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Tripoli Is 'Free'?

Through first-hand interviews with different people living in Tripoli, this article explores the meanings of freedom and the challenges ahead following the 17 February revolution in Libya.


Tripoli Is ‘Free’?

Prashant Bhatt

cities where there is still support for the deposed dictator. Also, there is no accounting for the large number of weapons that were looted from the arms depots of the regime during the insurrection and

Through fi rst-hand interviews with different people living in Tripoli, this article explores the meanings of freedom and the challenges ahead following the 17 February revolution in Libya.

Prashant Bhatt ( is a doctor based in Tripoli.

“Tripoli is free”, a slogan that sums

up the outcome of the 17 Febru

ary 2011 revolution which led to the end of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi ’s 42-year-old rein is widely seen among the graffiti decorating the walls of the Libyan capital. The brutal reaction of the regime to the democratic aspirations of the people led to militarisation of the movement and more than half a million expatriate workers fled the confl ict. In recent months, I have come across several people who stayed behind, braving all odds; ordinary people who do not fi gure in the big power narratives to do with billions of dollars transferred abroad, of assets frozen or of high-minded council resolutions.

As the history of this region takes a decisive turn, I have spent some time looking into the narratives of common people long suppressed and examining how they have been affected by the upheaval and its aftermath. Social change will take time, but it is certain that the feared and hated dictator is not returning. So the streets resound with cries of Shafshoofa Maleshi, shafshoofa referring to Gaddafi’s long hair, which some say was full of lice, and maleshi meaning “sorry”.

“Tripoli is free” sounds like a contradiction in many ways. The forces of the 17 February revolution gained freedom from a despotic regime with overwhelming support provided by the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), which interpreted United Nations Security Council resolution 1973 in favour of protecting civilians in Libya and establishing a no-fly zone in a very broad manner. This amounted to covertly arming and training the rebels and backing their advance with heavy aerial bombing. Though the logic of protecting civilians was applied in March 2011 when Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, was threatened by Gaddafi’s army, the same logic does not seem to hold good now in the case of so-called “loyalist”

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after it. Surely having porous borders through which these weapons can fi nd their way to anywhere in the world cannot be a good thing. For that matter, almost everybody in Tripoli now possesses a firearm, and while the National Transitional Council (NTC) has no real authority, armed militias rule the roost.

Against this backdrop, which shows the pitfalls in the path of nationalism in today’s world, the accounts presented here, based on interviews, involve a Libyan Arab, a Berber, a Nigerian migrant and an Indian doctor. They point to the multilayered and complex realities that characterise this region, something anyone attempting to consolidate a central authority in the country will have to contend with.

The Dissident Generation

Salem, who left Libya for the UK in 1981, is 42. Studying and later working there as an engineer, he married a Briton in 1988. He visited Libya in 2002 and returned to Tripoli for good six years later. Having played an active role on the ground during the revolution, he now does liaison work and also earns money by giving English tuitions. He represents a generation of Libyans who worked and waited in exile for decades, hoping to see the day Gaddafi and his army would get what they deserved.

Salem holds British and Libyan passports, but did not leave Libya when there was an evacuation of British citizens at the beginning of the confl ict. “I belong to this land. Whatever happens to its people, will happen to me”, he answered when asked about the wisdom of his decision.

His marriage came apart after his 2002 visit when he expressed a desire to raise his children in Libya. As he spoke of his marriage, traces of emotion fl itted across Salem’s face. Yet the precepts of his faith offered him comfort.

“My marriage broke down when I began insisting my children live in Libya. I have four children, two sons, two


daughters. As a Muslim it was very important for me to give everything I could to my wife and children. I am happy I could give my savings and the house built in England to them. It secures their future.” He added he had no regrets, rather was satisfied that he had given it all up for the sake of his children.

“This is it! There are a lot of casualties and now there is no going back”, Salem told me over the phone on 21 August, the second day of the Tripoli uprising.

“The first Tripoli uprising in February was brutally suppressed by the regime”, he went on to say. “So we prepared for a long time. Benghazi broke free in four days on 21 February. What we had read in books about revolutionary situations, where things change within hours, came true there. However, in Tripoli, there was a brutal counter-revolution and we decided to step back and prepare.”

Many district-level organisers in Tripoli worked through their associations to procure weapons and form local self-defence committees. When the rebel advance from the western Nafusa Mountains overran Zawiya (about 50 km west of Tripoli) and moved rapidly towards the capital on the evening of 20 August, mosques in the city exhorted people to go out and secure their streets. The districts of Tripoli then rose up in defence of their localities in a plan that had been organised for several months.

Gaddafi’s forces tried to terrorise the population the way they had done in February, but this time the people were well prepared. Local committees secured their districts and no one from outside was allowed to enter. If anyone tried to break through the barricades set up in all street corners by the residents, they were stopped by force. Despite this, there were house-to-house searches and killings in some areas (Ras-Hasan, Fashloom and Suq Juma) by armed mercenaries from sub-Saharan African countries. This, of course, led to reprisals and there were hundreds of casualties, but ultimately the will of the people prevailed.

