MISRATA, Libya — A group of young women admired the latest range of dresses through a bullet ridden store window. Across the street, children with school bags full of new books and pencils clambered over rubble to attend school for the first time in months. The main streets were bustling as commuters made their way to jobs previously abandoned.
Seven months of civil war and a six month long siege have taken a heavy toll on the city of Misrata. Her streets still bear the scars. By local government estimates, about 65 percent of the city lay in ruins.
But despite the damage, including blast holes from mortars and shattered windows, shops here are beginning to reopen. Supplies of food and fuel are beginning to return to normal and schools and offices are functioning again.
This city is slowly healing.
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"Life has come back to Misrata," said rebel fighter Ahmed Alamine as he drove back into the city from the front line in Sirte on Friday. "People are walking in the street again, shopping in malls. Children are playing."
But underneath the semblance of normality, the city is still grieving the loss of more than 1,500 of men, women and children.
"Every time I come back I see the life, but it's not the same," Alamine continued. "So many people are missing. We don't see their faces, but we see their names on the walls."
On walls and fences across town are painted the names and images of those who gave their lives for Libya's freedom. A visit to Misrata's central hospital bears testament that the city's misery is not yet over. More than 10,000 have been injured during this conflict. Each day, the dead and wounded continue to arrive from Sirte, where about 6,000 Misratan fighters are leading the final, brutal battle for Gaddafi's hometown.
While the fighting continues elsewhere, Ibrahim Betamal, who heads security for the city, said Misrata is now 80 percent secure. The grad rockets that once exploded daily can no longer reach the city limits and Gaddafi loyalists are no longer a threat, he said. Betamal spoke positively of the future, noting that the community had formed a new sense of unity through hardship.
In a recent visit to the area, the leader of the new Libyan government Mustafa Abdul Jalil said $30 million had already been allotted to the rebuilding of Misrata, and more was to come.
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Through bravery and grit, the fighters of Misrata have forged a reputation internationally.
In the same speech, Jalil addressed the "heroes of Misrata," saying they had "set an example for the world to follow."
Almost all of the men who formed this ragtag force of civilians had never held a gun before facing Gaddafi's men. With makeshift weapons and sheer determination they drove a fully equipped army out of their city. Now more experienced and heavily armed, but fighting in unfamiliar territory, Misrata's soldiers say they will fight until all of Libya is free.
On a break in his family home, 20-year-old rebel fighter Mohammed Altanshe said his mother still cries when he heads back out to battle. For Altanshe it is what will come when the fighting is done that worries him most.
"When this war is finished I will have time to sit and think," he said as he headed back out with his battalion. "I will think of my friends killed, the ones who have lost legs and been injured, the destruction of the city. I don't know how it will be to go back to normal life."
Amid the pain and loss, there is also new found joy as families are gradually reunited and Libya edges closer to an end to a conflict that has divided the nation.
Last month, Lutfia Abushaala, 56, broke into tears when she talked about the divisions her family has experienced since the start of the conflict. Three of her sons were fighting on the front line. Her daughter and two grandchildren were cut off from the family in Tripoli, and her eldest daughter left for Tunisia with her 9-year-old grandson, where he was rushed for emergency treatment after being shot by snipers.
But last week her home was full of noise and love again as all her grandchildren ran and played together for the first time this year. As her daughters laughed and exchanged stories about their ordeals, Abushaala beamed with joy.
"I cried so much. I had so much fear, thinking all the time — worrying," she said as she spoke of the dark days of Misrata's siege. "Now we are so happy. There are no Gaddafi forces, no fear, no threats. We are all together."
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For Lutfy Alamin, a prominent fighter among the Misratan battalions, the reunion with his brothers was indescribable.
"Two of my brothers were arrested on Feb. 17, before our protests even began. We thought they had been killed because we had heard no news about them," he said.
Both had been held in Abu Salim prison and were freed by rebel forces on Aug. 23 while Alamin battled Gaddafi's men in a nearby area of Tripoli, oblivious that his brothers were so close.
"I can't explain how it feels when you think you've lost someone and you find yourself with them again."
Although the rewards are many, medical volunteer Ahmed Elbira said he has witnessed first hand the heavy price Misrata has paid for victory.
"There is not a meter of Misrata that did not suffer from Gaddafi's rockets, his bullets, his army. They didn't differentiate between civilians and fighters, they shot everything in the street, even the cats," said the 22-year-old, who has worked in the field hospital since the outset of the revolution.
"The people of Misrata gave everything for this war; their money, their possessions, their lives. Our best men died for Libya's freedom."