In Libya, civilians are fleeing from Sirte, the last major town that is still in the hands of forces loyal to ousted strongman Moammar Gadhafi.
Many say they were cut off from the rest of the country, without electricity and with dwindling food supplies. Some say they knew nothing of the rebel advances in the past month, including the capture of the capital, Tripoli.
They didn’t know that they would be emerging into a new country.
The first place they arrive is a rebel checkpoint and field hospital on the coastal road from Sirte to Misrata — hot, dusty cars packed with men, women and children, carrying whatever possessions they could cram into the trunk.
Some cars have stacks of floppy mattresses strapped to the top, because the refugees don’t know where they will sleep. Volunteers provide them with food and bottled water, juice boxes and packaged cake.
Clinic Filled With Wounded
Outside the small clinic, a young doctor in blue hospital scrubs says most of his patients are wounded rebel fighters.
But the doctor, Mahmoud Adita, says he has seen a lot of civilians from Sirte as well, including, that day, four women in labor. An aging Russian-made helicopter, bound for the Misrata hospital, takes off with the pregnant women.
Adita says he has lost patients because he hasn’t been able to transport them to the hospital in time.
One man who just brought his family out of Sirte says people there are cut off from the outside world. Without electricity, he says, they had no information from outside the city, only what he called Gadhafi’s “black rumors.” He says many people did not know that Tripoli fell a month ago.
Others say they did know what was going on, and it gave them hope. Ismael Milaad, a 34-year-old gym teacher from Sirte, says he had access to a generator and a satellite dish, so his neighbors gathered at his house to learn what was going on.
Civilians Trapped In City
Milaad says there are many men in Sirte who are preparing to fight the pro-Gadhafi forces as soon as most civilians are out. He adds, though, that he fears that there will be civilian casualties, because Gadhafi fighters are keeping some families trapped in the city center and using them as human shields.
The rebels, meanwhile, are playing a waiting game. They have a position set up at an underpass on the outskirts of the city, where they exchange artillery fire with pro-Gadhafi forces. But for now, they say, they’re not trying to advance.
Back at the field hospital, the rebels aren’t just passing out goodies. They’re also taking the names of the fleeing families and searching their belongings.
Adam Ali, a rebel in dusty camouflage fatigues, says his men are looking for weapons. He says they’ve found a few pistols and photos — taken with Gadhafi soldiers — that show some refugees had pro-Gadhafi leanings.
At least some of the escaping families are double refugees: They fled from Misrata to Sirte when pro-Gadhafi forces were relentlessly shelling Misrata.
Now they’re fleeing back, and the rebels view them with suspicion. The rebels say people carrying weapons or showing signs of being Gadhafi loyalists are not being allowed to return to Misrata.
The rebels say the status of those families will have to be sorted out later, when the fight for Sirte is over.