Besieged Misrata: Seaside picnics, laughter and rockets

Children by the seaside in Misrata

It's an unusually quiet Friday evening, and on the long, unkempt beach just west of the western Libyan city of Misrata, dozens of families have gathered by the dunes to watch the waves and the sunset.

One of the rebels' few rocket launchers often sends a late afternoon volley towards Col Gaddafi's lines from a position not too far from here.

But it's been silent today, and instead the air is full of shouts and laughter as a group of boys play in the surf.

I know this is a besieged city, battered by artillery and rockets, surrounded by bitterly contested frontlines, and mourning daily the rising toll of young lives lost in the struggle against Col Gaddafi's forces.

But despite the enormous pressures, there are still occasional hints of normality to be found here.

Fear, suspicion, hardship

Families head for picnics on the coast, bored children demand entertainment, a weary fighter rushes home to meet a newborn son, and teenagers too young to hold a gun arrange football games instead.

For many here, the desire to "unwind" seems both strong and deeply uncomfortable.

It's been more than three months since the conflict started in Misrata and the population here is trapped in a gruelling routine of fear, suspicion and hardship.

There have been moments of public relief, above all in May when Col Gaddafi's forces were driven out of the city and the daily bombardments abruptly - temporarily, as it turned out - ceased.

But as the fighting outside the city rages on, many here are reluctant to be seen to drop their guard, even for a second.

A British-Libyan psychiatrist who has travelled to the city to help victims of post-traumatic stress and other ailments, told me recently how he had tried to persuade other volunteer doctors working relentless shifts at a local hospital to take a few hours off to relax by the coast.

But he said they had all declined, saying they would feel guilty abandoning their posts.

A Libyan friend recently took his three young daughters to the beach, after rockets had landed 200m (656ft) from their house.

"It's good for them sometimes just to try to pretend everything is normal," he said.

But the young fighters who race around town in their pick-up trucks often appear to resent any sign of "relaxation".

Another Libyan colleague here told me how he'd seen them lecture a group of older men they'd spotted sitting outside a coffee shop, telling them it was "inappropriate" behaviour.

The hardest part, of course, is not knowing how long this is going to carry on.

"Two weeks" still seems to be the favourite answer here.

But that's been the case for well over a month now, and people are becoming more reluctant to hazard a guess.