30 Apr 2011

Trapped in Misrata amid dangerous seas

I suppose that our team too remains trapped here until The Red Star can safely dock and then leave for Benghazi in the east.

You know something is well and truly up when the laid-back lads down at the harbour gates in their Ray-Bans and Revolutionary Chic bandanas will not let you in. Eh? Not even us? The beloved “sahafeen” – journos?

Nope. Big security issues. And it’s not just the everyday rockets and shells that occasionally hit the port and its empty wasteland of dockside holding areas and dusty container-parks.

It is mines. Sea mines. They are conducting some kind of big search operation after The Colonel’s lads were caught out by NATO In the shipping lanes sinking inflatables with sea-mines aboard.

Not a very sporting.

Because several hundred African migrant workers – mostly illegal immigrants tacitly allowed in by Tripoli but without any passports – are sitting in the horrible dust and wind around the port waiting to get out. They have been shelled and they are getting a little desperate and no wonder. These, the last few hundred of several thousand congregated in camps around the port area.

They badly need the boat out – the only way they are getting back to Ghana, Niger and Chad.
Right now the Albanian charter-ferry The Red Star lies at anchor invisible, 12 miles offshore, waiting word from NATO that it is safe to come in and dock.

Thanks to The Red Star and a previous charter by the International Organisation for Migration, most are mercifully en route back home as I write. But these last few hundred still remain. Waiting in the wind.

I suppose that our team too remains trapped here until The Red Star can safely dock and then leave for Benghazi in the east.

I have been trapped in worse surroundings. Channel 4 News, AP, The Guardian and a very young German blogger (who keeps asking me if it is a good plan to go to Mogadishu after this) all sleep in the underground gym of the local community centre.

That means we are reasonably safe from the shelling when it happens, which is most days. It does not mean we are any fitter than before we came.

The people who run the centre bring us tins of tuna and bread from the bakery opposite and today a man who seems to have a mobile computer shop in plastic carrier bags has turned up to see if he can flog some gear to the ever-so-slightly-trapped journos.

Morale of course remains high because the Misratans are frankly a delightful bunch and astute enough to recognise that the media are giving them gazillions of pounds worth of free publicity.

Indeed many of them simply regard us as a propaganda wing of their Revolution. Some journos are flattered by this. Some alarmed. Some don’t seem to notice at all. It takes all sorts to make a proper civil war which this very much is.

And the rebels are staggeringly open about it all. Only this morning we whiled away some time with Ali. There he was happily playing around with TNT from various Cold War era shells and warheads, then repacking it into new shells and projectiles he was turning on his lathe.

Into the mix went all manner of aluminium filings and shards just to cook up a genuinely unpleasant mix of shrapnel.

Thus, in their home-made way, the rebels turn conventional armour-piercing projectiles into anti-personnel weapons designed to main and kill as many of Colonel Gaddafi’s men as possible.

Ali keeps his pet budgies next to the boxes of Bulgarian rocket-propelled grenades, waiting to be modified for the Revolutionary War.

Open, welcoming and charming about it all as he happily demonstrates to the camera how he produces his modified and potentially horrific instruments of war.

But like I said, it is war. They are very short of kit and any port in a storm when it comes to home-made weapons manufacture.

And now one of the community centre blokes has turned up with spicy mince and rice – all set up in one of those Chinese takeaway-style tinfoil boxes.

Mine’s a 27 with extra Chai.