Libya crisis: Leaving Misrata as 'storm' approaches

A Libyan rebel controls an anti-aircraft machine-gun on the outskirts of Misrata on 30 June Image copyright AFP
Image caption The rebellion in Misrata has retained an amateur quality - rebels often take turns to go to the front

Last night I sat on the roof and watched Misrata city - blackened by a power cut - glow orange as another barrage of rockets smashed into the port area.

"The storm is coming," one rebel military official assured me. "Our storm," he added.

But this morning the rebel casualties were pouring, as usual, into a field hospital just behind the western front lines as Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces nudged closer.

As the deadlock here continues, and the summer heat rises, I'm heading back to my base in Johannesburg. The only way to get out of this famously besieged city is still by boat, and there haven't been too many of them coming or going in recent days.

Below is something I've written for From Our Own Correspondent and, although it contains some material that has appeared before on this blog, I thought I'd include it by way of a parting message from this remarkable city.

I'm crouching behind a ridge of sand on the long, meandering, front line west of Misrata.

An artillery shell comes whistling overhead.

I'm told that if you can actually hear the whistle, it's not going to hit you.

But my face is already in the sand as the shell explodes maybe 50 yards behind us.

Beside me, under a small tree, a group of young rebel fighters barely look up from their rice and stew.

They've been camped out in this olive grove for well over a month now, and still haven't bothered to dig trenches.

Around them, the war that seemed at one point to be such an unpredictable, dynamic drama, has settled into something close to a routine.

I've met fathers driving out to the front to bring their sons home for the night.

Brothers taking turns on the battlefield, sharing one gun.

There are wounded friends to visit in hospital. And the endless scavenging for ammunition and supplies.

For the inhabitants of this besieged city, the stakes and the sacrifices could hardly be higher, and yet the rebellion here has retained its amateur, DIY quality.

'Two weeks'

I often go to see the local military commanders at their bunker in the city. The man responsible for coordinating things with Nato here is an unfailingly cheerful man called Fateh Bashaga.

We sit outside, sip tea, and discuss the stalemate and why Nato isn't doing more. It's odd - and useful - to remember that, until February, Fateh ran a business importing car tyres.

There are some professional soldiers here.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Rockets fall regularly and the population has become suspicious

Gen Suleiman Mahmoud has come in by boat.

He's brought with him an immaculately clipped grey croissant-shaped moustache - and a keen interest in the military strategies of Erwin Rommel - the "Desert Fox" of World War II.

General Mahmoud is a senior defector from Colonel Gaddafi's army - 13 years in the republic guard, he says with evident pride.

While we're talking, gunfire erupts on the streets nearby. The city is celebrating the news of an international arrest warrant for Colonel Gaddafi, his son and brother-in-law.

General Mahmoud's moustache wrinkles with pleasure. "Gaddafi is our Hitler," he declares. "And he will end the same way."

But when?

"Two weeks" has become the stock answer here to almost any question about the conflict. When will the rebels liberate the next town, when will Tripoli fall, when will Nato finish the job, when will Misrata's mobile phone system finally be fixed?

But as the days stack up, the defiance in this isolated city is slowly curdling into frustration.

The rockets don't help.

They arrive here most nights - up to a dozen at a time crashing into the centre of Misrata - an area that everyone had assumed was finally out of reach of Colonel Gaddafi's heavy weapons.

The bombardments are not nearly as devastating as they were in April and May - and the population is remarkably stoical.

But the death toll keeps rising, and many people are starting to think that the rockets are now being launched from inside the city. I don't think they are, but the rumours are feeding fears about spies and fifth columnists.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Thousands celebrated the news that an arrest warrant had been issued against Col Gaddafi.

The spirit of unity forged here during the past three months hasn't disappeared. But it is being tested.

Foreign journalists are suddenly being restricted, and suspected.

The old, hard-learned habits of repression and control are bubbling to the surface, making me wonder what sort of democracy will finally emerge here.

Still, there's always the beach.

Most afternoons, you can find a few families sitting on the sand, staring at the Mediterranean, and trying to pretend that life is vaguely normal.

There are lots of rather drab beach resorts just west of the city - most of them have been taken over by detachments of fighters.

They come here to sleep, or to weld protective sheets of steel onto the front of their pick-ups, or to swim.

Just before sunset, I head down the public beach to cool off, and kick a ball around.

Soon, the heavy machine-guns start off, further up the coast. That's followed, for a good half hour, by the distant, but heavy boom of Grad rockets.

A young, bearded fighter named Walid walks out of the water and crouches down beside five German Shepherd puppies that have been adopted by his rebel unit.

The puppies want to sleep. But Walid is trying to make a joke about them being named after Gaddafi and his sons, and how they deserve to be drowned.

He's heading back to the front lines in the morning. I ask him when he thinks the war will end and he doesn't miss a beat.

"Two weeks".