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Misery in Misrata as siege worsens

Tough circumstances in besieged Misrata worry residents that shortages in basic commodities and services may deepen humanitarian crisis to horrific levels

AFP , Wednesday 20 Apr 2011
Libya
Libyan civilians being evacuated by a fishing boat from Misrata wait to disembark at the port of Benghazi, (Reuters).
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A plea from rebel leaders in the besieged city of Misrata for Western ground troops comes as the population here slides deeper into desperation, with energy, food, fuel and medicine stocks all becoming depleted.

Lines form everywhere in the city -- in front of bakeries, where a few loaves of bread feed extended families, to service stations, where hundreds of cars line up for hours in the few neighborhoods free from snipers.

Residents from southern outlying areas of the city that have been taken by forces loyal to Moamer Kadhafi have to sneak through back streets to the rebel-controlled areas to seek food and fuel.

Women and children lie in hospital beds, many of them wounded in their own homes by rocket or cluster bomb attacks.

Near the port -- the city's only access point -- workers from African countries such as Niger and Chad shelter in makeshift tents with little food and less security, waiting for places on evacuation ships that are arriving almost daily.

Misrata has survived more than six weeks of Kadhafi attacks because of its status before the conflict as a commercial and wholesale hub for much of Libya. It has big warehouses meant to store goods imported by sea.

But those stores are now running low. And all the municipal services needed to keep a city running -- sewage, electricity, communications -- have been hit by loyalist fire, greatly reducing their operation.

"We are producing less than 20 percent of the electricity we had before the fighting," Saleh Siwy, the head of Misrata's engineers guild, told reporters.

What energy was being generated was being directed to the three hospitals still functioning as a priority. Even those facilities were having to rely on generators to keep surgery lights burning at all hours.

Siwy declined to detail where the city's power was coming from, explaining: "If Kadhafi knows where this electricity is coming from, he will strike it immediately."

He added that Misrata was in need of diesel fuel to run generators and water pumps, medicine, a communications set-up to replace the mobile phone network taken off-line by Tripoli, and food for young children.

Siwy also claimed Kadhafi forces were attacking or kidnapping farmers outside Misrata to prevent fresh produce from reaching markets.

Children were especially vulnerable in the fighting. AFP saw several young children in hospitals in Misrata. One was a 10-year-old boy on life-support after being shot through the head by a sniper.

Another was a three-year-old girl whose stomach was ruptured by a cluster bomb that fell on her home.

In a school now serving as the city's orphanage, 101 children were being looked after by volunteers.

They had survived a month in a basement in their original orphanage in the centre of Misrata after the conflict erupted, in an area that was now a war zone blasted apart by tank rounds and automatic gunfire.

One of their custodians, Salima al-Tear, told reporters how she tried to explain the reasons for the violence to her young charges by ripping posters of Kadhafi off the walls.

"I took an axe and, while bullets were being fired, I ran across the other side of the road to break open a food storage place to get food for the children," she said.

Eventually, she said, she made her way to a rebel post and came back with two buses and cars to evacuate the children to their current locale.

Mustafah Abdulhamed, a volunteer worker at the orphanage, said: "The port is targeted by Kadhafi missiles, I think they call them GRAD missiles, these are (usually) used for tanks, and they are (now) using them for houses and people.

"When you queue for bread, (you) are bombarded by missiles. Somebody told me, the flashes (explosions) on the wall -- imagine that!"

At one of the half dozen bakeries still functioning -- out of around 300 which existed before the conflict forced many in the city centre to close -- a line of dozens of people waited patiently several hours in the sun for the only sustenance for them and for families as large as 50 people.

The shop, which before the upheaval served up to 2,000 people a day was now working feverishly to supply 20,000 people. Rations were imposed so that as many families as possible got even a little bread.

A volunteer in the bakery, Ussama al-Sherif, said that while there was enough flour, diesel fuel for the oven and baking soda were running short. And the besieged local population were only barely getting by.

"There are around 500,000 people in Misrata now. How many mouths can you feed? It's an everyday thing, it's not just once a week," he said. "Some families have to come two times a day to get bread, just to find something to eat."

The Libyans in Misrata were being cared for as best they could by the community.

A distribution point had been set up near the city's oldest mosque to hand out packets of rice, tuna and tomato paste to members of families that had escaped city areas under Kadhafi control, where no food at all was available.

But for African workers from Niger, Chad and Ghana, who had worked in Misrata's steel mill, docks and building sector before the conflict, the situation was more dire.

Thousands of them were camped in squalid conditions on the main road to the port, largely ignored by all but aid workers.

"We don't have water or food. People are exhausted. The food is awful, shelter is not good at all. We just want to leave," said one 40-year-old Nigerian, Jacob Alto. "We're waiting for a ship. Where is the ship?"

In fact vessels from the International Organisation for Migration, the International Committee for the Red Cross and Red Crescent, and chartered ferries sent by Qatar's government were docking, taking out around 1,000 refugees at a time.

It was not known how many refugees remained, and figures were difficult to calculate because some groups were sleeping the city and going to the port only when they believed they had a chance to leave.

Additionally, some Libyan families were trying to get through to the ships to evacuate sick or elderly family members, despite priority being given to the foreign Africans.

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