A slow boat to Misrata

Rebels leave Benghazi to help their comrades in the besieged city
Ruth Sherlock
 A slow boat to Misrata
Maurizio Gambarini/Keystone Press

Kalashnikovs raised in the air, the fighters on board unloaded rounds into the sky as the fishing boat pulled away from the dock. Friends and relatives cheered the men from Benghazi’s shore, waving, crying and praying they would see their loved ones again. Minutes before, a martyrs’ prayer had been read as the fighters readied to journey to the besieged western Libyan city of Misrata. In three days’ time they would be fighting alongside Misrata comrades in ferocious street battles against Col. Moammar Gadhafi’s snipers and tanks, as the regime sought to crush the rebellion in the city just 200 km west of Tripoli.

As the Benghazi coastline faded, and the Victory—an ancient wooden fishing boat—undulated in the heavy waves, the fighters wrapped away their machine guns and buried their ammunition in boxes of tomatoes. If the Victory were to pass NATO patrols off the coast, she had to look like an aid ship instead of a vessel carrying 12 young Misrata-bound “fighters” who in reality had never before raised a gun. “I haven’t fired it yet,” said Mohammed Ali, 23, of his Kalashnikov. As the sun began to sink, the men excitedly pointed at the nearby waters: “Dolphins! Dolphins!”

Most of the fighters have relatives in Misrata. But as Gadhafi’s forces seek to choke off the town, cutting power supplies and phone networks, there’s been an information blackout. “All my family are in Misrata,” said Salah Edin, 19. “I haven’t been able to speak with any of them in over a month.” The ship’s captain, Mohammed Hassan—an eccentric figure in full navy uniform, but with a revolutionary scarf banded around his head, cursed Gadhafi. “He uses us like a pack of cards, and then when he is finished he throws us away.”

The night seas were rough, and the boat rocked violently. Many of the fighters became sick, clinging to the sides of the boat, their faces wet with the salt spray of the waves. For two days the weathered vessel battled the sea, heading westward. Twice NATO frigates patrolling the international waters approached, although without incident. But then, with the GPS signalling only 15 km to Misrata, out of a fading late afternoon sky a Canadian helicopter appeared. The Sea King dived and circled the Victory three times, putting a temporary stop to its voyage as it positioned itself in the ship’s path, its blades hollowing out the sea below as it hovered, blustering the wooden boat left and right, and flashed warning signals.

From the open, darkened doorway the helicopter gun pointed at the boat. The rebel fighters tore cardboard boxes into signs, scribbling “Misrata logistics” in barely discernible green ink, shouting “Allahu akhbar” and trying to give the “V” for victory sign. Others shook onions and tomatoes at the chopper in an attempt to show there were no weapons on board. The charade intensified: some of the rebels stopped the salutations to pose for photographs with the chopper in the background. They then wrote “call us” on flimsy cardboard, waving a satellite phone.

The Canadian aviators looked on in bafflement. Then, evidently deciding that the eccentric bunch in the ship below might be mad but not dangerous, they veered off.

As the stars emerged and the Victory neared Misrata, nervous tension silenced those on the boat. The city’s port was controlled by the “thawar”—revolutionaries—the rebels believed, but in such fluid circumstances that may have changed while the Victory was at sea. “Keep quiet, whisper—we call this security procedures,” said Capt. Hassan as the boat quietly glided into the darkened port, engine low, lights off.

Seconds later, as the rebels shouted “stop” and “go” directions for docking the boat, bullets began to fly. Some splintered the Victory’s wooden boards. One fighter in the sleeping cabin dove to the floor, his pudgy figure shaking as he hugged his gun. “Thawar, thawar,” the rebels screamed, desperately trying to identify themselves.

Gradually the shooting subsided and the rebels disembarked from the Victory. War breeds mistrust: it had indeed been fellow rebels firing on them; the Victory’s radio had broken down, and there had been no way to warn of their arrival. With each side’s loyalties ascertained, the men hugged and shook hands vigorously, relieved the incident had not ended in tragedy. Not even an injury.

Together they unloaded the Victory. The port shook with the constant explosions from shells fired by Gadhafi’s nearing artillery, which the newly arrived rebels would soon face in the coming days.