In Small Libyan Town, Scars From War, Relief From Victory

The former stronghold near the Tunisian border, once a center of fighting, has already begun to return to normal

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A Libyan rebel soldier rests at a checkpoint near the village of Nalut in western Libya / Reuters

NALUT, Libya -- People are not talking about Qaddafi in the border town of Nalut. They are talking about plumbing. A city of 20,000, Nalut is the gateway to the strategically important western mountains, where the final push that led to Tripoli began three weeks ago. While the world wonders where Qaddafi is, the more immediate issues here are the mundane challenges of a small town recovering from seven months of war.

Never the scene of hand to hand fighting, Nalut, which sits on a dramatic bluff over a desert canyon, has since the uprising began in mid-February suffered heavy bombardment by loyalist rockets, which fired nightly for some stretches and sometimes by day from launchers in a valley below. After local militias expanded their reach to the nearby border with Tunisia, opening a supply line to Libya's Western mountains. Soon after, Nalut became the key defensive point for the anti-Qaddafi forces' western front.

Qaddafi pounded Nalut, attempting to cut the line, but a NATO attack on defenses around the rocket batteries near the town allowed militias here to break the siege in July. That offense has since proven to have been one of the key turning points in the drive that led directly north from Nalut to the oil refinery in Zawiha, which fell last week, and onward to Tripoli. Nalut's militias didn't win the war. But they failed to lose it, at least, and held on under the rockets when earlier pushes from the East, in Misrata and Benghazi, seemed to have stalled.

The months of bombardment have left scars here. Many of the small cement houses with brightly colored doors that comprise the town have obvious signs of costly structural damage. Some are beyond repair, their roofs collapsed or walls staved in. But the infrastructure works here. Nalut's water towers and the road system are intact, and the hospital, which was hit by a rocket in June, is still operating. A mountain road that winds sharply from the town down to the valley floor, where many residents had grazing land before the war, is carrying traffic today and appears free of mines or booby traps. Small arms have mostly disappeared from the streets. A barbershop is open. Cell phone service is not yet restored, but internet remains online, as it was during the siege.

The 60,000 people who evacuated this region for seven months of refugee limbo in nearby Tunisia are now largely back. The route into Nalut from Tunisia used to pass three refugee camps; now there are two, both mostly empty. The Qatari-funded camp two hours from the border has only nine families left, a fall of 90 percent from last month.

A few dozen frustrated journalists are here making plans to move the 300 kilometers to Tripoli, watching Al Jazeera as they wait. While the TV network discussed such challenges for Libya as how to catch a dictator on the run, the celebration in Nalut today wasn't announced with the crack of guns firing into the air. It was a low whir, audible in the slowly filling neighborhoods: air conditioning.