(Tripoli) The hiss of bullets buzzes in your ears moments before in the middle of a wall already crumbling as result of the fighting, collapses in a puff of dust just a few steps away from us. A damned sniper who was keeping watch over the crossroads from where the Misrata fighters were making yet another push against the lines of the General Khalifa Haftar in Ein Zara, a suburb of Tripoli.
Mohammed Drah, visibly weakened from a broken hip sustained during the last battle, shouts like a man possessed, to the sniper hidden god knows where between the houses. He then gets bored and fires a series of shots from his kalashnikov, but the sniper doesn’t give in. At least 20 targeted shots keep us pinned up against the concrete wall for around an hour. When the sniper sees a shadow he shoots and the bullets ricochet on the road just two meters from our shelter. Every now and then he shoots up the wall above our heads just to make us nervous with the bullets that noisily stick to the tin roof of a shed in front of our eyes. During the chaos of the battle three white cars full of terrified civilians emerge from a side street.
Mohammed, who is wearing a bulletproof vest and camouflage trousers down to below the knee, holding a machine gun with a string of bullets wrapped “Rambo-style” around his neck. He screams to the poor people trying to escape the fighting, “They shoot, I cover you, but turn right at full speed and don’t ever stop”. In the end they use a bulldozer with its spade as the shield, the armoured cars and the “technicals”, the offroaders with the heavy artillery in the back, they advance at full speed along the sunny strip of asphalt that leads to the international airport which has been closed since 2014. And the sniper disappears.
The frontline is hell
A government soldier fires machine-gun rounds in the road oblivious of the bullets flying everywhere. The screams “Allah o akbar” (God is great) are mingled with the rattling of a Russian-made crawler, that is used to assist.
The gathering infantry find shelter on the sides of the road. The deafening thud of waves of 23mm bullets, which could bring down a wall, are constant. The assault tactic seems simple but effective: the “technicals” advance at an insane speed, often moving in reverse, with the gunner firing madly, before turning back to the shelter of a small earth mound that is blocking the road.
“Journalists get up, I’ll take you to film me hitting the Haftar posts”, this was the crazy invitation of a gunner, who guaranteed he could protect me with the armoured vehicle from the anti-aircraft weapons who were shooting point blank. With thirty-five years of war reporting experience, on one hand I was keen to accept the invitation while on the other I understood that this was completely insane. “Thanks, maybe next time”, I respond to the fighter with slight disappointment. Behind the final red clay wall the government placed a “katyusha-style” Chinese rocket launcher, loading into it rounds half a meter in length. Alongside a young boy-fighter in a burnt uniform and a baseball cap a blaze suddenly erupts from the end of his machine gun.
The roar and a cloud of smoke indicate that a rocket has just been dropped onto the Haftar’s post, raising a column of black smoke that is carried in the wind. In order to go on further, our only possibility is to run like a hare along the boundary wall of the houses, winding through a row of trees frayed by bullets. The no man’s land, along the asphalt strip of the battlefield, is littered with debris, with the “technicals” advancing a few meters further with every wave of fire. Over the course of four hours of fierce clashes, there are ammunition supplies constantly arriving. kalashnikov bullets, which have the smallest caliber, are transported in large plastic bottles usually used for water reserves, but which are effective and useful for this purpose. Bullets are “poured” into helmets and distributed to combatants. The flurry of shots from Haftar’s position arrive intermittently and every now and then the mournful whistle of a mortar shell or rocket passes over our heads. The resistance, however, is not without leadership. The objective of the government as stated by General Ahmad Abu Hashmeh is “to cut off the supply routes of Haftar’s lines” still were still held down in the suburbs of Tripoli.
Operation “Volcano of Anger” aims to encircle troops of the Cyrenaica leader into a single pocket towards three different axis close to the international airport. Forces from Zintan, led by Idriss Mahdi, have come to the airport which was destroyed years ago, in order to reinforce the Haftar lines. The General announced the mobilization of special forces in order to infiltrate the city, which has the potential to trigger street battles. It isn’t just when you arrive, but also when leaving the front line, you are chased away by the sound of bullets in the background. The most recent estimates suggest 272 dead, 1282 wounded and almost 35,000 displaced. The battle of Tripoli continues.