Sirte, Libya – Sirte today is a ghostly city.
An offensive to liberate Sirte from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group was launched in May. The fighting continues to be fierce, and today little remains of the city but rubble.
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At the Zafaran roundabout, where until a few months ago ISIL fighters had hanged and crucified people, the streets show signs that intense battles have taken place. Houses, banks, mosques and hospitals are destroyed – everything.
But a few signs of ISIL remain. Shop walls still bear an ISIL stamp for tax collection, and the road to Ouagadougou Conference Centre sports two ISIL billboards. The first one is an invitation to pray, while the second depicts a Kalashnikov rifle with text that reads: “If you betray us, you’re betraying your family.”
ISIL, also known as ISIS, has been nearly expelled from Sirte, and today its fighters control only two blocks in the city’s Al Giza district. Nevertheless, Libyan soldiers are advancing very slowly to avoid civilian casualties.
No one knows exactly how many ISIL members are still inside the 50 houses in the ISIL-occupied portion of Al Giza, or how many civilians are with them. Nor do the Libyan soldiers know whether women in the area are hostages or are themselves ISIL fighters.
Last week, two women pretending to be civilians fleeing ISIL blew themselves up, killing four soldiers and injuring at least 20.
Two field hospitals on the frontline in Sirte are treating the injured. Wounded soldiers are brought here to be stabilised before being sent to the hospital in Misrata, 250km from Sirte.
In the first field hospital, Dr Walid el Hamroush cares for children pulled from the rubble. One boy has a burned face, and cries louder as doctors try to treat his wounds with the few tools available to them. Three girls lie on stretchers, with one of them in very poor condition. Everyone is hungry and dehydrated.
“The children we are trying to stabilise here are in really serious condition,” Hamroush told Al Jazeera. “Inside the houses still besieged in Sirte there is no water and there is no more food.”
The children said they have not eaten for weeks, and one little girl said that for the past two months, she had only consumed a mixture of water and turmeric.
They are traumatised by the bombs and fighting outside. Once, when a door opened noisily, a little girl covered her ears, fearing it was a bomb. One of the girls has a deep wound in her back, and she screams as doctors try to calm her down. An IV drip is attached to her with tape.
Her brother is four years old and is still in the ISIL-occupied part of Sirte. He could not run.
When doctors ask them where their fathers are, the children shake their heads and say they are fighting. One small child said his father has been fighting for months and that he was wounded twice, most recently in the arm.
“Many of these children are sons of ISIL fighters. They are Libyans, but also Tunisians, Syrians, Iraqis, Nigerians. It’s hard to figure out which of them is a child of ISIL men or who comes from a family of trapped civilians,” Hamroush said. “But for us, nothing changes – we have to take care of these innocent children.”
Khaled Zowbat, who drives an ambulance for the field hospital, said that he had saved a five-year-old Egyptian child a few nights ago. Zowbat said the child – who was hungry, thirsty, and had not been washed for weeks – had witnessed the death of his parents during the battle.
“He told me: ‘My father and my mother went to heaven. Dad told me that [the Libyan soldiers fighting ISIL] are infidels and will go to hell.’ I am worried about them. The fate of these children will be a real tragedy.”
Women, some of whom are mothers of the rescued children, were interrogated before being taken to the Misrata prison at the air force compound. Libyan intelligence sources say the women have to be questioned to work out which of them might be dangerous.
One of the women being held is an 18-year-old from Tunisia, who declined to give her name. The woman, who has one son, claimed that her husband, a member of ISIL, had brainwashed her into going to Sirte and joining them.
Many of the women being held said they were abducted and used as sex slaves by ISIL. Adiam, a 25-year-old Eritrean woman, said she was kidnapped in Sudan and later given to a group of men who were ISIL fighters. She said one of them kept her in a house for six months, using her as a sex slave.
“He told me that my life belonged to him and that I just had to obey,” said Adiam as she cried inside a prison cell. “I was not his wife; I was like an object. He kept me locked in a room and made of me what he wanted. He told me that my fate depended on his; if he died, I would die with him. I just wanted to escape poverty, and I found myself locked in a room, treated like an animal.”
Meanwhile, humanitarian organisations are facing major difficulties in delivering aid to civilians. “We must take care of 2,000 families who fled Sirte to Misrata last year, and we must also take care of the civilians who are coming now,” Salah Bowzareb, the emergency head of the Libyan Red Crescent in Misrata, told Al Jazeera.
“We have to find a solution for Eritrean women who were trapped inside, because they have been abused, but Libya cannot send them back, because they would be killed,” said Bowzareb.
“There is also a group of Filipina women working in Sirte. The soldiers have freed them but have to question them, and we are trying to contact their embassy.”
Bowzareb said that only the Libyan Red Crescent is providing humanitarian aid on the ground, and that they are in need of food, clothing and, above all, medicine.
“The other day we visited the prison where these women are detained. We brought some powdered milk for the children and a bit of medicine, but it is not enough,” he said.
“These women, and especially their children, need psychological support. [They] are deeply traumatised, and we cannot cope with all emergencies.”