Near Libya's Front Lines, Fear and Death Send Civilians Fleeing

"We left everything. We are never going back. We just wanted to escape."

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RAS LANOUF, Libya -- Clearly rattled by the explosions and fatalities yesterday, the fighters at Ras Lanouf, one of the "liberated" eastern towns closest to the front line dividing the rebel-held east from what's left of the Qaddafi-controlled west, were visibly tense. About a hundred soldiers milled around. Occasionally, young men stalked off the road into the surrounding desert to swing their Kalashnikovs upwards and fire for a minute or two in rage and frustration.

The source of their outrage was a pickup truck with a shattered windshield and blood-splattered interior. An old man with tears streaming down his face held a child's shoe in the air, a flip flop bearing the insignia of the Barcelona soccer team. The shoe had been left in a car near where one of Qaddafi's warplanes had dropped two bombs. The bombs left three-foot-deep craters on the road, which families had been using to flee. The shock wave alone sent all five members of one family to the hospital, one with shrapnel wounds.

Salam Hussein, a chemical engineer who has worked at the Rasco oil plant in Ras Lanouf since 1996, had been driving. The 47-year-old father had hoped to get his wife and three children back to their home in Bayda, which was thought to be safer, when the bomb landed nearby, sending shrapnel through his windshield. The left side of his face was lacerated with glass and he sustained injuries to his shoulder. "It looked like a rock was coming at us, all I saw was smoke," Hussain said. "Saleh, my three-year-old son, did not speak at all for the two hours it took to get to the hospital."

Many at Ras Lanouf, an oilt town, fear that the warplane will return to keep shelling the gathered forces. At one point during the day, the rebels manning the checkpoint, if it could be called that, shouted, "Off the road! Off the road! The plane is coming back, it's coming again!" Everybody within hearing range sprinted off the road into the adjacent sand dunes, which were littered with spent shells, shrapnel from the bombs, and rusted canisters.

"I don't think there are landmines, but who knows," said Sherif, a slim 24-year old in jeans and a sweater. He said he'd joined the battle against Qaddafi after his cousin had been killed on February 20th. "It was seven days ago. No, it was longer," he said, sounding dazed. "I don't know what day it is. We lost everything. We can't go back. I already shook hands with everyone, said goodbye to my wife." Sherif, who has a master's degree in marketing, had been married only seven months. Before he could finish telling me his story, the rebels insisted that all noncombatants leave the site and go east to Brega, which was safer.

Although the rebels had first taken control of the town on Friday, March 11, when they pushed was far west as Bin Jawwad, they were later expelled by Qaddafi's forces.

Mohammed Ahmed, 41, a friend of Hussein and also a mechanical engineer working at Rasco, was also fleeing Ras Lanouf with his family when the bomb struck. Ahmed, whose family was traveling in a group of three cars for safety, had been mere feet in front of Hussein's car. "I was just lucky I didn't get hit, because he was following me on the road," he said. "We left everything. We are never going back. We just wanted to escape."

Photo by Asmaa Waguih/Reuters