The citizens’ committees thus successfully fought off the regime’s loyalists who once again tried to intimidate. Unlike in February, there was also a successful advance from outside Tripoli and NATO bombings. But it was the heroism of common people who bravely stood up for their rights that, to a large extent, prevented the state security forces from going zenga zenga (alley by alley) into the many neighbourhoods of the capital. Hundreds paid the ultimate price for this, many thousands were injured and had to go without proper medical treatment as the healthcare system had been severely compromised.

When unrest against his government gained strength in February, Gaddafi made a televised speech in Arabic in which he vowed to hunt down the “rats” (as he called the revolutionaries) “inch by inch, room by room, home by home, zenga zenga. This imported a catchy phrase into the lexicon of the revolution and a “Zenga Zenga” song parodying the speech went viral on the Internet. August showed the zenga zenga strategy gain new significance in Tripoli, but in exactly the opposite way Gaddafi intended.

Salem rang up about a week after the 27 August liberation of Tripoli and his call made it clear that the hospitals in the capital were still struggling to cope.

“My mother had a fall. We went to the oldest and largest teaching hospital in Tripoli. It was chaotic, but people were trying their best to help. I met a neurosurgeon there who works in the private sector but had volunteered to work in the public hospital.”

A Libyan Berber

Khawla, a staff nurse in her twenties, told of her uncle who died in June 1996 when the state security massacred some 1,200 political prisoners at Abu Salim prison, south of Tripoli. He had been arrested and detained without trial. Her family still bears the scars, like those of many Libyans who “disappeared” in the decades of tyranny. Abu Salim became a powerful symbol of state repression, one that drove thousands of the country’s revolutionaries.

Talking to Khawla brought to light a significant but often suppressed detail about the country. “Yes, we are Muslims, but we are not Arabs. We are the original inhabitants of this land – the Berbers,” she said.

may 19, 2012

The Berbers or the Amazigh community are the original inhabitants of North Africa, who were forced to leave the more prosperous regions following the Arab advance from the east. In Libya, many of them live among the plateaus and hills of the Nafusa Mountains, as well as in the Oasis of Fezzan in the south-west. In several African countries, the Berbers have been assimilated into the Arab population.

Gaddafi called Berbers a “product of colonialism” who were created by the west to divide Libya. Seeing them as a threat to his view of Libya as a homogeneous Arab society, the Amazigh language, Tamazight, and script, which is distinct from Arabic, was offi cially banned and could not be taught in schools. Giving children Amazigh names was forbidden. Those attempting to promote Amazigh culture, heritage and rights were persecuted, imprisoned and even killed.

The suppression of the Amazigh community has been highlighted by Amnesty International, which has asked the NTC to end all discrimination against it. It has said that Law No 24 of 1369, which prohibits the use of languages other than Arabic in publications, offi cial documents, public spaces and private enterprises, as well as the use of “non-Arab, non-Muslim names”, ought to be amended in line with international law and standards.

Not surprisingly, the fi rst successful attack on Tripoli from outside came from the western Nafusa Mountains, which is home to Berber communities. And the ranks of these inexperienced fighters included doctors, professors, students and even taxi drivers. Libya is known as an Arab state and is part of both the Arab League and African Union, but its Berbers who make up more than 5% of the country’s six million population do not usually figure in its modern narratives and mental maps.

“I was raised in Tripoli, but my grandparents live in the Nafusa Mountains”, Khawla said. “I cannot follow their dialect easily”.

This ancient divide, which was aggravated by Gaddafi, has to be properly addressed if there is to be any true democracy in Libya. The coming election could provide the Amazigh community

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with a sense of self-determination – a step, they hope, will lead to their rights being guaranteed by a new Libyan constitution and full national and regional recognition.

A Nigerian Immigrant

Carlos, a 27-year-old Nigerian, used to play in the Libyan football league and worked in the San Francisco church of Dahra. His father died when he was young. This probably shaped his character, always willing to help the disadvantaged as a part of his faith and as a service to the community. He now helps train footballers in the Egyptian league.

“The church is why I stayed and survived in Libya though my aim was to play in the leagues of Europe”, said Carlos. “In my spare time, I help to prepare papers for my community members who have fallen into drugs, prostitution, prisons. It is not easy for them, and I like to do god’s work. The bishop has asked me to find out about the cemetery in Misrata as the cemetery in Tripoli is full and the community needs to preserve the dignity of its dead.”

Community work has helped Carlos find meaning and stability in life but many other black African migrants in Tripoli have not been so fortunate. Expatriate communities in the Tripoli region are free to follow their religions, though their priests are not allowed to convert people. There are functioning Greek O rthodox, Anglican and Catholic churches in the capital and through volunteers like Carlos they render various services to the community.

While it is true that Gaddafi employed mercenaries, not all of the nearly one million black Africans in Libya were soldiers of fortune. Sub-Saharan residents in Libya, mainly from Chad, Niger, Somalia, Eritrea and Nigeria, have been targeted by rebel forces ever since they took control of Tripoli. There have been reports of mass round-ups and abuse of the migrants as well as looting of their homes and rapes. Rebel fighters have barged into residences, shouting murtazaka (mercenary). It is a word every black A frican in Libya knows too well.

