Africa

Libya conflict: Misrata girl's life in wake of attack

doctors and patients at field hospital
Image caption Bombings in Misrata, long besieged by Col Gaddafi's forces, left many casualties

All I had was a name, and an age - Arwa, six years old. It wasn't much to go on, but this little girl was lodged in my memory, and I wanted to find her.

The last time I saw Arwa she was on a stretcher in Misrata's Al Hikma Hospital.

Her tiny body was punctured by shrapnel.

It was 14 April, when the city was under heavy bombardment by Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces.

In the wards, and the corridors, there was a constant stream of casualties. Arwa cried out in pain as Dr Ahmed Radwan, struggled to repair the damage done by a Grad rocket.

In a makeshift operating room, with power coming and going, the surgeon was removing the shards of metal from her liver, and sewing up a deep gash in her neck.

Dr Radwan thought she would make a full recovery.

Finding Arwa

Four months on, I wanted to know if she did. But how to locate her?

Al Hikma hospital is now closed. Dr Radwan, a volunteer from Egypt, had returned home.

We visited other hospitals in the city, hunting for news of Arwa, or her admission records.

A nurse remember her injuries, but not her surname. A doctor remembered Arwa but said she was nine years old.

This was a second girl with the same name, wounded at about the same time. And we heard about a third wounded Arwa, before we found the records for our girl - Arwa Mohammed Bawa.

Now we knew her surname we could find her family. Extended families usually live together in the same district.

And locals in Misrata know where different families are to be found. We went to the Bawa's neighbourhood and asked directions from a local man. He was a relative, who jumped into his car and led us to her door.

Our translator, Abdallah, marvelled at the swift response.

"That's one of the changes here," he said. " Before people were afraid to give out information like that, or answer questions. They preferred not to speak. Under Gaddafi, at times you would not trust your own brother."

At the family home, near an olive grove, we were welcomed by an affable white-haired man - Khalil Aktait, Arwa's grandfather. Within minutes she appeared, walking forward to shake hands - a little girl in jeans and a pink T-shirt, with dark hair in pony tails.

Her grandfather insists she has put the attack behind her.

"At first she was in shock," he said " but after a while she managed to forget what she went through. Now she is living a normal life. She just wants to eat and play and enjoy herself. "

Still scared

But Arwa has permanent reminders of the Grad rocket that could have killed her. An angry ridge is clearly visible on her neck.

Khalil lifts her sparkly tee shirt to show us another long scar running down her stomach, like a zip.

The family house, like Arwa, bears the scars. There are gaping holes in the front wall.

Arwa was outside when the missile landed right on her doorstep.

Image caption Arwa says she wants learn to read and write when schools reopen

"She was happy," her grandfather said "because the electricity had come back on. She ran out to tell her mother and grandmother."

Now her wounds have healed - at least the physical ones - but the conflict is never far away. Every other day distant thuds echo from the frontline, bringing back the fear.

"I get scared," she told us, in a whisper. "I run inside."

Khalil says all his grandchildren do the same.

"When they hear a bang they say 'war war' and they rush inside," he said. " They are really scared because the house has been hit before. It makes my blood boil," said the retired truck driver, a grandfather of 30.

He sits on the back porch, with Arwa by his side, as his son Sadiq relays the latest news from the battlefield.

The young man has taken up arms, with two of his brothers.

As the adults discuss the fighting, Arwa traces circles in the sand with her hand. She has learnt some Arabic letters at the local mosque, and she's eager to go to school.

"When the schools are open again, I want to go there," she says, "to learn how to read and write".

Song about Gaddafi

But her grandfather says Col Gaddafi is providing all the lessons these days. "He's teaching them new things - about destruction, killing and war. He's the big teacher."

Arwa has already learnt those lessons. But when she answers our questions, haltingly, she sounds like a normal 6-year-old. She likes playing with her cousins, and visiting her uncle's farm to feed the sheep. She wants a bicycle, and she already knows what she wants to be when she grows up - a singer.

At her grandfather's prompting, she sings a few lines about the Libyan leader:

"Gaddafi has fallen

He has funny hair, with lice

Tell Gaddafi and his sons,

There are real men in Misrata

They came with tanks and we beat them with Chinese cars".

Col Gaddafi's forces been driven out of Arwa's district. But Misrata is still within range of their long-range rockets. And Arwa is still in harm's way.

At 65, Khalil says he is worried about the future for his grandchildren, not for himself. "I hope they will have a better life than we did under Gaddafi," he said. "We got nothing for him."

He believes that Arwa's generation will graduate from war to freedom, when the 'big teacher' is driven out.

"We don't know how long it will take," he said. "It could take a short time, or a long time, but Gaddafi is falling."