MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) - Months of bombardment by Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, and a central role in the war that ended his rule, have bound the devastated Libyan city of Misrata into an extended military family that runs on trust.
But as Misrata, a commercial hub whose notables opened their wallets to arm a volunteer force, flexes its muscle in the new world of Libyan politics in which gunmen speak as loudly as politicians, it is increasingly inclined to trust no one.
A collective memory of suffering, already expressed as a grudge with the rest of Libya in the scramble for political power after Gaddafi, has also taken on a bitter edge at home.
Even local patriots now wonder about the prospects for a peaceful political transition across the country, if hometown solidarity begins to fray.
“Misrata belongs to those who stood up for us, not those who left when things got tough,” reads a slogan spray-painted on walls across the city - and the military checkpoints surrounding it - in reference those who fled the shelling Misrata endured after it rose up against Gaddafi in February, and who now seek to return.
The message, some argue, only reflects fear of the havoc a fifth column of Gaddafi’s scattered loyalists might unleash if military vigilance lapses as Misrata, along with the rest of the country, struggles to resume a normal life.
“It’s just because the next city away is Sirte,” says one would-be returnee at a checkpoint outside Misrata, referring to Gaddafi’s hometown some 140 km (87 miles) distant, where Misrata fighters are attempting to crush one of the last pockets of pro-Gaddafi resistance with barrages of rockets and mortars.
“There has to be some kind of security procedure, because there is still a war,” said that man, who declined to be identified as he waited for gunmen to let him drive toward Misrata, accompanied by a resident in better standing who would vouch for him. “I’m not worried. They’ll let me in.”
Those who would return need neighbours or members of a sufficiently respected military unit to testify to their bona fides, they say.
“We’re only looking for people who acted against Misrata and its population, including people who committed kidnappings. They are at large,” says Mohammed Abu Sneina, a commander with the city’s Al-Hariga militia, which mans one such checkpoint at Dafniyah, about 20 km outside Misrata.
“Those people will be taken aside. When it happens for routine cases, it’s temporary.”
That routine vigilance hints at strains in a network of good faith that the city’s people invoke, wherever the last stages of the war against Gaddafi brings them.
At tanker trucks parked alongside the road linking Misrata to Sirte, gunmen returning from a day’s fighting fill their vehicles - often adorned with the makeshift rocket launchers that are the tools of their war, or loaded with objects, such as equipment from the recently conquered Sirte airport, that are its spoils.
They register their license plate numbers in ledgers kept for the Misrata businessmen who send the fuel, and also fund the makeshift rest stops which ply commuting gunmen with tea, tuna sandwiches and packaged cakes. No money changes hands.
Closer to home, three words recur in Misratans’ descriptions of themselves and their relations: ‘tarabut’, or being connected to one another; ‘tadamon’, or solidarity; and ‘takaatuf’, or standing shoulder-to-shoulder.
Departures from those ideals leave some in the city, where empty shell casings that mark its bombardment have pride of place in the china cabinets of affluent homes, wondering what form wartime unity will take now.
A resident affiliated with one of the city’s most celebrated brigades recounts the experience of the child of a returned family ostracized by classmates when classes resumed at the local primary school.
“This is shameful, and it frightens me, because it will turn people against one another,” said this on-again, off-again militiaman. “If Gaddafi sees this, wherever he is, he must be laughing.”
The ominous shades in Misrata’s portrait of itself are visible in its Goushi district, once populated in part by black Libyans with roots in the city of Tawargha, which lies about 40 km south of Misrata.
Tawargha provided a staging ground and some recruits for Gaddafi’s campaign to crush the uprising against him in Misrata.
The city’s fighters recount a campaign of rape and other atrocities waged by volunteers from Tawargha, and circulate a Misrata battle plan purportedly seized from the headquarters of a paramilitary unit led by one of Gaddafi’s sons that describes a role for irregulars from Tawargha.
Misrata’s fighters sacked Tawargha in August. It is now partly in ruins and its former population displaced across Libya, including Sirte. Goushi itself appears emptier than much of the rest of Misrata, if less damaged by shells and rockets.
Fawzi Moreiweis runs a local charity with offices in the district supporting local fighters maimed in the campaign against Gaddafi. He echoes charges, leveled in the capital and elsewhere, that local authorities and the ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) have betrayed the wounded, and waste or misuse funds to intended treat them.
NTC proposals to compensate the wounded with housing, and calls for reconciliation and self-control from fighters - apparently sparked by criticism of attacks on Africans and dark-skinned Libyans branded as Gaddafi’s mercenaries - inspire his scorn.
“They say, don’t mistreat the mercenaries, these Nigerians. Well, you are standing before heroes,” he says, gesturing toward militiamen who are among the city’s growing ranks of amputees.
“This money for housing should be given to the wounded directly,” he says. “We have empty houses right here.”
One of those fighters, Mohammed Marzouq, calls the jockeying for shares in a transitional government, in which representation of Misrata is emerging as a stumbling block, an insult.
“If it wasn’t for the people who paid the price with their limbs, this revolution would never have succeeded,” he says. “What right do they have to divide up seats? Did anyone ask me?
“If anyone tries to push Misrata aside, we will put him aside. Misrata will take what it is owed.”
Fighters from the city who set up shop in the capital since converging there with others from across Libya to assault Gaddafi’s compound in August agree.
They, like Misrata’s fighters on the remaining front, roar laughter over a widely circulated recording that appears to catch a respected Misrata commander berating the NTC military spokesman, who works from a Tripoli hotel, over his absence in the field.
And like fighters from other regions, notably the western town of Zintan, they dismiss the head of Tripoli’s military council, Abdulhakim Belhadj, who has called for military units from elsewhere to pull their weapons from the capital.
“Does he have the experience and the means to secure all the ministries, embassies, vital institutions?” asked Adel al-Gallal, whose Jaysh Misrata brigade runs a checkpoint outside a landmark Tripoli shopping center.
“We don’t know that he does. That’s why we’re here,” he said, a day after fighters from Zintan marched on a position of Belhadj’s in the capital, before turning back. That incident came after non-Tripoli fighters distributed a derisive, mock-formal arrest warrant for Belhadj that resembled wanted posters for fugitive members of Gaddafi’s regime.
Abu Bakr Mohammed, who once built platforms for wedding ceremonies, has a twisted, raised scar from a shrapnel wound on his forehead to mark his experience of the siege of Misrata.
He sees his presence in Tripoli and status as a soldier, as necessary, but ultimately worrisome.
“I’ll go back as soon as things have settled down. I want to go back for good. I want a civil society, not an army existence,” he says. “I want to get married, and I was going to, in April, before all this started.”
“I’d never even seen a gun, let alone carried one around and shot it. I don’t know how long it’s good for everybody to be doing this.”
Editing by Maria Golovnina