MISRATA, Libya — When Moammar Gadhafi's government shut off the cellphone network in Misrata in the early days of Libya's uprising, it wanted to stop rebel forces communicating with each other. But the power of a modern phone goes beyond its network.
Both rebels and government soldiers have used their phones to take pictures and videos of the conflict, a digital record of fighting from both sides. With the rebels now in Tripoli, the capital, and Gadhafi's whereabouts unknown, those gigabytes of potential evidence may play a role in any war crimes cases.
The International Criminal Court's chief prosecutor, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, made an appeal in February for "footage and images to confirm the alleged crimes,” after the United Nations Security Council referred the Libyan uprising to the court. A court filing applying for arrest warrants listed video evidence, mainly from media, but also from unspecified sources, in support of its claim.
In the Mediterranean city of Misrata, in particular, a group of rebel-allied lawyers has worked to gather evidence of what it calls Gadhafi forces’ war crimes.
"In the beginning when there were snipers, we had to move around carefully," said Omar Abulifa, a former prosecutor and head of the Misrata-based Human Rights Activists Association. "It was hard to get the evidence, but we did what we could."
As the rebels gained control of more of the city in April and May, the association set up a system to gather evidence after every incident, especially the continued bombardment of the city with Grad rockets by Gadhafi loyalists, which killed and injured many civilians. The footage they gathered includes videos taken from the cellphones of rebel fighters and from those of government troops captured or killed during the fighting. Other video and photographs came from citizens of the town.
Some of that film can be used as evidence, Abulifa says. "But not all of it because to be used as evidence it has to be from a trusted source and it has to be clear what is happening."
Around 150 gigabytes of video gathered by the city's media committee, which was set up after the uprising, has been provided to the association. A member of the committee gave a Reuters reporter who was in Misrata in July a large volume of that material.
"Everyone has stuff like this," said Ali, 21, an off-duty rebel fighter, as he showed a Reuters reporter videos on his touch-screen phone, including one of government tanks entering Misrata and one showing a man he says was an unarmed doctor who had been shot by Gadhafi troops and bled to death in the street.
Hair slicked back, and impeccably turned out in western jeans, shirt, and shoes, Ali speaks in the weary tone of a young man explaining modern technology to someone older.
"Just ask anyone, and they'll show you," he said.
Technology has been vital to Misrata's uprising since the beginning.
Ayman Al Sahli was puzzled when his closest childhood friend invited him to a dinner in a fisherman's hut on the beach in December. As the 31-year-old lawyer and six other men tucked into grilled fish, their friend, Mohammed Al Madani, explained why he had called the group together.
The accountant brought out a photograph of the old Libyan flag, which predates Gadhafi's seizure of power in a 1969 coup. The red-black-and-green flag with its white crescent moon and star is now ubiquitous in the rebel-held city and other parts of Libya. But it was forbidden in December, so a small, easily hidden photograph had to do.
Al Madani then used his mobile phone to play Libya's old national anthem. The song dates back to the country's independence in 1951 and was banned after Gadhafi seized power. None of the men present had ever heard it before.
"We spent the rest of the evening talking about the unrest in Tunisia," al Sahli says, "and about what Libya would be like without Gadhafi."
In the six months since they rose against Gadhafi, the 500,000 or so residents of Libya's third-largest city have remained close to one of the fiercest frontlines of the Arab Spring. The rebels seized Misrata in May after a bloody, three-month long battle against well-armed government militia and in the past few weeks forced the government troops west towards Tripoli.
With the rebels on the verge of victory, much is likely to be made of the NATO bombing raids, which have hammered Gadhafi's forces since March, and the role of Qatar, which has financed the rebels. But just as important have been two things on show that night in the Misrata beach hut: a low-tech, make-do resourcefulness and mobile phones.
A few days before Misrata's first street protest on Feb. 17, Mohammed Agila, 32, a bespectacled bank employee, took his heavily pregnant wife and two children to her parents' house. He withdrew all the money from his bank account and gave it to his father-in-law.
"I did not know exactly what would happen when we went out in the street," said Agila, one of 70 or so participants in that initial demonstration. "But I knew I could be arrested."
In the preceding months, Agila and Jamal Sibai, who also took part in the first protest, joined small group meetings like the one at the fisherman's hut.
"People met in groups of 10, 11, 12 and talked about going into the streets to demonstrate," said Sibai, 25, a slender, bearded art student and now a writer for a new newspaper called Free Libya. "We talked about freedom and the need for a constitution. We talked about how we wanted a president who could only serve for four or eight years and then, 'Thank you, goodbye.'
"We didn't talk about fighting," he added. "We just wanted the things a normal country should have."
In January, two Facebook pages — "Amal Libya" or Hope Libya, and another calling for a "day of anger" on Feb. 17 — helped protesters like Sibai and Agila realise they were not alone.
"Before the Facebook pages, we did not know exactly when or where we should go out into the streets," Agila said. "But they told us when and where to do it. We didn't create the revolution in Misrata," added Agila, now a radio announcer as well as working at a bank. "Everyone here wanted to do what we did. We just happened to do it first."
By this time Tunisia's Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak had already been toppled and protests were under way in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries. Protests began in Benghazi on Feb. 15, because of fears Gadhafi was preparing to send in his militia.
When protesters, most of them strangers to each other, showed up in the parking lot of Misrata's technological college on Feb. 17, they noticed cars carrying Gadhafi's secret police and militia waiting for them. All the protesters were arrested.
"I was afraid," Sibai said. "But I knew I had to do this anyway."
The first protests sparked off a series of increasingly large demonstrations in the city, Libya's commercial and industrial heart about 125 miles east of Tripoli. Government forces opened fire on protesters on Feb. 19. Rebels armed with Molotov cocktails, hunting rifles and crude, home-made blades, took control of the city within a few days, but barely.
On March 17, the same day a United Nations resolution ushered in a NATO bombing campaign, Gadhafi forces began an artillery bombardment. Within a few days government tanks backed by snipers firing from tall buildings on Tripoli Street, the city's main thoroughfare, had forced the rebels to hole up in the city's seaport.
"We had no weapons, so we fought with what we could find," says Abu Youssef, 55, a former caterer who recalls his amazement when he saw a teenager take out a tank in the early days of the uprising with just a Molotov cocktail.
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