AL-BAYDA, Libya (Reuters) - As cars streamed out of Benghazi carrying terrified families escaping from the fighting, people in villages along the way held out bottles of water and boxes of biscuits for them.
It was a sign of the solidarity that still exists among Libyans in the east of the country, heartland of the revolt against Muammar Gaddafi, even though their struggle is in dire peril.
The joy that greeted the U.N. resolution on Thursday that approves foreign military action against Gaddafi’s forces has given way to despair and fear since his troops attacked the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on Saturday morning.
After hours of gunfire and explosions in the city, the main road heading east to the border was jammed with thousands of cars carrying men, women and children to safer places further east and closer to the Egyptian border.
Some were loaded with cases of clothes and other possessions, others just with people.
“I’m going to Egypt,” said Hisham Shabam Saheur at a petrol station in Sarzgubah, a town about 70 km (40 miles) east of Benghazi.
“Gaddafi was in Benghazi today. There is no hope.”
The 25-year-old student was carrying his mother and father. As he spoke a gunman on the forecourt fired a burst into the air from his AK47 for no apparent reason, jolting the already nervous refugees.
On the eastern outskirts of Benghazi groups of men gathered on street corners, some with guns. But there appeared to be little in the way of organised defences such as roadblocks or sandbagged positions.
In the villages along the road men had set up makeshift checkpoints. Some wore camouflage or khaki, but most were in jeans and sports shirts. Not many had guns.
But they cheered and waved as the cars rolled through. Men handed out bottles of water and food from cases at the side of the road, wishing the refugees good luck.
Adel Manus had piled his wife and three children into his car. He expressed dismay at the failure of world powers to hit at Gaddafi’s forces immediately. “Do we have to wait until he kills all of us before the U.N. strikes?” he said at the gas station.
“We feel very diasppointed. When we heard the U.N. resolution we were very happy and thought we had our freedom. This guy (Gaddafi) has no mercy.”
In the lobby of the Loloat al-Khalij hotel in the shabby town of al-Bayda, about 200 km (120 miles) east of Benghazi, a group of women sat forlornly with their suitcases.
A grandmother, her two daughters and their seven children had left Benghazi in the morning after many sleepless hours.
“All I want to do is get my children to a safe place then go back to help,” said one woman, a U.S.-educated doctor who asked that her name not be used, for fear of reprisals.
She said she lived in a western district of Benghazi. As the explosions rocked the city her terrified young children had been so scared they vomited as they huddled under the staircase in their house. They decided to flee.
She said she had spoken by phone that morning to a colleague at the Benghazi hospital where she worked. “She said it was overwhelmed with casualties. They were coming in non-stop.”
The women wept as she spoke.
Her sister railed at the failure of foreign powers to act more quickly.
“Words are nothing. we need actions,” she said.
“We know what Gaddafi plans to do. We know he is going to torture and humiliate everyone in Benghazi.”
Editing by Andrew Roche