The New York Times, By C J Chivers
5 May, 2011
MISURATA, Libya — The four fresh corpses, the remains of people recently killed in the shelling of Misurata, rested on the floor of an office in a small clinic. Each was wrapped in a dirty blanket. No one knew what to do with them, just as no one present had any idea of their names.
They were a man, a woman, a boy about 2 and a girl perhaps half that age. The top of the girl’s head was gone, as were both of the woman’s lower legs.
Each day this city presents its residents with ghastly sights and reminders that there has been no shortage of ill fortune here. But even within the confines of a city besieged by its own nation’s army, there can be little luck crueler than theirs. They were migrants from Nigeria trapped in another country’s war. When they died, they had been minutes from escape.
It was Wednesday afternoon that they lay there motionless, almost exactly at the time the news included reports that a prosecutor with the International Criminal Court in the Netherlands intended to seek arrest warrants against three unnamed senior officials in the government of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Investigators, court records showed, had documented a deliberate campaign against civilians to put down Libya’s uprising, enough to warrant charges of crimes against humanity.
How did a distant prosecutor’s intention translate to the sights on the clinic’s floor?
Few would seriously doubt that decisions in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, determine much about how this war is waged. But more than senior officers and officials guide a military campaign. Generals and politicians alone cannot kill, at least not the quantities seen here. They need help.
As the barrages against Misurata continued, the mind drifted to local questions. Who are the men firing ordnance into this city? What do they know of their targets?
Did those who fired the barrage of rockets that killed these four people know that one would land beside a white canvas tent in which a family, as part of its escape plan, had taken residence?
Libyan soldiers are positioned a few miles beyond Misurata’s frontline positions. There they load artillery tubes and mobile rocket launchers and point them at a city skyline.
Before them lies a panorama of apartment buildings, factories, a port and uncountable houses, punctuated by the minarets of Misurata’s many mosques. Roughly 300,000 people live out there, or used to, in their firing range.
Properly aiming an artillery tube or a rack of rockets takes time, and a crew of soldiers is involved.
Each time they ready their fire, crews must satisfy themselves that their weapons are pointed where they need to point, and that each shell or rocket is prepared — unpacked, inspected, fuses inserted and set, a proper amount of propellant in the proper place.
Then they fire.
For those who hear the shot, the count begins. How many seconds until the lucky realize they were spared?
Sometimes it is one round, a casual shell. It arcs over the city, then descends. These rounds strike and explode as if randomly.
Other times the casual shelling becomes determined. One shell after another falls in a neighborhood, separated by seconds, sometimes minutes, as they crash down on a small space.
On some days, when ground-to-ground rockets are fired, as many as 40 whoosh from mobile-launcher tubes in seconds. They roar away in a line and travel into the city, where they slam to the ground and explode as if in formation, a sequence of flashes that give way to a crunching roar and then towers of smoke and dust.
When they hit neighborhoods, screams follow. And then the ambulances.
If these strikes were ordered from Tripoli, then some men high in the Qaddafi government could face indictment. But what of the men, just a few miles from here, who actually do the firing? Residents of Misurata, in conversation after conversation, ponder this.
Perhaps these men have been lied to, and told that Misurata’s civilians have been evacuated.
Perhaps they are as angry as Misurata’s rebels, who, to what must have been the surprise of Libya’s army, repelled a conventional ground attack and managed to kill hundreds of Libyan soldiers. Surely the survivors on the outskirts grieve. Some may be finding solace, or glee, in their notions of vengeance.
Perhaps some of them believe their leader’s line that their war is not against Libyans but against Al Qaeda, whose fighters, the line goes, populate the rebel ranks. (Never mind that rebels celebrated news that Osama bin Laden had been killed.)
Perhaps some see practicality in their barrages. What better way, by this logic, to bend a city to an army’s will? For some — and many who have served in uniform know the type — perhaps it is just a job.
The four who died on Wednesday did not remain anonymous long. When they were brought to the clinic they had no passports or ID cards. But by Thursday, their story was known.
The children — Debkin, 18 months, and Suzis, 8 months — were brother and sister, the children of Emeke Ezeh and Favour Ayena, who both survived.
Mr. Ezeh is a pipefitter from Nigeria who had been living in Misurata for eight years. Ms. Ayena, his wife, joined him here after they married in 2009. They rented a house in the city’s western quarter, where they were expecting a third child.
After the city was besieged, Mr. Ezeh said, they opted not to flee. They stayed at home. But as the weeks passed and the shelling continued, the family’s sense of dread deepened.
Not long ago, a rocket landed close enough to Mr. Ezeh to wound his left hand. He and his wife decided to leave.
Several ships had come and carried more than 10,000 migrants to Benghazi, the rebel capital. Last weekend, another ship pulled near the harbor to carry away hundreds more.
Mr. Ezeh heard of it, packed the family’s belongings and headed, with his family and his sister, Mary Madufon, to the tent camps beside the harbor, where they would wait a turn.
Rescue would have been at hand, had not the loyalist forces shelled the port and tried to mine its entrance. The ship, the Red Star 1, held up offshore.
At last, on Wednesday morning, it dared enter the port. The family was told to prepare to board. It was then, almost exactly, that another barrage of rockets from the soldiers a few miles away began landing and exploding beside the port.
The first rocket struck a building. Ms. Ayena, Ms. Madufon and the two children, along with a friend, Amarachi Ogem, rushed to a wall for safety. The next rocket landed about 20 feet away from the spot they chose. Judging from the shrapnel it left behind, it was a Slovak variant of a Grad rocket — roughly nine feet long, including its warhead, which exploded.
The blast and shrapnel killed Mr. Ogem and Ms. Madufon and the two children, and severed Ms. Ayena’s lower right leg.
In the strange ways that exploding ordnance can wound one person horribly and entirely spare another only a few feet away, Mr. Ezeh, pressed to the ground, received only a scratch on his left shin.
His suffering cannot be measured by this wound.
All about Misurata, the questions are heard. Who are the Libyans firing into this city? Do they know that where shells and rockets land, it often looks like this?