Gaddafi’s War: A Diary

Libyans all over the world have kept a close eye on the revolutions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt -- Now they feel it is their turn

It wasn’t that any of this was a surprise: Gaddafi had made his position clear from the start: “Either I rule over you or I kill you, destroy you, ” said Libya’s ambassador to the United Nations, Abdurrahman Shalgham, who turned against the regime. Gaddafi threatened to wipe out the city of Benghazi hours before the Security Council Resolution 1973 was enforced. And though his regime declared a cease-fire on Mar. 19, his troops entered the city, firing sporadic bullets, as friends related in terrified accounts. 

When the no-fly zone was finally enforced, Benghazi cheered for Sarkozy. And even though it had come a little late, survivors see him as their savior, giving me a glimmer hope, in a scenario where I have lost all hope.

Libya has been one of several Arab nations in the past few months that has witnessed a wave of protests against long standing dictatorial regimes. The attempt to supress the February 17th Revolution has been by far the most brutal, with death toll in the thousands in 8 weeks, and many more missing. Reports from Benghazi claim that African mercinaries were let loose on the civilian populations from the beginning, and many more reports from within Tripoli, Zawiya, and other Libyan cities claim heavy bombing of civilians, and kidnappings of doctors, nurses, and even children.

I was born in Libya but never actually lived there until very recently. It used to be just a place to visit family once a year and I never really considered it my home – until now.

Fortunately, I got out just in time, unharmed but greatly distressed and wanting to go back to a free homeland, free of violence, free of struggle.

A friend of mine, a man in his late thirties and of reputable social standing, explained to me once why he gave up the comfort of a professional life founded upon his allegiance to Gaddafi.

“I was constantly harassed,” he said, every now and again ‘anti-corruption officials’ would interrogate him and his family. “Eventually I resigned, I could not deal with being treated like a criminal.” The system Gaddafi had created resulted in a state of perpetual paranoia. No one felt secure, even if you were honest. You always had the feeling of being watched, that at any moment an unfounded rumor could cost you your job, and what’s worse, you knew that if the “mad dog” felt like it, you would be gone.

So my friend, now a father of two, explained how he was forced to work a routine state job for eight hours a day to earn a mere 350 Dinars (aprox. EUR 200), not nearly enough to provide for him and his family.

“I come to wish sometimes that I hadn’t gotten married or had kids,” he would repeatedly tell me, dismayed that he could no longer provide for them. To earn a bare minimum, he had to moonlight another 6 hours a day, from 7 in the morning till midnight, with only an hour or two to rest.

In Libya state salaries are minimal, and I can’t help but wonder how a family can survive on 350 Dinars a month. Things like healthcare, basic food materials, and necessities are cheap – a bagful of bread would cost a quarter, a visit to the dentist – 5 Dinars. But renting an apartment may cost more than you earn, so you could be in an impossible situation where you are able to sustain and medicate yourself, but remain homeless.

“Forty-one years!” Gaddafi is proud of that. Billboards posted around Tripoli serve as a bitter reminder of just how long we have allowed our country to slip deeper and deeper into corruption. But it’s actually forty-two years that Libyans have been silenced, unable to express political discontent, not even being able to speak out. Gaddafi’s Great Libyan Arab People’s Republic was hypocritical from the start, as this self proclaimed “King of Kings of Africa” rose to power through a bloodless military coup against Idris Senussi with the promise that the days of Monarchy were over. Yet today, the “Brother Leader of the Revolution” is in a fight to the death, clinging to power and the billions worth of oil money that have been consistently squandered by him and his seven sons for the past four decades.

Libyans have kept a close eye on the revolutions in neighboring Tunisia and Egypt. Everywhere I went in those last weeks in Tripoli, from the corner shop to the office, TVs were tuned to Al Jazeera. We could feel the winds of change, but no one would have thought it would ever leak into Libya. Not because people were unhappy, quite the opposite, but because everyone knew what would happen if they decided to act.

We have gone through all of this before. In the eighties, Gaddafi carried out a terror campaign against his own people, hanging students in the universities and broadcasting the images on TV as a warning. And that terrified us.

