In Misrata, collective effort to fight Gaddafi

DAFNIYA, Libya Mon Jul 18, 2011 10:12am EDT

A rebel fighter fires a heavy machine gun towards pro-Muammar Gaddafi forces on the outskirts of Zlitan, near Misrata's western frontline, July 8, 2011. REUTERS/Thaier al-Sudani

A rebel fighter fires a heavy machine gun towards pro-Muammar Gaddafi forces on the outskirts of Zlitan, near Misrata's western frontline, July 8, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Thaier al-Sudani

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DAFNIYA, Libya (Reuters) - The small hand-packed plastic bag appears to contain just nuts and raisins, but inside is a printed note on a strip of paper from a widows' group in Misrata for the rebels who are fighting forces loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi west of the city.

"The women of Misrata are not afraid," the note reads in Arabic, "because Misrata gives birth to brave men."

After rising up against Gaddafi's 41-year rule back in February, a force of rebels made up mostly of civilians from Libya's third largest city has pushed his better-equipped troops to a line around 36 km (22 miles) west of Misrata.

After costly early mistakes in the open ground outside the city, the rebels are learning how to fight a more conventional war.

Although the rebels have forced Gaddafi's troops out of the city, Misrata is still surrounded and its inhabitants are well aware that they fight with their backs to the sea.

In the face of dire adversity, the Misrati, or people of Misrata, are rallying together to feed, clothe and boost the morale of the predominantly young men who are fighting for them.

"We do this because we want our young men to know that we are with them," said Iman El Fortia, a member of the Misrata Freedom Widows that bags up donated food, clothes and other supplies for men on the front line with various notes of support.

"We want them to know that in the fire and the bullets, they are not alone."

Fighters on the front line say the messages are a major morale booster.

"When I opened a package and read the note, it raised my spirits more and more," said Mohammed Turky, an 18-year-old rebel.

"When they raise our spirits with these notes, we are more solid and active in the front line."

The community effort here includes ordinary people across the city and Libyans who have come home to help, including doctors to treat the many wounded.

Even the city's wealthy private business owners contribute, some of whom fund, feed and arm their own rebel units.

"Everyone must do their duty to the best of their ability," said Mohammed Raied, chairman of Al Naseem, an ice cream, yogurt and fermented milk company. "We have the enemy in front of us and the sea behind us."

Raied has brought in weapons and food into the city and provides ice cream and yogurts to troops on the front line. The fighters receive cold water and regular meals from a field kitchen on the front line, all provided by the city's surrounded population.

"There is no way to go," Raied said. "So we have to fight."

REVOLUTIONARY CAFE

A few miles behind the front line west of Misrata, rebel fighters pause at an impromptu service station for a coffee, snacks or an oil change -- all free of charge.

"It's amazing the things that people bring here for us to give the thowar," said Abu Ahmed, who runs the catering side of the operation in Dafniya west of Misrata with a friend and a cousin. "We have paid for almost none of this ourselves."

"Thowar" means "revolutionary" in Arabic and features in the name of his outfit -- Makhar Abtal Thowar Misrata, or the Misrata Revolutionary Heroes' Cafe.

Minutes earlier a man pulled up with a truck full of melons and rebel fighters fresh off the front line after a long, hot day in the sand walked away with as many as they could carry.

"Many of them, we don't even know their names," Ahmed, who used to work for an oil company, said. "But the people of Misrata are doing a great thing.

People drop off homemade cakes, sweets, coffee, water, juice at the cafe every day and Ahmed said they serve around 2,000 free coffees a day. Mahmoud Misrata runs the mechanical side of the operation. Other than an initial investment in machinery, the oil is donated by local people.

"We want to do all that we can to help the fighters in their cause," said Misrata, a businessman before the uprising.

Frequent oil changes are necessary on the front line because vehicles suffer from the heat and sand here. The two men gave assumed names as they said they have property and friends in Tripoli and fear Gaddafi's government would harm both.

One young fighter who gave his name as Mohammed sat enjoying a coffee and a sticky cake. He said stopping here helps him cope with the war.

"It feels almost like after a day after school," said Mohammed, 20, a university student when the uprising came. "Here I can think about today before going home."

Another, who gave his name as Abdulaziz, said this gesture from the Misrati had boosted his morale.

"It reminds me why I fight," he said. When asked what he did before the uprising, Abdulaziz ran a hand through his curly hair and said "not very much" to laughter from his friends.

Ahmed said the operation is looking for a location closer to the front line - which moved forward 6 km (4 miles) last week -- so fighters don't have so far to go for a coffee and oil change.

Utility workers were working to restore power closer to the front line, he said. As he spoke, the assembled fighters cheered as a large utility vehicle headed west toward the front to restore power, workers seated along the sides.

"Something wonderful has awakened inside the people of Misrata," Ahmed said. "They are not afraid any more."

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

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