Many residents of Sirte, Muammar Gaddafi’s birth-place, blame Libya’s new rulers and their Western allies for the death and destruction unleashed on their city by weeks of fighting.
Most are reluctant to talk openly about their allegiances, for fear they will be branded as members of a pro-Gaddafi fifth column. Yet their anger and bitterness is clear.
“This country has been built around one man. If he is over, Libya will be over,” said a resident who gave his name as al-Fatouri, standing outside his home on the outskirts of Sirte.
“Gaddafi is like a picture frame. When part of the frame is hit, the whole picture will be destroyed, Libya will be destroyed,” he said.
Sirte is the sternest test yet of the ability of the interim government, the National Transitional Council (NTC), to win over Gaddafi’s tribe and prevent it from mounting an Iraq-style insurgency that would destabilise Libya and the region.
“There are no Gaddafi brigades, they are volunteers inside,” said a 23-year-old who gave his name only as Bassem. He fled Sirte two days ago with his uncle, but left his parents behind.
“They didn’t want to leave,” he said. “Some people are scared of being slaughtered by the rebels, and some people do not want to leave their house.”
Many residents fear NTC forces will exact revenge on Sirte because of its links with Gaddafi, who developed it from a fishing village to a city of 100,000 that hosted state events.
Sirte, one of Gaddafi’s last bastions in Libya since the fall of Tripoli on Aug. 23, sits on the main coastal highway between the capital and the eastern city of Benghazi.
Some of the fighters trying to capture Sirte are from Misrata, a city where thousands of people were killed by Gaddafi’s forces and where hatred of his rule runs high.
“The rebels from Misrata say they will destroy Sirte because Misrata was destroyed,” said Ali, another fleeing resident.
“NATO has brought destruction, and the revolution has brought destruction,” he said.
As he spoke, bystanders began shouting at him that such talk would just spread “chaos and havoc”. Ali retorted that they were not telling the truth and walked away in dismay.
Another angry resident shared Ali’s view.
“What did America and NATO bring to us? Did they bring apricots?” he demanded. “No, they brought us the shelling and the strikes. They terrorised our kids.”