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Hope Among The Ruins

11 minute read
Abigail Hauslohner

The fortress was once believed to be impregnable. But the walls of Bab al-Aziziyah and almost all its buildings have been pulverized into a wasteland. It is as if Libya poured 42 years of rage into the 2.3-sq.-mi. space. All that remain are mounds of ruin, twisted metal and smashed concrete. Some areas have become garbage dumps; others, pasture for sheep. And in place of its old master–the equally pulverized and deceased Muammar Gaddafi–there are new residents, squatters who have moved in to claim Bab al-Aziziyah for themselves. Khadija Mohamed is one of them. She was born the year Gaddafi came to power, and even in the messy months after his fall and death, she is still incredulous at the revolution’s achievements. “We can speak,” she says. “We can express our ideas. Before, we couldn’t even say we were suffering.”

The Libyan revolution was the most thorough to take place during last year’s Arab Spring–and perhaps in all modern Arab history. And the Libyans are still proud and giddy. “Nothing has changed in Egypt, where the military stayed in charge,” says Saad Abdel Ghader, a resident of Benghazi, the birthplace of the rebellion against Gaddafi. “Here we got rid of everything!” But that means Libya must more or less rebuild from scratch. The country–with no experience of democracy–is hurtling toward a national election in June. Meanwhile, regional militias continue to sit on huge caches of weapons, the tribes talk divisively of federalism, and everyone worries about how Libya’s enormous petroleum and gas resources are going to be shared. On a 1,000-mile trip retracing TIME’s coverage of the revolution, photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I found an almost surreal optimism across the country of 6 million people spread out over territory bigger than France, Spain and Germany combined. The hope is uncanny because Libya faces three grave challenges: veritable city-states that are willing to defend their newfound influence with arms; emotions still raw and unforgiving from the months of conflict; and economic forces that may yet rip Libya asunder. Is hope going to be enough?

Oil: A Double-Edged Sword

Hamad Esbak sees potential. In his hometown of Shahhat, ancient Greek and Roman columns, temples and amphitheaters seem to sprout from the hills almost as ubiquitously as the trees–picturesque vistas just waiting for tourists to explore them. “Look at this–all open space. If we had good people with money in charge, we would build this into something better than Lebanon or Dubai.” Esbak’s paradise lies in the Green Mountains of eastern Libya. Like most of his neighbors, the property owner took up a gun last year to fight the Gaddafi regime, mostly because the dictator did nothing for the region, letting it rot with malignant neglect despite the fact that it holds some 80% of the country’s proven oil reserves.

But in the months since Gaddafi’s fall, the residents of the Green Mountains are shifting blame. The dead dictator cannot be held entirely responsible for the problems of the living. Impatient for a reinvestment of what they feel are the profits of their oil riches, eastern Libyans are now criticizing the transitional authorities in Tripoli and calling for a federal system that splits the country into semiautonomous states. It is an idea that has some people–both supporters and opponents of federalism–warning of violence if those on either side of the argument get too pushy.

Oil is the basis of eastern Libya’s wanting its fair share of the national wealth. And that promise keeps gushing. Libya has been quite successful in rehabilitating its vast network of oil fields and refineries in the wake of the civil war. The town of Ras Lanuf, one of the country’s most important refinery and export points, sits on what was one of the most lethal front lines. The infrastructure changed hands at least six times. But when we stopped there on our way across the country, the oil workers were proud that in a matter of months, they had already improved functionality from 0% to 80%. Some fought on opposite sides of the war, but most deemed oil too important to neglect after the battles were over. “I’m really surprised by how calm and friendly people became after the revolution,” says Hasan Murtaza, a Turkish engineer at the Harouge Oil Operations export terminal. “Can you imagine being in a civil war, with both sides losing lives, and now they’re coming together and working together? There isn’t any tension at all.”

At least on the surface, everyone is trying to keep the debate civil. Even federalists like Esbak insist that despite their desire to win more autonomy, they have no intention of monopolizing oil the way Gaddafi did. “Oil is national income, and it belongs to all Libyans and the central government,” says Ahmed Zubeir al-Senussi, leader of the federalist cause. “If you’re talking about selling, that’s for the country to decide.” Senussi, however, says eastern Libya may still establish a local militia to “protect” its oil.

