(NPR) - Ali Tarhouni shocked his University of Washington students when he abruptly left his faculty job to try to help wrest Libya from leader Moammar Gadhafi's 42-year grip on power.
It wasn't the usual workday for a de facto Cabinet minister, even in these extraordinary times. Tarhouni spoke to NPR on Thursday about his daring clandestine trip to bring money and moral support to the place he calls Libya's "small Leningrad."
Tarhouni knew rebel leaders would be extremely worried about losing their finance and oil minister in a single blow — as he holds both jobs — so he didn't tell them what he was up to.
"It was really a risky trip, and their fear was that if I am captured [by] Gadhafi, that's a trophy for him," Tarhouni says. "So in terms of the logic, I think they're right, but I'm not sure in these times logic should prevail all the time."
He arrived carrying badly needed money for salaries and, perhaps more importantly, the message that the people of Misrata had not been forgotten.
What Tarhouni wasn't prepared for were the scenes of devastation and the daily acts of bravery that have helped the last major rebel holdout in western Libya endure Gadhafi's barrage.
"I went there to boost their morale — the fact of the matter [is] they boosted my morale," he says. "It's a very courageous city."
Some residents who have escaped on aid ships have described the scene: Much of Misrata is under the control of Gadhafi's forces, with the lightly armed rebels clustered in the city center. For weeks, the government has pounded away, with snipers firing seemingly at random and tank shells and Grad rockets dropping almost daily.
The rebels have called urgently for more NATO airstrikes as the shelling continues.
Tarhouni says his hosts moved him around to avoid capture, at great cost to their own safety — a cost some paid in full measure.