Benghazi, Libya - As Col. Moammar Gadhafi's forces rained mortars on residential areas of the coastal city of Misrata yet again Saturday, hundreds of foreign migrants who escaped the fighting took refuge at a transit camp here, counted their blessings and worried for the thousands still left behind.
"It was like fleeing death," said Alsamowal Ahmed, a 32-year-old mechanic from Sudan who was among 1,200 foreigners _ mostly migrant workers from Arab and South Asian nations _ who arrived in the Libyan opposition capital of Benghazi late Friday aboard a humanitarian ship from Misrata.
The migrants described a terrifying, weeks-long siege as Gadhafi's forces try to wrest Libya's third-largest city from rebel control.
With water and electricity supplies cut off to much of Misrata and its vital port pelted by constant shelling, many said they had lived on subsistence diets or vitamin tablets for weeks and at times resorted to drinking contaminated water. The International Organization for Migration, which chartered the humanitarian ship, said that many of the escapees were weak and suffering from dehydration.
"There was no other way to survive," said Ahmed, who for days ate nothing but a bit of flour cooked in oil, sometimes topped off with sour milk, before rebels evacuated him from the apartment he shared with three other Sudanese men on Tripoli Street, the thoroughfare that's become Misrata's main battle zone.
NATO airstrikes have destroyed some Libyan army tanks and artillery units in the area, but Gadhafi's forces continue to launch mortars and rockets into Misrata from positions just outside the city, residents said. Human Rights Watch on Friday accused pro-Gadhafi forces of using cluster bombs, a devastating weapon banned by more than 100 countries, in highly populated civilian areas.
Doctors estimate that as many as 1,000 people have been killed in Misrata, but the figures have been impossible to verify. The city's main hospital was under renovation when the bombings began nearly two months ago, so many of the wounded have been treated in small or makeshift clinics while basic medical care remains out of reach for most. At least one woman arrived in Benghazi in urgent need of dialysis.
An additional 7,000 migrants are waiting at the port in Misrata, according to the International Organization for Migration, which sent its ship back on Saturday night to retrieve more people. However, many of the migrants in Benghazi said that they knew families who have fled the city center and taken refuge with Libyan families in safer areas, and would likely join the exodus in the coming days.
"It's safe to say that if people knew that there was a boat that could take them out of there safely, there would be many, many thousands more who would come out from wherever they were staying," said Jemini Pandya, a spokeswoman for the organization in Geneva.
The majority of migrants who arrived Friday were Egyptians, with others coming from Bangladesh, Sudan, Ghana, Niger, Iraq and other impoverished lands. Gadhafi's Libya, with its relatively small population and oil-driven economy, has long been a magnet for foreign teachers and laborers.
Ali Karim Jawwad, a 42-year-old teacher from Iraq, said that his 2-year-old son complained of seeing tanks and warplanes in his sleep. Besides potatoes, he said, there were no vegetables, because the farms south of the city had been occupied or destroyed by Gadhafi forces, which killed chickens and sheep as they marched through the area.
"Electricity would come for two or three hours a day," said Jawwad. “The city was surrounded from all areas so there were no basic foods. You could stand in line for hours to get just a few loaves of bread."
Misrata, 130 miles east of the capital, Tripoli, is one of the last rebel cities in mostly Gadhafi-held western Libya. Many of its 500,000 people claim family connections to Benghazi, which has become a vital lifeline for humanitarian supplies, weapons and even anti-Gadhafi fighters.
Srinivasu Raju Budharaju, a 41-year-old from India, said that he saw four Egyptian men from his neighborhood wander toward a disabled Gadhafi tank one day when they were pelted with gunfire by rebels, who assumed they were with Gadhafi's forces. The men died on the spot, he said.
"They were just very curious. It happened so quickly," said Budharaju, who was teaching orthodontics at a dental college.
He had been living "like a rat," without electricity for nearly three weeks, shaving by the light from a headlamp and charging his laptop from a solar-powered battery. His cooking gas soon ran out, so one of his students brought him a small canister that lasted a few more days.
By the end there was no water to brush his teeth and barely anything to eat besides vitamins. When he boarded the ship Thursday and was presented with a piece of chicken, he said, it was the first time he'd eaten meat in nearly two months.