TRIPOLI, Libya — Militiamen loyal to Moammar Gadhafi swarm the streets of Sirte, brandishing rocket-propelled grenade launchers and passing out heavy weapons, including belt-fed machine guns, to anyone who's willing to fight. The electricity's been cut off since August, and those with generators are suspected of listening to news from the outside, marking them as disloyal.
Fed a nonstop stream of pro-Gadhafi propaganda, the loyalists are willing to die, rather than surrender, because they think that they'll have no place in the new Libya. Random fire from both sides is taking a toll on a civilian population caught in the middle.
That's the stark portrait of life in Gadhafi's most-favored city that emerges from hours of interviews with members of the Tarhouni family, who are among the estimated 10,000 civilians who've fled Sirte.
In the six weeks since Gadhafi fled Tripoli, rebel efforts to take Sirte, his hometown, have met with firece resistance. Now, with a bloody battle unfolding for one of the last two towns still in Gadhafi's thrall, it's increasingly clear that the conquest of Sirte will be costly to anyone with the misfortune to remain there.
International Committee of the Red Cross workers who visited Sirte briefly over the weekend said people were dying in hospitals there because of a lack of oxygen and fuel. They urged both sides to prevent civilian casualties, but a Red Cross effort Monday to deliver medical supplies got about 100 yards into the city before it was forced to turn back because of fire from revolutionary forces, according to the Reuters news agency.
The Tarhounis paint a dismal picture of a city so isolated from the rest of Libya that they learned that Gadhafi's regime had collapsed at the end of August only because a neighbor had jury-rigged a car battery to power up the television for a few hours. They figured the end was near for Sirte as well, judging from the increasingly fierce battles and how desperate and vicious the Gadhafi-allied militias were becoming.
The family faced a bitter choice: Risk the road out, despite warnings that fleeing residents would be shot as traitors, or stay amid evaporating hopes of survival in the city's last stand.
"Our neighbor's house was destroyed, but no one was home, thank God," said Maryam Tarhouni, 33, a gynecologist. "The second floor of our sister's home was also hit, and it's partially gone. There's random shooting from both sides."
During a lull in the fighting on Sept. 24, the Tarhounis paid $250 for a single tank of gasoline, packed the women's gold jewelry and a few keepsakes, and then floored it out of the city. The family made it to Tripoli, where on a recent afternoon they recounted the experience in a tearful interview at a relative's home.
Three Tarhouni sisters, their mother and stepmother, and a younger brother with Down syndrome crammed into a car driven by an older brother. The youngest of the family, 23-year-old Ali, is the clan's sole Gadhafi supporter. He refused to leave, and nobody's heard from him since.
"We tried to change his mind, but it was useless," said Sumaya Tarhouni, 30, a pharmacist.
The Tarhouni family's account of life under siege is impossible to verify, but the details square with the stories of other families who've made it to safety. The Tarhouni family members say they've been pro-revolution since the beginning, but other fleeing residents are still-unabashed supporters of a regime that won over the town with oil money and preferential treatment.
"For 42 years, they were brainwashed," Sumaya Tarhouni said. "I feel sorry for them. They think the next era will be bad for them."
"They either have to change their thinking or die for Gadhafi," Maryam Tarhouni added.
One of Gadhafi's sons, Muatassim, is holed up in Sirte and is leading the allied militias, according to residents and the interim Libyan authorities. Another son, the notorious Saif al Islam, is thought to be in the desert city of Bani Walid, the other remaining regime stronghold. Gadhafi himself is still at large despite a manhunt that's crisscrossed the nation.
"Muatassim's communications operation inside Sirte put out word that any family leaving could be shot, even the women and children," Sumaya Tarhouni said.
For decades, the Tarhouni sisters said, they were under close surveillance because locals knew that they privately despised Gadhafi for seizing their father's prosperous construction company in 1977. He rebuilt his fortune with an import-export business only to have it, too, confiscated in 1994, the sisters said. Their father has since died, and the siblings learned to focus on their studies and shy away from opposition activities.
