I have no idea how I would react if war came to my own city. Perhaps this is because in a place like Sydney, Australia, it is, at least in the current geopolitical situation, almost entirely unimaginable. Given the choice of fleeing or fighting against an oppressive government willing to use force and violence to kill protestors, I’m not sure whether I’d stay and fight or get on a boat to New Zealand.
In recent months, millions of people in Libya, and indeed, in other countries in the region, have been forced to make this difficult choice of whether to stay and fight or flee and seek refuge elsewhere. Despite the possibility of armed conflict never having been so remote as it is in a country like Australia, I suspect that many of these people never really imagined being faced with such a choice. It is all very well to talk tough at times, but when faced with a genuine and potentially lethal threat, when confronted by the awful reality of bullets, bombs and rockets, many people understandably lose their nerve. Just as, by the same token, many people find an inner strength and defiance in the face of abject fear; enough to take up arms and risk everything.
I wonder at times if being an atheist colours my thinking on this matter. This life is all I have and I have no desire to put myself in harm’s way. Yes, I still have ideals and strong beliefs in human rights and human dignity, in freedom and justice, but I don’t see the point of fighting to achieve something I won’t be there to enjoy, unless, of course, by “fighting”, we mean taking some form of democratic action, and not picking up a weapon. I’d fight in the courts, protest on the streets, blog, whine and share information on the internet, but if bombs, rockets and bullets are involved, I cannot honestly say how I would respond. It would be foolish and gung-ho to assume I’d act like a “hero”.
Perhaps if I believed in an afterlife the idea of dying for a cause might seem more palatable, yet even then, there are enough pleasures in this life that I have yet to explore, and, having no offspring, I would leave next to nothing behind. It would seem foolish to put all one’s eggs in one basket. In truth, I don’t think I’m much of a candidate for martyrdom.
With very rare exception, I don’t honestly believe anyone wants to die. Suicide, despite being alarmingly common, effects a very small percentage of the population, and many of those who do commit suicide are shown to have done it as a cry for help; in the hope that people would step in and their life might improve. In conflict zones, there are certainly those who would be martyrs, but only a very small number of actual suicide bombers and fighters. Some fighters become so enraged with their enemy, either through moral offence or personal loss, that they lose their sense of self-preservation and no longer care for their own personal safety, yet again, this accounts for a relatively small proportion of people involved in combat. The vast bulk of soldiers hope to return home, they fight to stay alive, they fight so they can spend time with their loved ones, and, whatever the politics of the situation, whatever the bigger goals, when engaged in a skirmish, they fight to protect themselves and their comrades in arms. And, indeed, many lose their nerve and find they cannot fight; they take cover, or retreat from the onslaught. And, really, who can blame them, faced as they are with lethal force?
I have, over the last few months, developed a deep admiration for the rebel fighters in Libya, and especially for those who have withstood the siege of Misurata, Libya’s third largest city. A not insignificant number of rebel fighters have had some previous military training, through national service or as defecting soldiers, yet the bulk of the fighters are regular citizens who have been willing to risk everything, either through a desire to overthrow Gaddafi, or simply self-preservation.
The conflict came to Misurata in February when protesters in the city, inspired by events in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets and were arrested by security forces. Larger protests followed the initial arrests, during which security forces fired upon the protesters. These events erupted into an open conflict between pro and anti-Gaddafi forces, and by the 23rd of February, the rebels had driven Gaddafi’s forces from the city.
What followed was a long three months of bitter fighting over the city and its important assets, such as a military airbase and Misurata’s new airport. In early March, Gaddafi’s forces attempted to retake the city, sending in soldiers and tanks, which penetrated as far as the city centre. The people of Misurata had little choice but to use whatever they could to defend themselves against the Libyan Army’s repeated assaults. They were subjected to rocket and mortar attacks, forced to engage in bitter street fighting, shelled by artillery and fired upon by tanks and other armoured vehicles, and shot by snipers arrayed on the top of buildings around the city centre.
The pro-Gaddafi forces, whilst initially making significant gains, were heavily pressed by the rebels in the city, especially once NATO began to conduct airstrikes against Gaddafi’s forces in and around the city. The people of Misurata showed great resolve, not only in taking up arms to defend themselves, but also in finding ingenious ways to prevent tanks from entering the city centre, making roadblocks of containers from the shipping port by filling them with sand. They used a combination of captured and home-made weapons with which to fight. The estimates of dead and wounded vary significantly, but somewhere between 400 and 700 rebels and civilians died during the fighting, with the city’s medical committee stating that almost 4000 had been wounded.
Irrespective of the final figures for this conflict, the simple fact is that none of these deaths or injuries ought to have occurred. Gaddafi’s response to his people’s desire for greater political freedom was to shoot them in the streets. Rather than acknowledging this desire for change and overseeing a process of reform or transition, his response was violent oppression. Once the firing starts, unless the people are so overwhelmed by force as to be cowed, there is little chance of it stopping in a hurry. Events elsewhere in Libya made this nigh impossible, with rebel forces active in the east and in the Nafusa mountain region, the people of Misurata were sustained not only by fear of reprisals should the city be recaptured by Gaddafi, but also out of hope for a desperate victory. It was the imminent assault on Benghazi, and the siege of Misurata primarily, which influenced the United Nations Security Council to vote in favour of military intervention.
The Libyan uprising, or civil war if you will, has had a dreadful impact on the lives of Libyan civilians. Thousands of people, especially young men, have been killed or wounded throughout the course of the conflict. Latest figures suggest a total of roughly 11000 casualties since the fighting began in February. None of these deaths need have occurred, but faced by a government willing to murder its own people in their homes and streets, a government that has long oppressed, surveilled, tortured, raped and brutalised its people, it is hardly surprising that so many people fled or took arms against the government.
The refugee crisis brought about during this conflict is by no means insignificant. As of 14 June, the number of refugees in Egypt stood at 346,113, with a further 543,003 in Tunisia, with another 30,825 in Chad. The conflict has disrupted the entire country and displaced almost a million people, causing immense economic and infrastructural damage, as well as leaving many long-term emotional scars. Whilst the conflict has the potential to continue for some time longer, the momentum seems, slowly but surely, to be with the rebels.
For the people of Misurata, the fight goes on. Despite having driven Gaddafi’s forces out of the city and some distance from its surrounds and the capture of the airport and attached military base, the city has still been subject to rocket and mortar attacks. Their safety is by no means assured, though the least likely scenario would be a return to control by Gaddafi’s forces at this stage. One thing is certain, however, that the people of Misurata have shown extraordinary resourcefulness and courage in the fact of brutality. For that they have my admiration. I hope I never have to endure a military conflict, nor find myself faced with the choice to fight or flee. It must be an awful decision to have to make.