Update: As a multinational summit convened in Paris to discuss military action against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan strongman continued to advance on his enemies in the east, against the rebel capital of Benghazi, and in the west, against the opposition stronghold of Misratah in spite of his declaration of a ceasefire on Friday. Gaddafi troops reportedly engaged with rebel fighters in the southern outskirts of Benghazi, with one hospital reporting 26 dead and scores wounded. A plane was shot out of the sky over Benghazi, though there was word that the aircraft possibly belonged to the rebels and had been felled by friendly fire. The night before, again in spite of Gaddafi's so-called cease fire, regime forces continued to batter the rebel city of Ajdabiyah, which lies roughly 100 miles south of Benghazi. TIME's Abigail Hauslohner traveled to within 25 kilometers of the besieged city to talk to the refugees streaming out of it, heading toward Tobruk, 250 miles away on a desert road. This is her report.
The people huddled in makeshift tents and around campfires at the villages they know only as 25 Kilometers, 35 kilometers, and 51 kilometers know nothing of the Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa's televised declaration of a ceasefire between government forces and Libyan rebels on Friday afternoon. All they know is that the fighting continues in their hometown of Ajdabiyah, less than half an hour's drive to the west. And residents are still fleeing for their lives. A United Nations Security Council resolution passed the night before, which authorized a no-fly zone against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces, seems equally distant from their reality. "Of course he's not afraid of the no-fly zone," says one resident Fathi Abdel Rahim of Gaddafi, whose government calmly welcomed the U.N. resolution, even as Ajdabiyah fell under heavy bombardment from government forces for the third night in a row. "He heard about the United Nations resolution, and abroad, he says 'OK OK.' But then he does what he wants," Abdel Rahim adds.
That's why Abdel Rahim has fled with his family and neighbors from Ajdabiyah's 7th of October neighborhood today, where they say the shelling was the heaviest. They took refuge at a village marked 25 kilometers (which has a real name, Al-Bayada), setting up a tent and a tiny windblown campfire, as they wait to learn the ultimate fate of their city. "Listen," interrupts one of the men, standing next to him in the cold desert darkness. "They are bombing again." Just 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) away.
Residents say thousands of people have fled Ajdabiyah in recent days. And many continued to flee on Friday, braving checkpoints enforced by tanks belonging to Gaddafi forces along the town's perimeter, even as missiles and mortar shells continued to fall on the city's streets. Many reported being searched as they left the city; government troops were looking for rebel flags, weapons, pictures or videos of the fighting, they said. "They searched us and searched our phones for pictures and videos," says a 19-year-old girl who fled with her family on Friday afternoon, and gave her name as Ezz. She and others reported having to say "Nothing but Allah, Muammar, and Libya," as they passed through the checkpoints. Others more grimly said they saw bodies in the streets that they could not retrieve.
"We thought the bombing would stop, but it didn't," says Fatima, 32, who fled to Village 51 Kilometers that afternoon as well. "Boom boom boom. The houses were shaking. Some [of the mortars] hit in our street. And there was a lot of it last night. We haven't slept in four days."
By nightfall, thousands had set up camp along the cold desert road between 25 and 51 kilometers away from the town. Electricity in the villages was shut off, and people squatting there said there was no running water. Some had run out of gasoline en route as they fled across the flat, 400-kilometer long sandy highway with no working gas station that connects Ajdabiyah to the eastern city of Tobruk. And throughout the day, volunteers from Tobruk ferried food, water, and plastic containers filled with gasoline down the long desert highway to rescue stranded cars and trucks. At 51 kilometers, volunteers had set up a tent and filled it with sacks of flour, juice, pasta and other food supplies for Ajdabiyah residents who had stopped there with no where else to go. "We are refugees," says Ezz who found shelter with dozens of women and children in a local's home.
On Friday night, as a nearly full moon passed behind thick clouds, blanketing the camps in darkness, the thudding explosions of shelling continued in the background, audible above the shouted conversations of Ajdabiyah residents and volunteers struggling to coordinate an escape to cities further afield, like Tobruk near the Egyptian border. At least one bus idled as women and children packed its seats; the driver had come through the desert from the town of Al-Maraj near Benghazi to bring fleeing residents to homes there to hide out in safety. "We arrived this morning from Ajdabiyah, but we are going to Tobruk now because there is no water here and no hospitals," says Mona, 18, sitting with her sisters in the darkened backseat of a car at 25 kilometers. "There was heavy shelling all night, from sunset until about 1 a.m.," she says.
Other Ajdabiyah residents said that their 7th of October neighborhood had been "completely destroyed." Some reported seeing snipers. Ajdabiyah's hospital, many said, was filled to capacity. One offered a video, shot with a mobile phone, that showed a house that had been bombed somewhere in the city. Abdel Rahim and his neighbors listed a few of their other neighbors who were killed the day before, ranging in age from a seven-year-old boy to 25-year-old man. None of the information could be independently verified.
Last night, they said some men still ventured out into the streets of Ajdabiyah, despite the violence, to celebrate after their generator-fed televisions told them that a no-fly zone resolution had been passed by the United Nations and Gaddafi's forces would soon face the consequences. But Abdel Rahim and his friends said men driving in a white opel sedan and a white Nissan Maxima began shooting at people out in the streets. They fled indoors. "Maybe [Gaddafi] would be afraid if they bombed his troops close to Ajdabiyah," says Abdel Rahim, standing by the campfire. His friend Moussa al-Duleimy, cuts in: "If the United Nations started bombing them now, we would go back to fight in Ajdabiyah."