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Bernard-Henri Lévy

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Urbicide in Misrata

Posted: 06/10/11 10:33 AM ET

Rent a boat we happened on at Malta, since Misrata, surrounded by Qadhafi's troops and cut off from the world, can be reached only by sea.

After being turned down several times, find a Maltese sailor who, eager to make a dent in the debt he has incurred for his daughter's wedding next week, agrees to make the crossing with me and the members of the Libyan opposition who have accompanied me from France -- Ali Zeidan, Mansur Sayf al-Nasr, Bashir Sabbah, and Souleiman Fortia -- at the last minute, even though he is completely unfamiliar with the boat.

Sail for a night and a day and still another night, without any instruments to speak of on board, without really accurate maritime charts, finally arriving at this battered city of Misrata where, in the blackest of nights, on the deserted landing stage, silent but for a burst of Kalashnikov fire at the instant we come alongside, the city authorities and General Ramadan Alzarmouh, commander of the insurgent forces, await us.

Walk into a city without electricity, in virtually total darkness, only a half-moon in the midnight-blue sky revealing the ruins. No water, that's one thing. No cooking gas -- I won't say that's the norm but, since, I rapidly realize, there is practically nothing to eat, the inhabitants are putting up with it. But no electricity, that's something! There was a central power station, one for the entire city, that the tanks relentlessly bombarded until its last cistern of petrol exploded. The petrol cisterns burned for eight days. And the night the fire stopped, the last lights of the city went out. Thick, ash-laden clouds formed, like those at Fukushima, stagnating until just a few hours ago. And instead of the magnificent central power station they were so proud of, in the small hours of the morning, the Misratis discovered this ruin I perceive in the sole clarity of the headlights of cars waiting for us to pile into with our Libyan friends -- twisted iron, melted steel beams, crumpled and calcined sheet metal, punctured pipes, gigantic, creased, cast-iron plates, cables suspended in inverted girandoles, and a section of roof that remains intact, but that the flames have so thoroughly scorched that it looks like a golden frieze decorating the ledge of a temple.

Still by night, drive to the ruins of the Café central, this place of conviviality, this space of liberty, one of the rare locales where the youth of the city could gather, laugh, dream of a better future, perhaps without Qadhafi. And "that's what they haven't forgiven them", suggests Abdelhamid Fortia, son of the city representative to the CNT [National Transitional Council], former student at a prestigious British school who made the trip with us, along with his father; and that is why they pounded our café to its last plastic chair and its last juke box -- and now this disaster, a tomb for a defeated youth, requiem for its buried dreams.

The following morning, leave to look for the place where Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two courageous photographers, were killed on April 20th: this eviscerated building at the corner of two of the main roads of the city, this hole in the façade where Tim tried to slip in when the rocket shrapnel caught him. Tears in the eyes of Mohsin, the neighbor who tried to revive him, beneath a rain of shells that went on and on, before they took him to the hospital.
The hospital, precisely, where Dr. Khalid Abuflaga, overwhelmed and lacking everything, beginning with analgesics and anaesthesia, judges that the number of seriously wounded brought in from the front is already, this Monday, May 30th, at 5:00 PM, at 60, adding to the 6,000 others and the 1,600 dead of these past weeks. Seriously wounded, in Misrata, means heads half torn off, faces reduced to a pulp, dismembered bodies, cries of pain.

The day before, on May 29th, we went up to the front lines, a place called Abdul Raouf, where, in the dunes, the flags of Free Libya blending with a French flag, the insurgents protect what is left of their city.

From all this, I glean three lessons, at least.

I do not think I have ever seen a city so methodically reduced to rubble as Misrata. I remember Huambo, in Angola. Abyei in South Sudan. I witnessed the suffering of Sarajevo and of Vukovar. But I look over the ruins of Tripoli Street. The remaining shell of the City Hall. These blown away apartment buildings that have caved in upon themselves. These others, still standing, but the facades of which are riddled with shrapnel from bombs which two eyewitnesses maintain were fragmentation bombs. Or this other building, where a sniper unrelentingly went at it.

"We couldn't stop him," says a member of the City Council, "one would have said a serial sniper, a maniac, or maybe he had gone mad, just mad, and they nearly went mad in the house across from him, the one he was firing at. Why wouldn't he have been touched, too, by the general craziness?".

I see it all. I reflect upon this pure pleasure in shooting, killing, breaking. And I say to myself that there, in Misrata, we have reached the pinnacle of contemporary urbicidal insanity. Yes, urbicide. This word invented at the outset of the wars in ex-Yugoslavia by Bogdan Bogdanovic, the former mayor of Belgrade. This concept that, like the other, like genocide, implies premeditation, planning, a program. And that is precisely what must have happened in order to tear a city in two this way, right down the middle. That's it, that must be it, that governed this operation of disembowling, carving, and then, gutting. This attempt to annihilate a rebel city, it can't be just here, in the heat of combat, that that plan was conceived, but higher up and further away, in the capital, Tripoli -- from which this avenue where I am standing dared to usurp the name. And if I had any doubts about the orchestration of this urbicide, they would have disappeared when, in a corner of the City Hall in ruins that has miraculously been spared bombardment, a ghostly municipal employee, absurdly but courageously loyal to his post, shows me the little museum where he has taped to the walls, like treasures: the photos of neighbourhood martyrs, including the Anglo-Saxon photographers murdered on April 20th; a hundred or so passports of Nigerians, Malians, and Chadiens the insurgents have killed or taken prisoner; the counterfeit hundred-dollar or hundred-euro bills Qadhafi paid them with; and, in the midst of all that, a yellowed piece of paper, official looking, though with handwritten sketches and notes, designating the plan of entry and then of besieging the city -- what a confession!

