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Journey to a ghost town in Libya

Libya, April 4, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps  </span>
    A bombed home in Ajdabiya, Libya. Photo: Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

I drove from Benghazi to Ajdabiya yesterday to assess the humanitarian situation in the town after Gaddafi forces advanced a few days ago and pushed the frontline fighting to the western gate of the city. Ajdabiya is about 100 miles from Benghazi. Under normal circumstances it would take about 1.5 hours to get there, but the situation here in Libya is far from normal.

After more than six weeks of fighting since the uprising began, the strains on the Opposition’s resources are starting to appear. Fuel for cars appears is difficult to find in villages outside of Benghazi. Along the way we looked for fuel, but passed gas station after station that turned us away explaining their tanks were empty. Finally we found a station that had fuel, but their electricity was out so their pumps didn’t work. After a long wait and some serious arm-twisting, the station manger found a generator to run the pumps. As soon as we started fueling our car, other cars on the road saw us getting fuel and quickly descended on the station for fuel. By the time we pulled away there was a line of about 20 cars waiting to get fuel.

We drove onward towards Ajdabiya and saw the wreckage of the recent Coalition forces air strikes. Burned out tanks and military vehicles from Gaddafi’s forces were strewn along the road for miles. The bombing strikes appeared to be incredibly precise — Gaddafi military vehicles were hit, but everything else appeared untouched.

After passing through a sandstorm and then dodging a herd of camels crossing the highway, we finally reached Ajdabiya. I was in Ajdabiya just about two weeks prior to this trip, but the city we entered did not resemble the Ajdabiya I remembered. It was a total ghost town. No one was on the streets and all the shops were closed. The only place that seemed to be open and function was the hospital that was receiving patients wounded on the front line.

Just a couple days ago, when Gaddafi’s forces were poised to take the city, almost everyone fled their homes for safety. They headed to villages outside the city, to Benghazi and farther east.

I met one man who had his home hit by a mortar strike from Gaddafi forces. He and his two brothers and their families all lived in the home; 25 people in total, of which 18 where children. The mortar came in through the roof and landed in the middle of the living room. Miraculously, no one was seriously hurt as they were all in the bedrooms sleeping. Everyone in the family fled to a village about 40 Kilometers away for safety. Just the father remained at the house to protect their property.

Local leaders reported that over 200 homes were hit during the attacks and have sustained varying levels of damage. When the residents of Ajdabiya can finally come back to their homes, many will have a lot of repair work and clean-up to do.