— A Libyan-American woman, her husband and 18-month-old daughter are among the lucky few to have escaped the “ghost town” of the besieged Libyan city of Misrata, where increasingly desperate rebels and citizens have been besieged for weeks by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
“It was horrible, it was a nightmare,” Iman, a 29-year-old Libyan-American from Torrance, Ca., told msnbc.com on Tuesday, shortly after arriving in Malta after a 24-hour voyage from Misrata with other refugees on an overloaded fishing boat that she thought “was going to overturn in the middle of the night.”
Iman, who asked to be identified only by her first name to protect family members remaining in Libya, described how the elation that she felt when opposition forces seized control of the city in late February slowly gave way to desperation as Gadhafi’s forces fought back and began exacting a fearsome toll on the country’s third-largest city, about 125 miles east of Tripoli.
'That's it, it's over'
“I was so happy in the beginning when Misrata first fell to the rebels. It took two days. I was like, ‘This is amazing. That’s it, it’s over,’” she said in a telephone interview with msnbc.com hours after landing in Malta.
Initially, people in Misrata set up neighborhood watch groups, and judges and lawyers organized an impromptu leadership group for the Mediterranean coastal city, which was home to about 300,000 people before the conflict.
It was “grassroots organization at its best,” Iman wrote in a Skype chat to msnbc.com on Feb. 23. “To see people stand together, united in the face of uncertain times, is amazing.”
But pro-Gadhafi forces regrouped, and the conflict soon reached the city, which lies on a road linking the capitol of Tripoli, a Gadhafi stronghold, to the key oil town of Sirte in the east.
And so the squeeze began on the city: Water was cut at the beginning of March, and Internet and cell phone connections were soon severed. The first blackout occurred three weeks ago, then power was lost entirely 10 days ago, returning only for brief periods every three to four days, Iman said.
That was a new problem for many residents, who had resorted to well water that they needed electricity to pump. To get water, they either had to use pails to get small amounts of water out of the wells or venture to an area on the outskirts of the city where bottled water was stocked, but where fighting also often raged.
“The water pressure in our house was really low, so you can’t even take a shower. There was no hot water. The refrigerator, all the food got spoiled, and it was hard to find more food,” said Iman, who grew up in the United States and attended UCLA before moving to Libya more than two years ago. “It takes three hours, for example, to get a loaf of bread. You have to cook by candlelight. It’s just getting really difficult.”
People trying to flee the fighting often holed up with relatives in other parts of Misrata, she said, noting 28 people in one family were living in two rooms and other homes had several extended families living in them. Her aunt had to evacuate her home after it was hit by tank fire, causing a balcony to collapse, she said.
Snipers, but few staples
Residents also faced shortages of vegetables, rice, sugar, baby formula and diapers.
“It’s very haphazard, you have no idea” what will be in the shops, she said. “You don’t know if tomorrow you are going to have vegetables or not, you don’t know if tomorrow you are going to maybe get macaroni or not.”
Worse than the shortages were the killings of Misrata residents by snipers, Iman said, including two girls who were killed in the street while fleeing with their father from an area where many people were being kidnapped and one of Iman’s male relatives – a 37-year-old father of three – who was slain by a gunman.
Iman said that she and her daughter didn’t go outside for about six weeks out of fear they could meet the same fate.
But their effort to hide from the fighting seemed increasingly precarious, with loud gunfire booming from two to three blocks away in recent days. She said that citizens also felt that the NATO coalition presence had gotten weaker after the U.S. handed over leadership of the mission.
“It got really scary. … There were a few days we thought we were going to die,” she said.
The family was supposed to leave on Sunday, but Iman said the port was attacked and subsequently closed. “We didn’t know when we were going to leave,” she said. “It’s very uncertain when the boats are going to leave … the port had been under attack the night before, so first they told us that the boat had already left that we were supposed to go on.”
Finally, when she and her family ventured out on Monday, they saw a city that bore little resemblance to the one she had lived in.
'Completely in shambles'
“It’s just completely in shambles,” she said. “There are buildings that are falling down everywhere, gas stations are closed. The lines to fill a tank of gas are maybe at least a mile-and-a-half long … It takes three hours to get bread, so you can see lines of people just waiting in front of all of the bakeries. There are just burned cars in the middle of the street that they try to use to blockade certain areas. There are roadblocks everywhere. There are tons of houses that are burnt, buildings that the glasses are all shattered. … It’s like a ghost town.”
And those, she said, were the areas that hadn’t experiencing the heaviest fighting.
“We avoided areas where there was any fighting at all, I can only imagine what those areas look like,” she said.
Adding to Misrata’s woes were pro-Gadhafi residents, who appeared to be sabotaging the rebels efforts to maintain some sort of order, Iman said.
“When I said I wasn’t going to leave in the beginning, I never imagined it getting this bad,” she said. “I knew that there was going to be fighting but I didn’t think that the city – I thought that they would be united, I didn’t think that anybody would stand with Gadhafi. But the problem is that there are a lot of traitors within the city.”
No one can say how many people have been killed as Gadhafi’s forces have moved against Misrata. Medical facilities in the city have tallied 257 people killed and 949 wounded – including 22 women and eight children -- since Feb. 19, Human Rights Watch reported.
There was no way to independently verify that report, or estimates by the opposition that Gadhafi’s forces have killed 10,000 across the nation since the revolt erupted.
Free, but feeling guilty
Despite the horrific conditions in Misrata, Iman said it was difficult to leave behind her relatives, including a nephew kidnapped and tortured over 13 days by Gadhafi forces before being released, and other relatives working in the overwhelmed medical facilities, which lack critical supplies.
“Was it the right decision? Should we have left? Should we have stayed? I don’t know. I’m not sure,” she said. “I feel a bit bad for leaving people there because I’m fortunate enough to have two citizenships so I can leave and there’s people who can’t. I know there’s people that are worse off than we are, who are stuck. So I feel a bit bad, kind of like a traitor almost.”
Sitting in a hotel room in Malta, she said she planned to go to Manchester in Britain to stay with relatives, then probably to her parent’s home in California.
She didn’t know when they would be back, noting that it had been two months “and things are still complete chaos.”
“It doesn’t even look like Misrata is going to be free within the next two weeks so -- much less Tripoli and there’s still Sirte,” she said, adding in a soft voice. “There’s still a lot more to go.”