BENGHAZI, 18 April 2011 (IRIN) - Civilians evacuated from the war-ravaged western Libyan city of Misrata have described the humanitarian situation there as grim, saying families are barely able to find enough food and water, that medical treatment is hard to come by, and corpses are lying in the streets.
"We could hear the snipers picking people off in the street outside," said Mariam Doua, a teacher from the western Libyan city of Misrata. "Eventually some [rebel fighters] came to lead us to safety in the middle of the night when the militia were dozing. We covered the mouths of the children and ran out into the street, barefoot.
"Eventually we made it to the port and were able to get on a fishing boat to [rebel-controlled] Benghazi."
Prior to their escape, Doua's family laid low at the family house on Tripoli Street, Misrata's frontline, for four days before spending two weeks at the house of a relative, living on two bottles of water and a few cans of food.
No official transport has yet been arranged for people trying to flee Misrata, but many are reaching Benghazi by fishing boat, some of which are not sea-worthy.
Doua's mother-in-law, Halima, said she saw entire families lying dead in the street outside their home.
"I lost my son; he was killed by a sniper," she said. "Another of my sons was evacuated to a hospital in Tunisia. The third is still fighting in Misrata. When we left, the street was a war zone. There were corpses in the gutter and in the vegetable market where I buy produce. The militia raped women, slaughtered men and killed children."
She showed IRIN wounds on her leg and abdomen where she was hit by stray bullets.
"I bled for days because it was not safe to travel to the hospital," she said. "I have seen a doctor in Benghazi but I am lucky. Many people are in a worse situation than me. A friend was heavily pregnant and became anaemic after having no food. One of our cousins, who is paraplegic, was tortured by electrocution. Militia poured urine over his face and tried to strangle him with a plastic bag."
But, she said, when one of his captors recognized his surname, he was wheeled into the street and allowed to leave.
"I am sick because of what I saw," Halima added.
Raju, a dentist from Hyderabad in India who moved to Misrata in 2010, has had daily nightmares for three weeks, dreaming that government militia were trying to kill him.
"Last night was the first time I fell asleep without hearing shelling," said Raju, who arrived in Benghazi a few days ago from Misrata on a vessel chartered by the International Organization for Migration (IOM)
"The situation was horrendous," he told IRIN from a camp run by the Libyan Red Crescent. "I hid for 20 days in a house with very little food or water, living on whatever the [rebels] would bring me when it was safe to do so. One night a missile landed on the balcony."
Raju had hoped to earn enough money to pay for his eldest son's university education, but conflict broke out across Libya in February, and Misrata became a battleground almost impossible to flee.
Aid workers and rights groups say with attacks by pro-Gaddafi militia escalating in Misrata, a strategic city between Tripoli and Col Muammar Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, the situation there is dire. Residents told IRIN the contested city has become an obstacle because it has prevented Gaddafi from reaching Sirte.
"It is good to be in a safe place now," Raju said. "But this morning I woke at 3am in a cold sweat. I dreamt that my son called out to me, 'Papa, why are you dying and leaving me alone?' It will take me a long time to heal, but when I see my wife and kids, I'll forget everything.
"I left with the clothes I'm wearing now and my passport," he added. "The bank has closed so I could not withdraw the money I had earned. I don't expect I'll get it. I came to Libya to save up money for my family and I left without it. Even my degree certificate is gone. It was in the company office, which burnt down."
Red Crescent helping migrants
The Libyan Red Crescent says it is helping to establish contact with foreign nationals' embassies and consulates.
"Migrant workers require food and shelter, but the most important thing they need is contact with their families," spokesman Omar Abdusalam said. "Once the basic needs are taken care of, we try to establish contact with their embassies or consulates, and then the IOM takes over the process, transporting them to Egypt for onward travel."
Dina Jarbon, a Libyan Red Crescent volunteer from Benghazi, told IRIN she placed 127 two-minute satellite phone calls on 17 April to connect migrant workers with their families. "Most of the migrant workers hadn't had contact with their families for several weeks," she said. "Some families presumed their husband, son or father had been killed. I'm a mother so I knew how they might be feeling."
When 45-year-old Ghayasuddin, a mechanical engineer from Islamabad, called his wife after arriving in Benghazi from Misrata, she thought he had died. "Even though we only spoke for a minute, at least she knows I'm safe."
In Misrata more than 267 bodies had been brought to hospital morgues as of 15 April, most of them civilians, Human Rights Watch quoted local doctors as saying. It added that the number of dead is higher because some families have not brought their relatives to the morgues.
It said rocket fragments and remains in Misrata indicated the use - by both sides - of Soviet-designed Grad rocket launchers, often fired in salvos to cover a wide area and causing indiscriminate death and injury. Cluster munitions, which are banned by over 108 countries, have also reportedly been used.
The fighting has particularly been intense in the last four days. On 16 April, government forces hit the parking lot just outside the Zawiyat el-Mahjoub medical clinic in the residential Zawiya neighbourhood, apparently with an 82mm high explosive mortar round, spraying shrapnel into the clinic and wounding a medical technician and three other civilians.
The Libyan government denies targeting civilians in its fight against armed opposition fighters.
About 10,000 third-country nationals were living in Misrata when the unrest began, according to UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs The IOM, which is working to evacuate them, has been using a vessel able to carry 800 people, and it brought out 2,400 between 14 and 18 April. Another 3,600 are waiting.
But IOM is struggling to raise money: "We should not be put in a position of deciding who we save when so many people are in an appalling situation," said Fernando Calado, IOM's head of emergencies.
Some aid workers have begun arriving in Misrata, but say it is dangerous for teams based there. One of these is the Italian medical group, Emergency, which brought a surgical team in from Benghazi by sea. According to the organization, most of the nurses in Misrata's six hospitals - mainly from Philippines, Ukraine and Sudan - left when the bombing started.
"One thing that has touched me is the spirit in which Libyans are working together to take care of us," Raju said. "Even when I didn't have food, I would see the smiles on people's faces and my stomach would feel full. Despite the circumstances, we have been treated with excellence.
"Even the journey here, over 10-foot waves, was beautiful," he added. "On the boat I was given a piece of chicken. I relished it."