BERLIN (Reuters) - Libyan students are using mobile phones, an amateur video camera and YouTube to offer a glimpse of the war in the besieged city of Misrata where journalists are prevented from reporting freely.
Braving sniper fire, indiscriminate shelling and advancing tanks, five students go out daily onto the rubble-strewn streets of Libya’s third-biggest city to film the fighting between forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and rebels seeking his overthrow.
“We want people inside and outside Libya to see what is happening here,” group member Ghassan said by telephone from Misrata.
They started uploading videos in late February, around the time Gaddafi’s forces launched a brutal crackdown on the coastal city, now the rebels’ last major enclave in western Libya.
Under their Freedom Group channel, the group has posted some 130 videos, some of which include chilling footage of fierce street battles. Others depict a ghost town where residents cower indoors, often several families to a dwelling.
Sounds of gunfire, explosions, and armed rebels chanting “Allahu Akbar!” (God is greatest) reverberate against the backdrop of images of smoke billowing over residential areas, pro-Gaddafi snipers on rooftops, and buildings and streets scarred by the fighting.
The channel has garnered half a million views since the first video was posted on February 25 showing graphic footage of bloodied bodies. A voice-over says they were rebels killed by Gaddafi loyalists.
The site’s popularity may stem from the dearth of independent accounts coming out of Misrata, which has been under siege for over a month and remains off-limits to foreign journalists.
The government recently promised reporters a visit to central Misrata to demonstrate the city was under Gaddafi’s control. They made it as far as a government-controlled neighborhood on Misrata’s outskirts.
Ghassan was a pharmacology student at Misrata University when the revolt erupted on February 17. Many of his friends joined rebel ranks but he and four other students, all aged between 20 and 25, chose to document the uprising instead.
“At first I was scared. But when the fighting started to get ugly and some of our friends died I overcame my fear,” 22 year-old Marwan, the group’s main cameraman, said by telephone.
Initially they focused on filming anti-Gaddafi slogans sprayed on walls in the city center but now they frequently accompany rebels to the frontline, even though pro-Gaddafi forces have intensified their attacks.
“Sometimes we go out by foot. Other times we go to the frontline in civilian cars with the fighters. They all know us,” said Marwan. “Our main goal is to show the outside world what is happening here. But sometimes our work helps the rebels.”
Their footage of government snipers on rooftops in the city center had aided the rebels in planning attacks against the gunmen and strategies to block government supply lines.
Other videos provide a rare insight into the humanitarian disaster aid agencies say is unfurling in the city. Among them is an interview with a doctor appealing for urgently needed medical supplies and surgeons.
The medic put the death toll from 13 days of fighting in March at 140. Human Rights Watch says at least 250 have been killed in the last month.
The students have another message to convey to Gaddafi: that they are no longer scared of his oppressive regime.
One of their most viewed videos is called ‘The missing part of Muammar Gaddafi’s speech’ in which Gaddafi’s voice is substituted by the sound of a barking dog.
In Arab culture, comparing a man to a dog is the deepest insult. “We are ready to die for this cause,” said Marwan.
Editing by Richard Lough