Only the Poor Are Left: Civilians Abandon Sirte ahead of Rebel Onslaught

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Thilo Thielke in Sirte, Libya, Oct. 3, 2011.

Civilians are desperately trying to escape the Libyan city of Sirte, the home town of Moammar Gadhafi, before the interim government launches its final offensive. Those who have managed to flee report desperate conditions in the city, where fuel and medicine are in short supply. 

The two tanks crawl up the small hill, followed by whooping teenagers dragging bazookas and assault rifles. When they have reached the top, the valley stretches out below them, a vast shimmering expanse of parched palm trees and sand. A fortress-like building surrounded by a white wall is visible on the horizon. It looks like a fort, located about three kilometers (two miles) away on the outskirts of Sirte.

The tanks turn their barrels in that direction. There are two loud noises, and the earth shakes. “Allahu akbar,” the rebels shout. “God is great.” Then they take cover … //

… Starve or Die in the Fighting:

At times, says Dahab, he wasn’t sure who to fear most, the Gadhafi loyalists, the rebels or their allies from the West. One NATO air strike killed 48 civilians who were trying to help the victims of a bombing attack, he says, adding that the incident triggered resentment against the rebels and their allies.

The engineer also confirms the rumors of arrests and arbitrary executions in the city. Gadhafi supporters murdered Dahab’s neighbor, he says, because he was opposed to the regime. Then they threw his father and brother in jail and blew up the family’s house.

Dahab says that he was also afraid of the rebels, because the Gadhafi loyalists had claimed that the rebels were torturing people who fled from the city. “They said that they were raping the women and cutting off the men’s limbs.”

But then, he adds, he realized that there was nothing worse than staying in Sirte. “You have only two options there: to starve to death or die in the last battles of this war.” He left Sirte, which is fast becoming a ghost town, last Tuesday. (full text).

(Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan).

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