like paper in downtown Misrata. Bullets and mortars and rockets have left abstract patterns of craters and soot. Sheets of metal bend like crumpled flower petals. This is where nearly 30,000 Gadhafi loyalists, many of them highly trained and extremely well armed, came to crush what had begun as a peaceful revolution.
“The stench of bodies was unbearable,” Abdulhadi al Gaid, a Misratan now living in Tripoli, says. “I didn’t think that it could ever look like a normal city again.”
For many months after the revolution, Misratans would not let other Libyans into their town unless they could prove their family ties to the city, partly out of security, partly out of pride. At a checkpoint near the city, at the town of Dafniya, al Gaid chats with a guard. A quick listing of family names brings smiles of recognition to both their faces and access to the town.
This stretch of highway was one of the most important fronts in the war - and one of the bloodiest. After successfully liberating Misrata, locals pushed west to link the liberated eastern part of the country with the still occupied western region, where the capital Tripoli lies. This is the road where foreign guns and artillery eventually replaced home-made weapons-systems to turn the tide of battle in favor of the revolutionaries. This is the road from where images of fighting were broadcast across the world. This is the road where one of Abdulhadi’s cousins was killed.
But before all that, it took ordinary citizens with no fighting experience to liberate their coastal city.
“I had never seen a gun in my life except in the holsters of policemen,” says Mohammed ben Taher, 23, who fought to liberate the city and has the scars to prove it.
Sitting on the carpeted floor of his family’s living room, with the AC and lights phasing in and out along with the city’s electrical grid, Mohammad shows his wounds. He has a splotchy, pale scar under his left arm about the size of a soda can - his first injury that required hospitalization. He was transported to Izmir, Turkey to receive treatment before managing to hitch a ride back to Misrata on a fishing boat to resume fighting.
Mohammed has dozens of scars, a giant dimple in his right tricep where muscle once existed, and two straight streaks, as wide as a ruler, across his chest. His chest wound was inflicted when a 23-and-half millimeter anti-air craft bullet landed near him and two of his fellow fighters. The bullet’s impact sent shrapnel into Mohammed, some of which remains in his neck, jaw, and cheek. The medical reports from his hospital stay in Tunisia tell him that his heart stopped twice, that he required artificial breathing, and that he had serious internal bleeding near his heart and lungs – little of which he remembers after waking up from a twelve-day coma.
He still has shrapnel in his back from another battle, which makes it difficult for him to sleep lying down. When he does manage to fall asleep these days, it is usually in a chair.
But Mohammed was the lucky one.
The Libyan Insurance Building, looms above downtown Misrata. Its white walls are now broken and blackened from gunfire. However, for weeks on end in the spring of 2011, Gadhafi’s snipers destroyed the building’s stairs to cut off access, and used the roof to pick off countless revolutionaries. In an alleyway not far from the building, Hisham ben Taher, Mohammed’s older brother, was shot and killed on March 6.
Mohammed and the younger of his two older sisters, Halima, show me a video on their iPad of Hisham’s last moments. The footage shows Hisham sprawled in the middle of the street as two young men attend to another wounded man lying several feet from Hisham. The men wait for the gunfire to stop so they can retrieve the older ben Taher. Within two weeks, both men would be dead.
Halima and her older sister, Ilham, who sits in another corner of the room, shed silent tears before continuing their story.
“It’s strange,” says Halima, as Mohammed retreats back into silence, his head twitching, his tongue flicking inside his cheek, his shoulders jerking up from time to time. “We lived in a war, but we did not live in fear. We used to see the Palestinians before the war living, eating, drinking, marrying – we used to ask ‘how can they live?’ Then it happened to us.”
Ilham nods in agreement. Why weren’t they afraid?
“We knew that when they are here, the boys won’t let us get hurt,” says Halima.
As Ramadan ben Taher, the father of the family, quietly brings coffee and fruit to offer his guests, the youngest son, Abdurrahman, sits sheepishly near Ilham. His sisters did not allow Abdurrahman, now aged 17 but only 16 during the war, to fight alongside his brothers. One day he ventured outside the confines of the family’s besieged basement to join his brothers only to have his foot shattered by a stray bullet. Trapped by gunfire, he lay on his own street for hours, losing consciousness twice before neighbors rescued him.
On the iPad, Halima and Mohammed show photos of their house’s gray, destroyed façade, unrecognizable from the now rebuilt house surrounded by greenery. On March 13, five days after Gadhafi forces stormed the city, the girls, Abdurrahman and their mother fled to a relative’s house, using small openings in backyard walls to navigate across the neighborhood’s alleys.
The family spent five days in Halima’s uncle’s basement, along with 103 other people.
Asked about the conditions there, Halima chuckled. “The kids wanted warm bread. We only had old bread.”
Navigating back to normality
Now that the war is over, Halima has returned to teaching primary school. Ilham has returned to teaching the Quran at the local mosque. Abdurrahman has begun his first year of university in the faculty of engineering, and their father, a retired businessman, beams with pride.
Everyone seems to have returned to normal except for Mohammed. He says he doesn’t believe in school, and will not return. Asked if he is working, he replies no, prompting a patient, almost gentle silence as the family smiles lovingly in his direction. Ramadan quietly mentions that he would like to see his son go back to school, but looks pleased when Mohammed says he would like to start his own business someday.
The family has just voted in Libya’s first multi-party election since 1952, proudly brandishing their henna-stained fingers. They say they have all voted for Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance, a non-Islamist coalition that has shirked ideological debate and focused instead on the practical steps needed to rebuild the country.
“What Mahmoud Jibril says is what we dream,” says Halima.
However, Mohammed’s scarred hands remain unstained.
“I don’t want to give my vote to anyone. There are still too many problems,” he says. “When Gadhafi was alive, we were still one people. Now people have changed.”
Mohammed says he has unsuccessfully applied to the local medical board four times for a grant to be treated outside of Libya. Apart from medical treatment for himself, he says he wants the country to have a better education system, solid infrastructure, rule of law and the removal of guns from the streets.
“Of course I have hope, but things will be slow,” he says, conceding that he would prefer to move to the United States.
Asked why he went out to fight in the first place, he responds immediately with only one word.