Al Jazeera World

The Battle of Misrata

Six years on, Misratans reflect on the siege of their city and how it played a role in the downfall of Gaddafi.

Filmmaker: Akram Adouani

The Libyan revolution started in February 2011. Misrata in northwestern Libya was one of the main strongholds against the then President Muammar Gaddafi, along with the city of Benghazi.

In this film, we meet some of the people who not only witnessed the 13-week battle for the city but took part in some of the fiercest fighting of the civil war, with the minimum of training and experience.     

As in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria, early 2011 saw public frustration in Libya turn into open protest. It began in the northeastern city of Benghazi and the next day the people of Misrata also came out in numbers.  

“Misratans took to the streets in support of the demonstrations in Benghazi. They showed solidarity, just like the people of Zintan did with our brothers in the east. It was a duty rather than a favour,” says university professor Ibrahim Saffar.

The initial protests were popular because of the perceived need for change. People were in desperate need of work and increased income. Sirajjedine Dhaoua was a civil servant in Misrata and his view was echoed by many.

“When the revolution started in Tunisia, I felt so happy and wanted Libya to have its own revolution. I imagine every young Libyan had the same desire.”

Everyone felt that if they were going to die, it was better to do so with dignity, defending their home, family and honour.

by Mustafa Khalifa Zouaoui, Judiciary Committee Chairman

However, what seemed like a good idea on February 18, the first day of the protests, soon grew beyond civilian capacity. The shocking death of the first protest victim on February 19 and the start of the battle the following day, provided a dramatic reality check to Misratans’ hopes.

“We had big confrontations with the Gaddafi forces. They even used anti-aircraft guns against unarmed civilians. We didn’t have weapons. Not a single person carried a weapon,” says Dhaoua.

But the people of Misrata were not ready to cave in. They showed their resistance by any means possible, having first removed any sign of the Gaddafi regime within the city.

As government forces closed in, taking the south of the city and increasing the power of their attacks, Misratans continued resolutely to hold their ground.

Dhaoua says: “Resilience was the watchword in besieged Misrata. Each day that passed with us still in position was an extra triumph for us, even if we suffered casualties. Every day, I heard about the death of a friend or relative. Even when your comrade was hit by a shell or a bullet and died before your eyes, the word was to continue the struggle he’d started.”

The only path for the people of Misrata was to take on the Gaddafi forces, a fact that both civilians and rebel fighters were reconciled to.

“I said goodbye to my father, mother and family and left. I could see Gaddafi’s forces besieging Misrata on every side. I went to our neighbour, borrowed his weapon and joined the front,” says rebel fighter Al Mutaz Billah Al Ghurabi.

Noureddine Adham, an opposition field commander, lost a brother in the battle but says retreat was never an option.

“It was impossible to retreat and give up the place to Gaddafi forces where my best friends and brothers had died. All the Misrata fighters agreed. Generally war is attack and retreat but, for us, it was only attack with no retreat.”

The eventual freeing of Tripoli Street, the main road through the city, was – along with NATO air strikes –  the beginning of the end for Gaddafi’s forces in Misrata. Government loyalists began to withdraw and in May, the opposition re-took the airport.

Six years on, Libya is still in the process of establishing a stable, unity government. How was the battle won and where did opposition forces and civilians manage to defeat an armed military?