After the resignation of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11, as I and a group of friends were discussing what happened in hushed voices, one started in, “I’ve heard things…,” the other interrupted him,

‘So have I, but lets not talk about it here.” Apparently, as I found out after he took me aside, Benghazi had hosted celebrations after Mubarak’s fall.

“Here too in Tripoli,” he said, “People were honking their horns on Gargaresh Road.”

All this is forbidden in Libya; people are not allowed to celebrate Christmas Eve or New Years with displays. Official government websites warn against this kind of dissent; it is punishable by law. So a few people honking horns across one of Tripoli’s major roads and celebrations all over Benghazi was a huge thing. People were speaking out in public, something I had never seen before. It felt like a new beginning. People were stepping out of the zone of safety they had always feared to leave, and would soon start asking for more.

Protests were planned for Feb. 17th, but Benghazi took to the streets two days earlier. Something sank inside me as I watched the first uploaded video on Twitter depicting protesters being shot. In the next few days the government pulled the plug on social networking and e-mails, and then Al Jazeera.

The next morning I decided to go to work, still worried what might happen. As I stared out the window an eerie calm filled Tripoli. Does anyone else know what’s going on? Is it just me?

I took my headphones out, as the radio was not playing the usual morning songs of Fairouz but something quite different. It was the national anthem, and the song “Ya Libya ya Gana” (Oh Libya, What a Heaven). Confusion washed over me in a cool and massive wave. But the greatest surprise was still to come: At 8.00 a.m., for the first time during my stay in Tripoli, a morning news broadcast came on the air.

“There had been a series of pro-Gaddafi protests that began at dawn in Tripoli.” The presenter reported. He then went on to recite verses from the Green Book, allegedly written by Gaddafi himself, followed by quotes from the chants of the protesters, all of which threaten and caution anyone who crosses the ‘mad dog’:

“We shall defend our “Brother Leader” with blood if necessary,” they shouted, sending a shiver down my spine. I couldn’t believe that this was real. Would they really be willing to kill their fellow countrymen for him? “There is no revolution after Al-Fatah revolution,” the host said, closing the segment.

I left the flat and headed out for a meeting, and as we passed Gaddafi’s headquarters, in Bab Azzizzah, I saw soldiers standing outside, armed and ready to quell a revolt. The streets were gathering crowds of demonstrators heading towards the Presidential Palace in a pro government rally of support.

Over the next few days as tensions grew, we slowly began to feel a wide gulf between the East and West. I watched videos of protests in Benghazi turning violent, while the roads of Tripoli revealed thuggish looking men driving around, shouting slogans supporting Gadaffi. On the 17th a text message that circulated cell phones read: “From the Youth of Libya: beware not to cross the four red lines, but if you do, come see us on any street or square in our beloved country.” Col Gadaffi’s son Saif al Islam defined the “Four Red Lines” a few years ago. They consist of: The Leader, National Unity, Territorial Integrity and Islam.

I did not want to leave Libya, but I had to; all my travel arrangements had been made in advance without my knowledge, while I had been taken away to my grandparents home where it was safer. I came here literally bearing just the clothes on my back. All those who remained I consider heroes. From Mohamed Nabbous, a murdered journalist that spoke out, to Iman Al-Obeidi who was raped by 15 of Gaddafi’s hoods. Even my grandmother heads out every day to make her voice heard. The regime has destroyed her home of 30 years and taken too many of her loved ones.

Now, in Vienna all I can do is protest. But it is not enough. I feel like a traitor.

How could I leave my own family and friends to suffer in a land where most of my fellow countrymen see the leader as a deranged tyrant? I ask my family in Libya to stay at home, they reply: “Why, are we better than the others?”

Around 200-300 people attended the protest on Stephansplatz on Feb. 25.

“There is no God but Allah, and Gaddafi is the enemy of Allah,” the crowd chanted. The Libyan Embassy here has defaulted. During the protest they stated: “We no longer serve the government of Gaddafi, we serve the Libyan People”.

It was mostly young people, but not only; whole families of Libyans, Egyptians and others showed up. As we stood in the bitter cold, we held the old monarchical flag as a show of support for our fellow countrymen who have been putting their lives at risk for the past 45 days in the name of freedom.

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