Libya: Misrata's terrifying routine

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The rebels have paid a heavy price for not digging trenches to protect themselves

First comes the distant, early-morning thunder as the bombardments start on the western front; then the louder booms of rockets hitting Misrata itself. Before long there's the wail of ambulances, and the dull roar of Nato jets overhead.

After weeks of fighting on a long, meandering front line that seems to have got bogged down in the dunes, woods and orchards surrounding this rebel-held city, the conflict here has settled into something close to a daily routine. Terrifying and chaotic - but a routine nonetheless.

Before breakfast this morning, I stood on the roof as usual and watched three plumes of smoke rise from the port area to the east. From the west, the familiar rumble of Col Gaddafi's rocket bombardment was longer and louder than usual.

Soon we were driving out of Misrata towards the western front - a tentative, stop-and-start process, as we checked each roadblock for news of incoming fire.

Risk worth taking?

The first ambulances were already rushing past. Suddenly, one smashed into a passing car a couple of metres behind us. A bloodied driver was put into another car and driven to hospital.

Before long, on a dusty country road maybe 15km (10 miles) outside the city, we saw the first plumes of smoke, and then heard the sickening scream of shells overhead.

This is always the moment when the queasy calculations begin - spoken and unspoken. Wait? Retreat? What are the risks of pushing on, and are they worth taking?

For half an hour, we paused, perhaps 3km behind the front line. A rebel mortar position was firing over our heads. The boom of distant rockets echoed around us. Two artillery rounds fired by Col Gaddafi's forces smashed into the woods just ahead, setting fire to the trees.

Then came the faint drone of at least one Nato jet in the clouds, and with it - that routine again - Col Gaddafi's rockets and artillery fell abruptly, and more or less completely, silent.

"They push the guns away under the trees now - to hide them," a young fighter explained. "While Nato is up there, it will be quiet."

The trouble with lulls is that you have no way of telling how long they'll last. I can remember, as if it was yesterday, an unbearably long walk through rubble and snow to the ghostly centre of Grozny in January 1995, when the Russian guns fell silent for an hour.

Rockets and rebels

We decided to move on, and a few minutes later joined Libya's rebels on the front, sheltering behind a long ridge of sandy earth. After a "busy" morning, the fighters were relaxing - some gathered on a blanket eating rice and stew. There was a gun battle rattling on a little to the north, but the men shrugged it off.

It's not quite trench warfare here; in fact the rebels have been oddly reluctant to - and heavily punished for - failing to dig in properly. "It's in God's hands," they invariably say, when another casualty is taken away. But the battle here appears to be deadlocked, with the rebels pinned down by Col Gaddafi's rockets, and unable to make any significant advances across the narrow strip of open land that separates the two sides.

We did not stay long.

One shell whistled above us and smashed into an orchard perhaps 100m away.

By the time we reached a nearby field clinic the front line ambulance crews had brought in six dead, and 36 wounded fighters - a little higher than usual, but nothing out of the ordinary in this war of attrition. The casualties had already been sent back to the main hospitals in the city centre.

And so by early evening, the usual crowds were gathered outside the Hekma hospital in Misrata, scanning through lists of the dead and wounded. The death toll had risen to 10 by then. Local radio started broadcasting appeals for blood donations.

A little later, we heard more explosions coming from the port area, and news of another civilian casualty. For weeks Misrata itself has been spared the indiscriminate bombardments that killed so many civilians here in April and early May. But somehow Col Gaddafi's rockets seem to be back in range. On Friday, a woman was killed in her kitchen. On Saturday, another woman was killed. Today, a pregnant woman was badly injured.

And now the light is fading. Outside the building we're staying in, the non-stop, looped recordings of "God is great" continue to sing plaintively across the city from half a dozen mosques.

Tomorrow, I imagine, will be much the same.