Media War Is 'As Important' As Misrata Battles

May 9, 2011
Originally published on May 9, 2011 6:51 am
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This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to get a glimpse now at the besieged Libyan city of Misrata as it looks to one of its residents. The city is surrounded on three sides by the forces of Moammar Gadhafi. The only way in and out for the rebels is by sea. And even that route is sometimes too dangerous for ships. The rebels who want to hold the city include a man who went to get help and who told his story to NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.

MOHAMMED: I've seen young men who have just vanished, you know. We didn't have one bone to collect. So many horrific injuries and horrific deaths. I've seen a piece of a man being buried. Just this little piece. I never thought I'd ever see that in my life.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Surrounded by the relatively peaceful calm of Benghazi, Mohammed - who doesn't want his last name used for fear of reprisals - seems dazed and haunted by the carnage he's witnessed. This is the first time he's been out of Misrata since the uprising began, and the normality surrounding him is jarring.

MOHAMMED: The reality of war has hit me very, very hard. But I have to go on, you know. It's a battle, and we'll make sure we win it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Dressed in a sharply tailored gray suit and a button-down shirt, Mohammed looks like the affluent businessman he used to be. Then the uprising happened, and Mohammed was drawn into the cause of freeing Misrata from Gadhafi's rule.

MOHAMMED: Misrata became an island in a sea of un-liberated cities. And this is when our biggest fears were realized. We knew then that that we're in for a very, very, very hard battle and Gadhafi will do anything to take Misrata back. And we knew - everybody knew then that Misrata would define the unity of Libya.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With his fluent English, Mohammed founded a media center in one of the beleaguered hospitals and with a few friends organized to tell the world what was happening in Misrata.

MOHAMMED: We decided that the media war is as important as the battlefield. Even if not more important. And it's the best thing I've ever done, honestly. It's the most meaningful thing I've ever done.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's now one of the main representatives of the city. This week, he's leading a delegation from Misrata travelling to Qatar, to plead for aid and weapons. Qatar has been instrumental in the rebellion, giving gas and supplies to the rebel-controlled east.

He also met this weekend with the Transitional National Council, the de facto rebel government here. He hoped to find a leadership that was attuned and aware to what was happening in Misrata, but he says he was disappointed. The TNC, he says, is hobbled by infighting and political machinations. Their focus doesn't seem to be the very real fight that is still taking place in cities and towns across Libya.

MOHAMMED: What we would like is to put Misrata on the full front of their efforts. The tyrant is not toppled yet.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The cost of that fight rises every day. Mohammed has suffered his own loss. Two weeks ago, on what had been an uncharacteristically quiet Saturday evening, Mohammed's father was killed in shelling by Gadhafi forces in Misrata.

MOHAMMED: By 11:30, one shell landed very, very close. And we knew it was somebody that we knew. And somebody shouted that it was my father's house. And I ran to my father's house and I found him dead.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Mohammed's father was 92. The shells obliterated his home. Misrata is a city that is still populated with hundreds of thousands of people - children, women, the elderly. Because it's surrounded on all sides by Gadhafi's forces, the only way in or out is through the port which is constantly being attacked, so very few civilians have been able to flee. And so, life continues amidst the fighting.

Mohammed's wife and six children all under the age of 13 are in Misrata, along with so many other families, struggling to live with the daily realities of war.

MOHAMMED: They stay at home, and they play in the garden. When they hear the bombing and the shells they run inside, and they're traumatized. My six-year-old daughter doesn't sleep alone at night. She can't. She waits for me to come home and she holds my hand and she sleeps with me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: How do deal with that? What do you tell them everyday?

MOHAMMED: If you die for your rights of freedom and dignity, then you are considered a martyr in our religion. So those who lose loved ones in the battle are congratulated, not consoled.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Benghazi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.