Sea is sole lifeline for Misrata

2011-04-20 22:20

Misrata - The Greek passenger ferry streamed toward the besieged Libyan port city of Misrata on Wednesday, its mission to deliver 500 tons of food and medical supplies and spirit away 1 000 people fleeing weeks of heavy shelling by forces loyal to ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

The ferry is part of a flotilla of ships, fishing trawlers and tug boats that have become the lifeline for the last significant rebel-held city in western Libya as it tries to hold out against a crippling siege that has dragged on for more than 50 days, devastating the city of 300 000.

They brave sailing into a port that is under frequent shelling - some of the smaller vessels have been fired on with rockets or chased by government warships.

The flotilla, motoring back and forth across Libya's Gulf of Sirte between Misrata and the rebel capital Benghazi in the east, not only keeps residents alive. It also keeps them fighting, bringing weapons and ammunition to Misrata's defenders.

Salah Budelel has made the sea journey three times in the past two months in his 40m tugboat, each time loaded down with supplies -mainly weapons. It was guns at first, he said, but now Misrata's fighters are in greater need of ammunition as they hold out against Gaddafi troops who have swept into the centre of the city and constantly bombard neighbourhoods with artillery, tanks and rockets.

"We realized that Misrata needed help, food, medicine and weapons," the bearded, white-haired captain said aboard his tugboat in Benghazi's port earlier this week. "And the only way to get there was by sea."

"Ammunition, too, is a kind of aid," he said, smiling.

Desperation in the city - Libya's third largest - has swelled. Electricity has been cut along with water in many parts. Buildings on the main boulevards of the city's center have been reduced to bombed-out husks, Gaddafi snipers fire from rooftops, and residents have fled their homes to crowd into districts still not in Gaddafi's hands - most importantly, the port, the city's only connection to the outside world.

Impromptu supply line

Benghazi boat captains like Budelel were the first to open an impromptu supply line, and now around a dozen local tugboats and aged fishing trawlers make the 400km run about once a week each. They are the arms runners, though they also bring food and medicines - sometime Benghazi residents will show up on the docks with supplies to be taken to Misrata.

Their informal boat lift has expanded in recent weeks as larger vessels from Turkey, Malta and elsewhere - some hired by international organizations - have begun making the crossing to take humanitarian aid into Misrata and bring out wounded and people fleeing the siege.

"Keeping the port open is the only gate to the world and the only way to keep the city alive," said Suleiman Fortia, a Misrata representative on the rebels' National Transitional Council. "If not, we'll have to surrender."

Fortia, an engineering professor before the anti-Gaddafi uprising broke out February 15, battled seasickness for a 35-hour tugboat ride to Benghazi to help co-ordinate the aid effort.

In its voyage Wednesday, the Ionian Spirit was carrying 500 tons of supplies organized by the International Organisation for Migration, including tomatoes, pasta, onions, mattresses, generators for hospitals and medical supplies.

It also carried doctors and surgeons, who along the way were setting up intensive care units in the ferry's staterooms to treat wounded and sick among the escapees the vessel will bring out on its return journey to Benghazi.

This was the third time the ferry has made the run. In its previous round trip, it arrived in Benghazi's port Monday night, carrying 900 residents out of Misrata, including Nigerian factory workers, Indian engineers, Ukrainian nurses and Libyans who lost limbs battling Gadhafi's troops.

Thousands have fled Misrata in the boat lift, many of them foreign workers carrying scant possessions. More than 5 000 non-Libyans remain in the city, the IOM says, most squatting in the port with scant food, shelter and water and deteriorating hygienic conditions.

City's desperation growing

Not all the trips have been smooth. Aid ships from Turkey, Qatar and Denmark have aborted missions due to fears of government fire, he said. Some have unloaded their cargo in Benghazi, requiring other ships to take it to Misrata.

Earlier this week, Gaddafi's government promised the United Nations humanitarian access to Misrata, though not a halt in hostilities. Jeremy Haslam, the head of the IOM's boat rescue, said the group informs the regime of its boat movements.

In the Ionian Spirit's previous trip to Misrata, its crew heard heavy artillery and shelling by Gadhafi forces in the city - but as they neared and entered the port, it fell "spookily" silent," Haslam said. But, he added, "We have no guarantees from anyone."

Budelel, the 50-year-old tugboat captain, says he has seen the city's desperation grow during his three round trips. On his first, he brought back a dozen people, he said. Last week, he brought 200.

For Benghazi native Fawzia Gheriani, 46, the boat lift is the only hope for news from her brother, a 42-year-old banker who went to look for work in Misrata two days before the uprising.

They often spoke by phone during the uprising's first days.

"I'm thinking about going out to train so I can fight with the youth," she said her brother told her.

Misrata's phone lines cut the next day, increasing the city's isolation. Gheriani has heard nothing from him since, she said.

So every time she hears of a Misrata boat coming to Benghazi, she rushes to the port clutching a photocopy of her brother's passport. That's where she stood Monday as the Ionian Spirit docked, the wind whipping at a rebel flag around her neck, hoping someone on board had news.

"The only way for us to communicate is the sea," she said. "It's our only line."