The second thing I had to see to believe was the incredible courage demonstrated by the citizens. Warsaw resisted, but finally succumbed. The Spanish cities hung on (some, like Madrid, for a very long time), but the hour finally came when, exhausted, they had to surrender. Sarajevo was heroic, but the tanks were not in the city, they were at Lukavica, on the heights above the city, with the snipers. When, as in 1944 in Paris, the tanks are within the city walls, an allied force, a Leclerc Division, a Second Armoured Division, must always come from the outside to clear them out. Yet there, Qadhafi's tanks had entered the city. But if NATO destroyed a few, if it was the planes that bombarded, for example, four of them that were hidden under the concrete slab of the covered marketplace, the fact remains: most of these dozens of tanks, all those the Qadhafists had stationed near the mosques or stuck at the rare water points where the inhabitants came to stock up, those they had stationed at the entry to the hospital and even inside its grounds, those that were the most difficult to reach and, by definition, the most dangerous, were put out of commission by the inhabitants alone, nearly barehanded and with amazing courage. Molotov cocktais thrown into the mouths of canons.

Grenades launched into gun turrets like this one, in the carcass of this tank that raked the street parallel to Benghazi Street with fire and where we noticed, with horror, the remains of human tibias, recently burned. RPG7 shells fired point blank, on contact, hand-to-hand combat with the machine, a dance with the steel monster. The wilyness, as well, the marvel of ingenuity of the student, the engineer, the retired military man (a trace of genius which will probably forever remain without author) who discovered that rugs soaked in oil, placed before the treads of the tank at night when the tank crew member is resting, cause them to spin, slip, and fail to respond when the machine shakes into motion, turning the tank, in turn, into a target for tank killers. Or even this: when the insurgents want to attack but NATO is not there at all to cover them, or when their forces are too sparse and Qadhafi's are about to take advantage and advance against them, this other ingenious move, product of we'll never know whose brain, that consists of broadcasting pre-recorded sounds of planes from the loudspeakers of a few mosques, carpets of decoys relaying with the carpets of oil, sonor clouds that will lead one to believe that the allied armies stand watch. Misrata has resisted.

Bombarded again as she has never been, Misrata is still besieged but most of the center of the city has been liberated by her own. Building after building, street after street and with, each time, a wall of overturned trucks, containers, or bulldozers filled with sand, that lock in their latest advance. In forty days, Misrata has forced an infernal column to retreat. And, of this modest but, as yet, victorious march, this patient but sure reconquest that affords us the opportunity, this night, to walk along through the city streets where there's not a soul, just a few cats, without being fired on, I know, I repeat, of scarcely any other example.

And the third lesson, finally, is that a true army has come out of this battle of Misrata -- disciplined, seasoned, accustomed to street fighting and, most of all, extremely efficient. On the Cyrenaican front, I saw courageous men. I admired the intrepid chebabs, ready to take any risk to defend the spirit, and the living, of Benghazi. Except, it is the planes that saved the city of Benghazi, just before the tanks invaded. They are the ones, behind France and England, who prevented a bloodbath. Whereas here, in Misrata, the tanks, once more, had entered, and it is the citizens who did the work of the planes and, in hand-to-hand combat on the ground, had to destroy them or make them retreat. In the western part of the city, I visited secret workshops where the arms of the insurgents were produced. I saw them mount 12-millimeter canons on shotguns. Bouquets of shells torn off enemy tanks that were broken up to adapt them to machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks. I saw humble vehicles like the vegetable van driven by the little delivery man who picked me up at the border and drove me all the way to Tobruk when I first arrived in Libya, their grills armoured with double plates of cast iron joined together with cement at the middle, transformed into battering rams. I have seen those that, with a semi-circular plate soldered, on the contrary, to the back, resembled the chariots of Ben-Hur. Or then again, those with enormous cast iron wings at the sides in front, providing shelter for two, three, sometimes four combattants squatting behind them who, when the vehicle arrives at its objective, spring forth at the last second, like devils. And then I have seen, at the front, men who are overwhelmed but not broken, horrified but determined -- I have seen men who have lived through ordeal by fire and who, emaciated, their eyes glistening with fatigue and hunger, are ready to stand up to enemy fire and, with their makeshift arms, to retaliate. Where is the army of Free Libya? Who, when the time comes, when the French helicopters will have opened the way, will march upon Tripoli? Well, voilà -- Misrata.