Misrata’s Sea-based Lifeline

The Libyan port city of Misrata was one of the first urban areas to fall to rebel when the pro-democracy uprising began in February. Since then, the city has been under siege from forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, including the feared Special Forces Khamis Brigade. The city is a short 130 miles from Gaddafi’s power base in Tripoli and — due to its location — has been completely cut off from any support from the main rebel controlled areas hundreds of miles away in eastern Libya. Since falling to the rebels, hundreds have died in fighting during the government’s repeated attempts to retake the city. It is a lonely outpost of rebellion far behind enemy lines.

The siege has had brutal effects on the humanitarian situation in the city. Reports coming out paint a bleak picture: many have no electricity or running water, while food and medical supplies are running low. The ring of pro-Gaddafi forces around Misrata has made is extremely difficult for aid organizations to delivery supplies by land. However, recently the international community has established a critical lifeline into the besieged city — from the sea.

In the last week, cargo ships from the ICRC, World Food Program, and the Turkish government have docked in Misrata’s port and offloaded humanitarian aid and on-loaded wounded. The Turkish vessel, a car carrier that had been converted into a hospital ship, docked in Misrata under the cover of two warships and ten fighter jets — a large display of force by the Turkish government. It quickly departed with 250 casualties for the rebel capitol of Benghazi. It is telling that Misrata’s wounded have not been transferred to Libyan government hospitals, speaking to the distrust between the two sides — even in regard to the treatment of casualties. The World Food Program and ICRC ships delivered thousands of tons of humanitarian supplies, and even dropped off World Health Organization physicians to support Misrata’s crippled health infrastructure. ICRC ship was allowed to dock in Benghazi after a week of negotiations with the Libyan government, a testament to the benefits of negotiated neutrality in conflict zones.

While this sea-based lifeline is immensely important for the humanitarian situation in the Misrata, it is not enough to fill the needs of the city’s 300,000 residents. Furthermore, the siege of the city shows no signs of ending. Pro-Gaddafi forces have as of yet been unable to make any significant inroads into the city and the rebel offensive has stagnated hundreds of miles away in Brega. So for now Misrata will have to continue to endure, and keep an eye on the ocean for the next ship.