There are no reliable figures on how many foreign mercenaries Gaddafi employed. Yet, it was almost certainly far fewer than the rebel fi ghters suspect. Most black Africans in Libya have been in the country for years doing casual manual labour. But just as it was easier to suspect foreigners of doing the G addafi’s bidding and carrying out some of the worst excesses of the conflict, so it is now easier to persecute those who can be easily distinguished by the colour of their skin.

Being black and African in Tripoli is not very safe. Public transport is stopped and armed men detain those who are dark. Filipino mafi sh mushkila (Filipino, no problem), they say to the non-black migrants, several of them Filipinos.

The Indian Camp

Around 18,000 Indians were evacuated by the Indian embassy in Tripoli, which showed marked efficiency during the crisis. Those working for companies in Libya did not have much choice but to leave and the Indians fleeing the confl ict from the Misrata region in the initial days of conflict in February-March had not slept, eaten or washed properly for several days. But those who chose to stay behind did so for their own reasons and at their own risk. Indian medical workers, for instance, had a base among the population they served and were not dependent on companies.

Bachchoo Singh, an Indian doctor who has been in Libya since 1988, politely but firmly told one of his “friends” who insisted that he flee the fi ghting, “How I reached here is a long story, which you have neither the time nor inclination to hear. Please do not impose your opinions on me. Leave me to my resources and judgment.”

Recounting some of his experiences in Libya, the doctor said, “My father-in-law used to work for the hydrology department here. He introduced me to this country.” Bachchoo Singh speaks Arabic fluently and is on familiar terms with Libyans of all classes as well as expatriates from his country.

Long before all the present troubles, a bhajan group was organised for the I ndian community in Tripoli by the Khemlanis, a Sindhi trader family settled in Libya since 1933. The prayer group served as a focal point for Indians.

In addition, big Sikh-owned construction companies like SSB and DS used to organise jagratas (all-night devotional festivals) and celebrate Guru Nanak J ayanti. Rich, long-term expatriates working in the oil sector and Sindhi trader families were at the forefront of the activities of these prayer groups.

“Now the community will take at least three years to restart life here”, said B achu Singh. “One year for the workers to return, another year for the families, and a third for some proper teachers to organise education”.

During the turmoil of the revolution, some Indian construction company sites were looted. Indian workers who stayed on in a camp outside the capital related their encounters, first with the loyalists and then with the revolutionary forces.

“They never harmed us physically, but very systematically took away our computers and televisions. When the rebels reached the camp, there was no serious fighting. The loyalist soldiers who had been camping here made good their escape by discarding their uniforms and boots. They always seemed to have civilian clothes under their uniforms but had to run barefoot because their boots would have given them away. We hid in a container for a few hours. Some people ransacked the whole camp but they did drive away with our vehicles as we had removed the batteries. They did not search to kill anyone.”

Justice by Thuwaar

Libyans have a tradition of marking dates and building movements around them. While the world knows about the 17 February revolution, the 7 April list marks the day in 1983 when public killings took place in the University of Tripoli. Those who carried out these killings continue to be marked men and are in hiding, many of them outside Libya.

Now, leading doctors who were close to the Gaddafi regime have either fl ed the country or been detained. There is costly diagnostic equipment, drugs and supplies in Tripoli’s hospitals. But the director of the largest teaching hospital, the Markis Tubbi, or Tripoli Medical Centre, has been detained for questioning and his passport has been confi scated so

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that he cannot flee the country. With the process of law yet to be established and no functioning courts, justice is what the thuwaar (revolutionaries) dispense.

In the Zawiya and Zuaara areas of western Libya, on the road to Tunis, there have been incidents of inter-tribal fi ghting, which had more to do with settling scores than being pro- or anti-Gaddafi . There have also been reports of killings in the town of Tawerga in the Misrata region. When the city of Misrata was being besieged by Gaddafi’s forces, there were many indiscriminate attacks on it from Tawerga and now the fighters from Misrata are paying it back in their own coin.

While this has been happening on the ground, Amnesty International has d emanded that all those arbitrarily d etained, including in the context of the conflict, be released and capricious arrests and detentions cease immediately. But this is a tall order. With the dissolution of known mechanisms of the state, even months after the liberation of Tripoli Libya remains devoid of established procedures or legal institutions.

Concluding Thoughts

When some Libyans who supported the overthrow of the regime were asked about the attitude of the victors to Gaddafi supporters, who now seek to peacefully express their views, and the detentions of black Africans, some became thoughtful while others were dismissive of the questions. Yet others said this was a transitional phase and a mature culture of intellectual enquiry and tolerance would take time and effort to emerge.

That may well be true. Libya’s new leaders will have to excel in many ways, not least in how they guarantee the freedom, dignity and justice that so many died for. But if it is to mean anything it must apply to all.

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