SIRTE, Libya — Families flowed out of Moammar Gadhafi's besieged hometown Tuesday, exhausted and battered by weeks of hiding from shelling and gunbattles with no meat or vegetables or electricity – but unbowed in their deep distrust of the revolutionaries trying to crush this bastion of the old regime.
The fleeing residents were a sign of how resistance to Libya's new rulers remains entrenched among those who benefited from Gadhafi's nearly 42-year rule. Many of those fleeing Sirte said that the stiff defense against revolutionary fighters who have been trying to battle their way into Sirte for three weeks is coming not from Gadhafi's military units but from residents themselves, volunteering to take up arms.
"This so-called revolution is not worth it," said Moussa Ahmed, 31, who sat in a line of cars waiting to go through a checkpoint of fighters searching those exiting the city. "But we can't say anything now; when we meet the revolutionaries we have to hide our feelings."
The battle for Sirte, on the Mediterranean coast 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli, has become the focal point of the campaign by Libya's new rulers to break the last remnants of Gadhafi's rule. More than six weeks after the then-rebels swept into Tripoli and ousted the longtime leader, Gadhafi remains on the run, his whereabouts unknown, and his supporters remain in control not only of Sirte but also the city of Bani Walid and parts of the desert south.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Tuesday that the NATO air mission over Libya can't end and the political process can't begin until Sirte is taken. Libya's de facto Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril said Monday that Sirte must fall before the transitional leadership can declare victory and set a timeline for elections.
The fight has been grueling. After three weeks, revolutionary forces have managed to get just over a mile (two kilometers) into the city. Heavily armed Gadhafi loyalists are holed up in the Ouagadougou Conference Center, a grandiose hall built by Gadhafi in the city center for international summits, and in the city hospital, revolutionary commanders said.
On Tuesday, fighters eased shelling to allow residents to escape, and hundreds of cars filled with men, women and children lined up at checkpoints at Sirte's eastern exit. Mothers carrying babies in blankets stood by the side of the road, their children clutching their robes, as revolutionary fighters rifled through their cars, searching through mattresses, clothes and other belongings for hidden weapons.
"We haven't had vegetables or meat to eat for over a month," said one of the mothers, Attiya Mohammed. "The water is polluted, and forget about electricity – it's been out since the middle of August."
The city was a war zone, she said, buildings pockmarked with bullet holes and parts of the main hospital demolished.
Like many, she had been afraid to step outside her home. "The city was our prison," she said. "If you left your house you risked being shot and killed."
There was a palpable dislike between those fleeing and the fighters searching through their belongings, though there was no visible harassment and families said they were well treated, some given food and water. During his rule, Gadhafi turned Sirte into virtually a second capital, pouring in investments and giving residents prominent positions. As a result, support for the regime ran high – and many of those fleeing were dismayed at the fall of the old order.
Many of the fighters besieging Sirte are from the neighboring city of Misrata, which rose up against Gadhafi early and was brutalized under a bloody, weekslong siege by his forces during the revolt that began in mid-February. As a result, there is little love lost between the two cities.
One Misrata revolutionary at the checkpoint, al-Hussein al-Sireiti, said they find four or five cars a day with hidden weapons.
"We also check for people with bullet injuries, because that means they likely were fighting for Gadhafi," he said. They also search for those on a list of known Gadhafi loyalists wanted for interrogation, he said.
Among those fleeing, Fatima al-Gadhafi – from the same tribe the ousted leader – bent her head over her five-month old baby girl and sobbed softly.
"They wanted a revolution – so do it in Misrata and leave the rest of us alone," she said.
Wearing a black headscarf, her face freckled from the sun, she said she had never met revolutionary forces before Tuesday as she exited Sirte. She told one fighter to stop shooting his rifle so near her family's car, but he refused.
"He said Moammar used to do worse than this, but I never saw anything bad from the old regime. We lived in safety and peace always," she said.
Halima Salem, 44, sat patiently in her son's pickup truck while he showed their papers to fighters at the checkpoint. The truck bed was filled with blankets, appliances and clothes. In the seat behind her, four birdcages were filled with colorful love birds and canaries chirping away oblivious of sound of shelling.
"I couldn't leave them behind, they're like one of the family," she exclaimed, smiling at her birds.
She said she had been reluctant to abandon her home because gangs have been looting houses – she wasn't sure what side they were loyal to, if either. During shelling, she hid under the bed in her master bedroom, clutching the youngest children. Finally, after bad shelling the night before, her sons forced her to pack up.
"How can it be that Libyans are doing this to us? Aren't we the same people?" she lamented, shaking her head. "I feel bad for our (former Gadhafi) army ... They were honorable men with high morals. And now this chaos."
She and many others on the way out said volunteer residents were fighting in the city's defense. "They are all normal men," said Moussa Ahmed, who was leaving to undergo treatment for a kidney stone, but said he would return to Sirte as soon as his could.
"This so-called revolution is just not worth anything, not worth the blood of Libyans that has been spilled," said a friend who was driving Ahmed. He refused to give his name for fear of reprisals.
Staffers from the International Committee of the Red Cross crossed the front lines into Sirte and delivered urgently needed oxygen and other medical supplies to the hospital Monday. Aid workers were providing food for thousands who fled.
At the checkpoint out of Sirte, fighters propped up hoods to look around the engines for hidden weapons or ammunition. They piled mattresses, blankets, food and children's toys by the side of the road.
Fighters passed around a bottle of colorless liquid pulled from one pile of blankets.
"Is it alcohol?" one fighter asked.
It turned out to be eau de toilette, and the fighters gave it back to the family.
"I don't really care if they drink," said al-Sireiti. "As long as there is no weapons in the car, the drinking is between him and his God."
(This version corrects length of Gadhafi's rule to 42 years. )