People from Libya's battle-scarred city of Misrata queued up to vote in their first free election Monday, hoping to set a standard for the rest of the country as it prepares for national polls in June after the war that overthrew Muammar Gaddafi.
Months after Misrata saw the biggest and bloodiest battle in Libya's eight-month conflict, voters waited outside polling stations set up in schools, many of the buildings still marked with bullet holes from the fighting.
Residents were picking the new 28 members of the Misrata local council, who will have the tough job of rebuilding a city of around 300,000 people which was bombed beyond recognition.
For the first time in our life we feel we are human. We can choose what we want, it's a joy for all Libyan people, and God willing, it will get better and better, teacher Basma Fortey said, showing her left index finger dipped in ink for the vote.
Security was tight in the coastal city, with armed men, sometimes near trucks mounted with anti-aircraft guns, standing guard at the schools.
Banners reading Just as you were present on the front line, be there for the election were posted around the destroyed city. The small town of Zwara last year held local elections but Misrata's polls are the first in a major settlement, its residents say.
Former rebel fighters, many of them in military fatigues, lined up with other voters outside the polling stations, that were segregated between men and women. Nearby, along the main thoroughfare of Tripoli Street, stores, government offices and apartment blocks had been blown to pieces.
I feel like I've achieved all I've worked for, all I've fought for and everything my friends died for, said Mohammed Ali, one ex fighter, still limping from a gunshot wound to his back. Thank God the blood of our martyrs hasn't been shed in vain.
During the conflict, many Libyan cities hastily set up local councils without much process. Misrata officials say now it is time for the people to choose.
The city set up its own electoral committee last month to organize the polls. It wants to set a precedent for the rest of Libya, as the interim national government leads the oil-producing country to its first free polls in June to elect a national assembly which will have the job of writing a constitution.
Around 100,000 people had registered to vote, the head of the Misrata electoral committee told Reuters last week, picking from a list of around 245 candidates.
Misrata was besieged by elite Gaddafi forces for months and bombarded with mortars, shells and rockets. Against all odds, the city held on and its forces went on to help take Tripoli.
Despite the huge scale of destruction, Misrata has become a rare bastion of order in Libya. The local government is relatively efficient, rules are enforced and there is a sense of people working together.
That is in stark contrast to the capital Tripoli, where different militias and interest groups collide in a chaotic and sometimes violent free-for-all while a weak national government looks on powerless to intervene.
Preparations for the national election in June are not running smoothly. Dozens of parties have sprung up but the electoral picture has been clouded by a lack of security and wrangling over how the vote will be run.
Wartime rebel prime minister Mahmoud Jibril has said Libyans could shy away from the June elections unless more is done to educate them about the vote.
(Writing by Marie-Louise Gumuchian)