4 May 2011

Misrata's need for the Red Star One

Chief Correspondent

At the dockside jubilant aid workers disembarked, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and “in spite of Gaddafi we made it to Misrata!” Alex Thomson blogs on the docking of the Red Star 1

It was clear things were getting nowhere. The rescue ship has been stuck for four days outside port. There had become serious breakdown in communication between the harbour master, the skipper of the rescue ship and NATO.

So we drove to the harbour master’s office this morning and witnessed first hand the communication problem.

The captain won’t come into port because of the shelling. NATO saying the mines had been cleared outside the harbour. The harbour master one moment says it was safe for the vessel to come in, the next that it was impossible.

God forbid that any shells should hit this vessel but it is clear nobody wanted to make the decision. But people are dying in Misrata and need to get out on this ship.

Journalists should not cross the line but this situation was impossible and had gone on for too long.

We demanded that the harbour master, the skipper and NATO start talking and clearly to get the ship in.

Whether this had any effect we will never know. I can only say Red Star One shortly afterwards came out of the heat haze heading for the port at speed.

She had docked. A sixteen hour passage took five and half a days to complete.

But many of those scheduled to go on the vessel from the hospital had died during that time.

At the dockside jubilant aid workers disembarked, chanting “Allahu Akbar” and “in spite of Gaddafi we made it to Misrata!”

They worked frantically to unload food and medical aid from Qatar for the besieged city.

Two hours after docking a salvo of eight Grad rockets fell close to the port sending aid workers, journalists scrambling for cover.

As I write there is a furious row between the skipper who wants to leave without taking on board the rest of the migrant workers and hospital patients.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) who chartered the vessel are fighting hard to prevent this happening.

That is not the only furious argument going on by now.  On the quayside, Kalashnikov-toting rebel gunmen are screaming at the Albanian crew not to leave.  IOM officials are screaming the same thing.

Just as Red Star seems about to cut and run, the stern door is lowered.  The mood calms. And they are back to unloading medical aid from Qatar.

Things continue calm for some time and the first of the four ICU cases from the hospital arrives, ambulance gingerly reversing up the stern door ramps and down into the car deck which – for the next 18 hurs or so – will be an intensive care unit of sorts.

“On my count – one, two, three”,  says the Libyan doctor in calm English, and a man with terrible burns and blast injuries is transferred from his ambulance bed to the car deck one.

Then come the first hideously overloaded lorries full of migrant workers from Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Mauritania.   With their arrival comes terrible news. That erlier assault with a dozen or so Grad missiles has killed three children and an elderly man along with his wife.

Col Gaddafi’s forces repeatedly shelling the pitiful transit camps of terrified migrant workers near to the port  here can serve little discernible strategic or military purpose. It seems all about inflicting more terror upon the already terrified.

And these people, for whom the Red Star was sent, then get a raw deal when they reach the boat. As they patiently queue up in orderly lines and do as they are told efficiently and quickly in the shelling zone, scores of well-connected Misratans roll up in their private cars and basically barge onto the ship to escape the war.

It takes moments for the ship’s crew and the IOM to completely lose control of the situation. Suddenly a rebel guard lets off a Kalashnikov round which of course does little more than panic already agitated people.

The Captain of the Red Star, sensing this is slowing the operation in a sheling zone and potentially dangerously overloading his vessel, suddenly decides enough is enough and simply casts off.

Astonishingly, the dense crowd is parted by a ten foot drop into the deep water of the dock and yet nobody falls in. Nobody even appears injured.

But the chaos is not over yet. We have steamed barely 50 yards before word comes from the car deck that one of the injured patients may well be dying and urgently needs to return to the shore and hospital in Misurata.

We make another chaotic docking the other side of the port. Men leap to and from the vessel. There is more shouting. Cars soon reach this area desperate to send even more people on the boat to Benghazi – but the business in hand is to deposit the dying man.

That done, the skipper heads to the open sea, suddenly turning sharply to port as we leave the two piers that we watched beng shelled in recent days. NATO have set out a path which is, they say, both free of mines and away from any incoming shells.

On our short and nail-biting test, they seem to be right.