Sirte residents, many of them from Gadhafi's tribe or people he grew up with, enjoyed their favored status under the regime. He steered oil money to the coastal city, bought off or jailed would-be dissidents and relied on a broad network of informants to report any anti-regime rumblings.
When eastern Libya broke free last spring, the Tarhouni sisters marveled at the scenes of rebels celebrating in public squares and dreamed of a day when the NATO-backed forces could prevail in Tripoli and the west, too.
Sirte residents grew uneasy, however, and reported any signs of support for the revolt to state security agents.
At the hospital where she works, Sumaya Tarhouni one day spotted a sign that read, "God, Moammar and Libya," a battle cry for the pro-Gadhafi camp. She crossed out the leader's name and replaced it with "Prophet Muhammad," a bold act that drew swift punishment.
In March, hospital administrators relieved her of her duties and told her she'd still draw a paycheck but would have to stay home. She also was warned not to use the Internet and was banned from watching independent news channels such as Al Jazeera.
Her brothers and male cousins were rounded up and questioned about her loyalties, she recalled as tears streamed down her cheeks.
"One of my colleagues had made a report about me that said I was trying to push people toward revolution," she said.
At the beginning of August, which coincided with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, conditions in Sirte began to decline rapidly as revolutionary forces began attacking from the outskirts of the city.
Families stockpiled food and supply lines were cut, leading to skyrocketing prices for staple goods. Overnight, the Tarhounis said, a carton of milk shot to $8, and fresh vegetables disappeared from store shelves. The electricity was severed, along with water in many districts.
With no power or potable water, residents developed stomach illnesses and received shoddy treatment at Ibn Sina, the only hospital that was still easily accessible to civilians.
The Tarhounis said they fared better than most because they'd stocked their pantry with canned tuna and processed cheese. By day, they built fires to boil water for tea or coffee and then sat in their sweltering home listening to the sounds of battles that raged from about noon to nightfall. Perching on their rooftop, the sisters and their mother said, they sometimes saw pickups piled high with corpses.
"Once, they killed two men from Benghazi and paraded their bodies through the streets, yelling, 'We killed some rats,' " Maryam Tarhouni said.
When the sun went down, the sisters said, the house was plunged into a terrifying darkness. They quickly ran out of matches, and used lighters until the fluid ran out. Profiteers sold half-melted candles for about $5 each.
"Saif al Islam said on TV that the regime would bomb the rebels back 40 years, and he was right," Maryam Tarhouni said of the primitive conditions.
Sometimes they sneaked out to the car to listen to the radio for updates on the battle from outside news stations. Even that became too risky, however, when the militias grew paranoid and mercilessly hunted anyone who questioned the regime's propaganda that revolutionary forces were bloodthirsty terrorists who'd rape the women and kill the men if they were allowed to breach Sirte.
"Anybody who heard any news would tell the others," Maryam Tarhouni said. "To this moment, there are people who have no idea Tripoli is free."
NATO, which has bombed several targets in Sirte, has dropped leaflets on the city telling residents to lay down their arms.
"The militias arrested anyone taking the leaflets," Sumaya Tarhouni said. "They'd build fires and burn the papers so no one could see what they said."
When the Tarhounis finally escaped, they were relieved at the kindness of the anti-Gadhafi fighters at the first checkpoint out, which then was about four miles from the city center. Revolutionary forces say they've now surrounded the city and are focused on battles in specific districts.
On Monday, the revolutionaries captured the district of Bouhadi, according to a Reuters reporter who accompanied the fighters. The reporter wrote that "the residents of Bouhadi were nowhere to be seen, and some of the (revolutionary) fighters set about looting and trashing their empty homes."
The former rebels changed a flat tire for the Tarhouni family and gave them free gas for the drive to Tripoli, where they were reunited with their sister Amina, who's married to a Libyan-American member of the National Transitional Council, the ruling authority. They now live together in a house where they wipe their shoes on a doormat that shows Gadhafi's face.
"My youngest sister saw a man eating an apple and said, 'Wow! An apple!' as if it were something very special," Amina Tarhouni said about the family's reunion. "When my other sisters felt air conditioning again, they said, 'Oh, we're in paradise!' "
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011