MISRATA, Libya — The man pressed close, patting the pockets of a foreigner, repeating a single word: “Food. Food. Food.”
Hundreds of migrant workers stranded by Libya’s war clustered Thursday evening outside the harbor gates of this city, under siege since February from forces loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. Battle lines cross through several of its neighborhoods. The loyalists’ artillery or rocket batteries fire their munitions into residential areas. Electricity is mostly cut off.
“We have been here 56 days,” said Fahed Mohammed, 50, an agricultural laborer from Egypt. “As you can see, we are just sitting in the road.”
“We want only to leave Libya,” said another man, Aman Abdul Latif.
The workers’ anxiety was palpable. A few ships have stopped at Misrata’s docks to ferry migrant workers to safety. But thousands of laborers still wait, unsure when their turn will come.
Unconfirmed estimates claim as many as 1,000 people have been killed during the siege of Misrata. Medical officials said at least 23 were killed and many more wounded early Thursday, when a barrage of 80 or more rockets landed beside the port. Ruptured and smoldering shipping containers could be seen in the evening. Smoke rose in places in the city.
The Misrata hospital offers testimony to the fighting’s toll. Outside, one scene captured the rebels’ underdog status: a smashed black sedan in the parking lot, its fender curled, headlight shattered and passenger seat and door coated in blood. The only weapon, lying beneath the driver’s seat, was a sword.
Inside, doctors and nurses crowded around the bed of Arwa Baawa, 6, who had been struck by shrapnel in her torso and neck. A nurse touched her ankle, feeling her pulse. The girl survived, although the sounds of gunfire outside, and the occasional explosion in the night, made clear that in the siege of Misrata, there were many more casualties to come and ample reasons for the migrant workers, still stranded along the roads to the port, to want to leave.
The Ionian Spirit, a passenger vessel chartered by an international organization, entered Misrata on Thursday afternoon with the mission of rescuing the workers, after a nearly 19-hour passage from Benghazi, the rebel capital in eastern Libya.
Its mission is urgent, said Jeremy R.A. Haslam, head of the crisis response team on board. A brightly painted cruise ship that usually plies the Greek, Italian, and Albanian coasts, the Ionian Spirit was chartered by the International Organization for Migration, which hopes to pick up at least 800 of the more than 6,500 migrant workers who have been trapped in Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city.