Misurata's Sniper War: Life on the Rebel Side of the Crosshairs

By Jonathan Stock and Marcel Mettelsiefen in Misurata, Libya

In Libya, the opposition stronghold Misurata has become an urban battlefield. Pro-Gadhafi forces are devastating entire neighborhoods with cluster bombs and Russian rockets. But the real battle is being waged in the shadows between snipers, with Gadhafi's well-trained soldiers facing off against school teachers, divers and mechanics.

Libyan rebels have converted an apartment formerly belonging to a high-ranking Gadhafi loyalist near the frontlines into a makeshift headquarters. Both the location and the name of its commanding officer are secret. The rebels have made themselves at home in the upholstered chairs, behind red velvet curtains. Just outside the door sits a 106 millimeter recoilless rifle, which emits a thunderous noise and muzzle flash every few seconds. Seemingly unphased men speak into walkie-talkies as they coordinate the next shot. Then a fizzing noise and a clack-clack can be heard. The men lift their heads. A young man carrying an RPG on his back yells out "Heads up!" and counts, "One, two, three." Nothing happens. "Well, then, I guess not," he says. At first he laughs, and then comes a cascade of explosions.

In the city of Misurata, the Libyan war has become one of house-to-house urban combat. The sides now fight over what used to be vegetable stores, and the blocks where children were playing just a few weeks back are now blackened from explosions. The abandoned streets are littered with now-pointless street signs and burning tires, whose smoke is meant to limit what the snipers can see.

Blockades stopped the advance of Gadhafi's troops into the inner city. But now they are filling the port and adjacent neighborhoods with Russian "Grad" rockets and raining cluster bombs upon the city center. Dozens of explosions can be heard day and night throughout the city. In the mornings, residents point to the holes in their walls and cars. As proof, they collect spent projectiles and guidance systems and the occasional unexploded shell, which could still go off at any time. No one here knows exactly how to dispose of the black and yellow canisters lying all over the place -- on the property of the public museum, on playgrounds and in front of the court building.

People with torn up extremities are brought to the hospitals. One has lost a foot, half of his other leg and his left hand. The body pieces are lying neatly next to him on gauze. For now, he is unconscious; in a few hours, he will be dead. "The bomb caught him unsuspecting right when he stepped outside his door," says a neighbor, who brought him praying into the hospital.

The Horrors of Urban Combat

This is now the seventh week of fighting in Misurata. Doctors in the central Hikma hospital estimate that roughly 1,000 people have died and 3,000 have been wounded. Khalid Abu Falgha, the hospital's administrator, calculates that about 80 percent of the dead are civilians.

The city is in a state of siege, public life has ground to a halt, schools and offices are closed. Many families have barricaded themselves inside their houses while battles rage on the streets outside.

Since last week, the doctors have been forced to amputate an increasing number of limbs. The wounds come from cluster bombs, whose canisters open while still airborne, spraying so-called bomblets over a wide area. Since many of the bomblets fail to explode, areas remain dangerous long after the end of a conflict. In the past, this has led the international community to track and pass treaties on the use of cluster bombs.

Still, not all of the puncture and concussion wounds come from cluster bombs; some of them also come from 81 millimeter mortar shells. These are weapons designed for a battlefield and not for a city, developed to be deployed against infantry units rather than civilians. What's more, you can't fight them; you can only flee. But fleeing is something that most of Misurata's residents don't want to do. If you ask people on the street, they will tell you that this is their home, that this is where their families are. Elsewhere, they would just be refugees.

The worst-affected are the migrant workers from other African countries. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that roughly 3,500 of them are stuck in the city. Their camps near the port are short on water, food and medication. They are anxiously waiting to see if they might be able to catch a ship to Benghazi, the rebel stronghold farther east.

A War of Snipers

In the meantime, the rebels are firing their 106 millimeter recoilless rifles and assault rifles. They block off the streets they have captured with trucks and containers full of sand. And then they have their own snipers fighting against Gadhafi's snipers, who have holed up in the city's high-rise buildings. Once a street has been declared safe, families can return to the homes they were driven out of.

If you want to observe the snipers in action, you have to make your way into the bullet-ridden heart of the city. The path leads past makeshift checkpoints made out of piles of sand holding Seven-Up bottles repurposed into Molotov cocktails. Then you have go by foot through the entryways of homes and through kitchens that have become weapon stores and then into courtyards where fighters are relaxing over a cup of tea or performing prayers. Visitors are asked to not kick up any dust so as to not give away the position to Gadhafi's sharpshooters.

Most of the snipers are lurking near Tripoli Street, which used to be the main thoroughfare and shopping boulevard. At the end of the street lies the dreaded Taamin building, the tallest structure in the downtown area, a white, nine-story structure that used to house an insurance company. These days, the rebels are observed through riflescopes from its roof, from behind one of its many balconies or out of bullet holes. At the entrance hangs the green flag of Gadhafi. The building marks part of the front like an open wound in the middle of the city.

A couple hundred meters to the north, the flag of the Libyan rebels flies from a former police station. The stairway is cluttered with an old children's bicycle and debris from an impact on the wall. The old prison cells on the first floor have been broken into. They offer no place to sit, there are no windows and they don't even have holes in their doors. The safe in the directors' office has been plundered. In their rush to get away, the office's occupants left their keys and watches on their desks. The floor is littered with telephones and false passports. One corner is inexplicably filled with dozens of belts.

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