By Ayman Sahely
MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – The queue snakes out of the departures hall and deep into the carpark at Libya’s small Misrata airport – the main remaining gateway in and out of the country since fighting shut down the last runways in the capital Tripoli.
The people lined up with their luggage are the lucky ones. Others wait for their chance to queue – sitting on the pavement, one man camped out on a stalled baggage conveyor belt, trying to get some sleep with his head resting on his suitcase.
Misrata airport on Libya’s northwestern Mediterranean coast processed three to four flights a day last month.
Then armed groups fighting for territory and influence 200 km (125 miles) further west fired rockets towards Tripoli’s main remaining air hub – the latest in a long line of clashes since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi.
Flights were rerouted to Misrata. Ever since, its warehouse-sized terminal has been packed with up to 6,000 passengers pouring on and off dozens of flights every day, say officials.
“Misrata airport is not capable of handling these numbers,” said Soliman al-Jahimy, the airport’s spokesman.
In another part of the building, scores of migrants from other parts of Africa – who were stopped in Libya as they tried to get on to Europe – wait for U.N. flights to take them back home.
Elsewhere businessmen wait next to stranded families and elderly relatives in wheelchairs – hotels rooms are scarce in the city and flights are repeatedly delayed or cancelled. Many wait for seven hours or more.
Beyond Misrata, the other options are a tiny airport in the western town of Zuwara, next to the Tunisian border, sometimes used by diplomats – and less busy airports in eastern Libya, a territory run by a rival administration, opposed to the U.N.-backed administration in the west.
All are clustered on the coast, far from the country’s southern desert hinterlands which are beset by their own chaos and fighting between tribes and other armed groups that shut the airport in that region’s main city Sebha in January 2014.
“Getting here was a disaster,” says Basheer Hassan, exhausted after his long trek to Misrata.
“There were no flights operating in the south to Tripoli or to Misrata, so we had to drive here and I suffered all the way.”
(Writing by Seham Eloraby; Editing by Ulf Laessing and Andrew Heavens)