Other cities have had their chance to celebrate and Misrata, battered by weeks of bloody siege, wasn’t going to miss out. Proud residents and freedom fighters of Libya’s third-largest city celebrated in their own Martyrs’ Square the victory over Muammar Qadhafi and the large role that they played in it.
The streets are full of cheering crowds as the fighters and their weaponry file past. Some taking part in the procession are on horseback and dressed in traditional costume and a marching band from the local scout troop accompanies the parade. There is even a fly-past as helicopters circle overhead.
“This moment right now, is an expression of joy from the people and freedom fighters of Misrata at the fall of the dictator, this is their own declaration,” says Mohammad, a businessman and member of the Hitten battalion. “We have to express our joy and say to the world that to establish freedom and get dignity and honour revolution is necessary,” says a man in the crowd.
Misrata has had both positive and negative press recently. The high-profile role of its fighters in Qadhafi’s capture and subsequent death as well as disagreements with the National Transitional Council have focused attention on the city. Conscious of this, there was worry among some of the commanders that the parade of weapons and fighters could be misconstrued as a show of military force rather than of celebration.
Today’s colourful celebration is in stark contrast to the state that the city now finds itself in. Tripoli Street, which runs through the centre of Misrata, shows the scale of the destruction that the lengthy siege of the city by Qadhafi’s forces has left behind. Pockmarked walls and the buildings smashed by shelling are testament to the ferocity of the fighting that took place here. Many of this city’s residents died defending Misrata and will not get to see the new Libya which they gave their life for.
Misratans are known for their fighting spirit, but now the war is over they are looking forward to rebuilding their city. “During the liberation we had a phrase ‘fight at war and construct in peace’. Thank God we are free so we can now apply our saying,” says a fighter named Ibrahim.
With so many of the buildings smashed beyond repair there is a recognition that much of the city will have to be built from scratch. “We should construct it properly from the start,” says Ibrahim. ”This is better than patching up the old buildings, as everything has been demolished. Plan first, and get it right,” he explains.
The fighting it endured has wrecked the city but its residents have noticed what a difference recent events have made on the people. “The condition of Misrata now has changed 180 degrees. The last time I saw Misrata was one month ago, when I returned I saw people who were laughing, not like it used to be,” says one onlooker.
Disarming Misrata’s militias
One of the most important issues is the removal of weapons from Libya’s streets, and most of these men seem to be ready and willing to go back to work. Ibrahim tells us, “After the liberation period we are looking forward to everyone handing back their weapons. I want to say that, we won’t betray our Martyrs blood, who sacrificed themselves for this moment of victory.”
However for many this is conditional on their commanders coming to an agreement with other groups within Libya. Reconciling such groups will be one of the principal challenges for the new Libya. “It’s important to hand back my weapon,” says Mohammad, “and return to my previous job, but that will be when my battalion commands me.”
A fighter named Hitem sums it up as he watches the parade go by: “Misrata has paid a heavy price, but thanks God we had our victory,” he says.