SIRTE, Libya — Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte paid a heavy price for sheltering him in the final battle of Libya’s civil war.
Much of the Mediterranean city of palm tree-lined boulevards has been destroyed. Whole neighborhoods are uninhabitable, with shells punching huge holes through homes blackened with soot. There’s no electricity or water. Debris-filled streets are flooded from broken pipes.
“It used to be a beautiful city, one of the most beautiful in Libya,” said Zarouk Abdullah, 42, a professor, standing outside his badly damaged family home. “Today it looks like (postwar) Leningrad, Gaza or Beirut.”
Sirte once was favored by the old regime with investment and jobs. Now, six weeks of fighting has left many of the 140,000 residents seething over what they believe was wanton destruction by vengeful anti-Gadhafi combatants.
Although some blame Gadhafi for bringing the war home by hiding here in his final days, residents feel overwhelmed by the task of reconstruction and expect little help from Libya’s interim government.
Most of the dead appear to have been removed or hastily buried, but there is still a stubborn stench of decay that remains — even a week after Gadhafi’s death, which ended the eight-month battle to oust him.
On Thursday, shovel-wielding volunteers wearing surgical or gas masks dug up shallow graves to identify and rebury bodies.
Meteeg al-Gazhali stood on a sandy lot behind a clinic in Sirte’s seaside District No. 2 and watched as several men pulled up a corpse, wrapped in a blanket.
“That’s Ali,” he said quietly after lifting the blanket, identifying his 30-year-old son.
The battle for Sirte began in mid-September, or about a month after revolutionary forces had already taken control of most of Libya, including the capital of Tripoli. Sirte was one of the last holdouts, along with two other loyalist areas.
Resistance in Sirte was fierce, and three weeks into the battle, anti-Gadhafi forces had advanced only a few hundred yards (meters) into the city.
With fighting intensifying, most civilians fled, and only die-hard loyalists remained behind in the city some 250 miles (400 kilometers) southeast of Tripoli.
There were no indications that Gadhafi was in Sirte beforehand, with reports of him hiding deep in the southern desert, possibly trying to flee the country.
In fact, Gadhafi was hiding in Sirte in the final weeks of the war, living in abandoned homes in District No. 2 with an entourage of about two dozen, including his son Muatassim.
On Oct. 20, as revolutionary forces encircled the neighborhood, Gadhafi and his followers tried to escape in a convoy that was struck by NATO on a highway on the outskirts.
Gadhafi, who suffered some injuries, tried to flee on foot, but he was captured, beaten by a mob and died later that day in mysterious circumstances, prompting international demands that Libya’s new leaders investigate his death.
Fighters from the coastal city of Misrata, which rose up early against Gadhafi and suffered immensely under weeks of siege by regime forces in the spring, took the lead in the battle for Sirte and Gadhafi’s capture.
It was they who put Gadhafi’s body on display in Misrata like a trophy for four days before burying him Tuesday in an anonymous desert grave.
Residents now believe the Misrata fighters intentionally destroyed Sirte, beyond the collateral damage of fighting, to settle old scores.
“I am very angry with the rebels. Look at all this damage,” said 26-year-old electrician Mustafa Ali, standing in the debris-filled courtyard of a two-story villa in District No. 2 that was rumored by neighbors to have been Gadhafi’s last hiding place.
“If one shot was fired from a house, they would destroy the entire house,” he said.
Over the weekend, more than 50 bodies were found strewn across the ocean-view lawn of the Mahari Hotel, which according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch, had been in the hands of Misrata rebels during the fighting.
Farraj al-Hemali, a Sirte resident who was among those to discover the dead, said 25 of the corpses were found with their hands tied behind their backs. Blood had soaked into the grass, indicating they were killed on the spot. Among the dead were civilians and Gadhafi loyalists, and most had been shot in the head or chest, he said.
Human Rights Watch called for an investigation of what it described as an “apparent mass execution.”
Ibrahim Beitelmal, spokesman for the Misrata military council, denied that fighters from his city were responsible. He said he believes the loyalists were killed by their own comrades, possibly after refusing orders to keep fighting.
Beitelmal also alleged that “the damage in Sirte was done by Gadhafi forces to blacken the image of the rebels.”
Anti-Gadhafi fighters did their utmost to prevent bloodshed by giving civilians ample time to leave, he said, adding that those who stayed in the final days were clearly hardcore loyalists.
Zarouk Abdullah, the university professor, scoffed at such claims, alleging that Misrata fighters killed his 34-year-old brother Hisham, whom he described as a civilian.
Abdullah said his brother had stayed behind in Sirte to protect the family home, was taken prisoner and killed with others at the Mahari Hotel. He did not explain how he knew this.
On Wednesday, Abdullah visited Sirte’s Ibn Sina Hospital and viewed pictures of disfigured or bloated corpses that had been discovered in recent days, photographed and numbered before temporary burial. Hisham was No. 90. His lower left jaw had been shot off. Abdullah snapped three pictures to take back to his parents so they could start grieving.
Abdullah said he is worried about score-settling. “The (real) war has not started yet. The war will start Nov. 1, after NATO leaves,” he said, referring to the end of the military alliance’s seven-month mission in Libya.
“People will take revenge,” Abdullah predicted, but like others here, he said he does not want more bloodshed.
Beitelmal, the Misrata spokesman, said officials from his city are working with anti-Gadhafi forces in Sirte to help restore basic services, including water and power.
However, al-Hemali said there has been no outside help, dismissing promises from visiting officials from neighboring cities as empty words.
Sirte, which sustained far greater damage than Misrata, must fend for itself, said al-Hemali, the owner of a car wash, as he oversaw the cleanup of the grounds of the Mahari Hotel.
Libya’s new government, which is to be formed in coming weeks, will deal with reconstruction but there is no quick fix, said a spokesman, Jalal el-Gallal.
“For sure, all the cities that were destroyed during the war will be rebuilt, but the interim government can’t do anything right now, and the new government will provide temporary housing,” he said.
In District No. 2, truck driver Muftah Mubarak, 42, said the Gadhafi regime provided security and jobs, blaming the unrest on foreign intervention, including NATO.
He referred to the anti-Gadhafi fighters as “rats,” a term used by the former dictator. With Libya awash with weapons, the country could soon see another civil war, he said.
In a gesture of defiance, he stuck his head out of his truck before driving off, yelling the slogan of regime supporters: “Only Allah, Moammar and Libya.”