MISRATA, Libya — In the center of Misrata, a small girl clambers on top of an abandoned tank. It's part of a makeshift exhibit in a public square of this battered, besieged city, one of many scattered throughout. Beside a row of tanks, spent bullet cartridges and blasted rocket cases are carefully placed alongside boots and uniforms discarded by Muammar al-Qaddafi's fleeing soldiers, all arranged as neatly as fossils in a museum display cabinet.
This is a city in shock. For two months, it was pulverized by troops loyal to the Libyan regime. Mortars destroyed civilian homes. Snipers took aim from towers. More than a thousand people died, according to the New York Times. Many more disappeared -- or were taken -- from their homes.
Now, Qaddafi's soldiers have been pushed out to a perimeter 16 miles from the city's edge. The people of Misrata are no longer at risk from rockets falling on their homes. But the siege is not over. This rebel enclave is deep in Qaddafi-held territory, only 130 miles east of the capital, Tripoli. Almost every day sees the bodies of wounded young rebel fighters brought to the city's hospitals. Men are still dying here.
The city survives only because it is near the sea, and boats can bring food and medical supplies for its people and weapons and ammunition for its fighters.
"It's a very bad situation," says Mohammed Salim, a 40-year-old engineer who was buying food for his four children at a small supermarket in the center of town. "Some days you need more than three hours to get bread." Qaddafi's troops destroyed food stores and bakeries. There is little fresh food available inside the city, and the farms in the surrounding countryside are now inaccessible. Fruits, vegetables, eggs, and milk are hard to obtain. "We live now through the port," adds Salim. "If it closes, the city will die."
At night, the streets are quiet. Restaurants remain closed. The long, sandy beaches, licked by turquoise waves, are empty. For many, work has ceased. "There's no jobs here now. Just helping the people, that's our job now," says Majdi Lameen, 36, who ran an import-export business before the revolution.
Early on in the siege, the people of Misrata rallied to protect one another. Food was distributed to families in need. Private clinics opened to the public and provided medicine to the wounded for free. Shipping containers filled with sand were positioned across the roads, to impede the progress of Qaddafi's vehicles.
A flow of volunteers came to help, arriving on boats from Benghazi and Malta. Misrata's diaspora has returned to help. I meet Libyans who came back from Canada, England, and Switzerland to work. "We didn't consider it our country," one of them tells me in fluent, accent-less English. "We considered it his country. And he ruined it." The privileged son of a prominent Libyan family, he once traveled the world. Now he fights at the front line.