A Nation of City-States

Practically every city that joined the revolution created a militia to fight Gaddafi, and after the dictator’s fall, none gave up the newfound might. The most extraordinary example is the town of Zintan in the western Nafusa Mountains. Formerly a poor village of seasonal farmers and shepherds, it is one of the biggest victors of the revolution and, having taken much of the regime’s arms, has one of the largest arsenals in western Libya. The weapons are its insurance policy against a return of Gaddafi loyalists or anyone it deems too much like the late dictator. On the day we visited, the town had–undeployed–50 tanks, a dozen armored personnel carriers, powerful machine guns and shipping containers full of bullets, mines and rockets, including shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles that can take down an airplane. They also hold, as another trump card, Gaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam. He was captured by Zintani militiamen in the chaos of the regime’s collapse and is held in a secret location in spite of pressure on Tripoli from the International Criminal Court in the Hague to hand him over for trial.

Zintani fighters are all over Libya, patrolling the southern and western borders, securing oil fields, intervening in tribal conflicts. At one point, the Zintanis even controlled Tripoli’s international airport. While it has given up the airport, Zintan has shown very little interest in surrendering its newly acquired muscle. “We were the first to carry weapons, and we will be the last to give them up,” says Ali Youssef, a spokesman for the Zintan local council. “Zintanis are involved in security for all the tribes in Libya. What would happen if we gave up our weapons now? There’s potential for a civil war to explode.”

The transitional government is trying to absorb former rebels into a new national army and police force, perhaps including veteran officers from the old regime. But the revolution has created a new paradigm for those who hold the guns in the new Libya. “A rebel who fought on the front lines is, for us, better than any colonel or general from the old regime,” says Ismail Mohamed al-Salabi, a young former rebel, in Benghazi. “We’re supporting the real fighters–the revolutionaries–those who fought for the liberation of the country without any orders from the top.”

The Wounds of War

The psychological trauma of the civil war is still fresh and may take generations to heal. Appearances can be deceiving. Misratah, so recently the symbol of Gaddafi’s brutality and the rebels’ fortitude, has gone from bombed out to boomtown. BURGER KING, COMING SOON TO TRIPOLI STREET, reads a colorful billboard on Misratah’s main drag. (It refers to a counterfeit of the American fast-food chain.) Many locals lost their lives on Tripoli Street, but now it is full of florists, restaurants and grocery stores. Young men joyride on motorcycles up and down the avenue, past uniformed traffic cops. Everywhere, buildings are under construction.

But there is bitterness amid victory. Nassima Abdul Halim lost her son Mahmoud to a regime sniper the day before NATO intervened in March 2011. As the fighting raged in Misratah, rebels gave her a chance for revenge. They brought her a regime soldier they had captured. They also handed her a gun. “He gave me his back,” she recalls. And then she killed him. “The people who were fighting us–we shouldn’t be merciful with them because they had no mercy for us. Other mothers did the same,” she says, her eyes filling with tears. But she still finds it hard to move on. “We are psychologically destroyed,” she says. “We need doctors to help us cope with this suffering.”

If the victors are wounded, the defeated are disconsolate. Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirt in central Libya has been the biggest loser. There, the ground is still littered with shrapnel and bloodied clothing. Houses and schools have had their walls smashed in by rockets and tank shells. Electric poles are uprooted like trees after a hurricane. At a new children’s center run by a local NGO, one child used crayons to illustrate NATO planes dropping bombs on his town–his terrifying remembrance of the Western intervention that saved the rebellion but doomed the regime. Another sketched Gaddafi’s old green flag with a check mark and the new Libyan flag crossed out.

“How can people come back to this?” asks Ahmed Bushnaf, an electrician, sitting on the curb outside his damaged home in Sirt. “I think it’s going to go from bad to worse. There’s no security. There are weapons everywhere. I think the families of the tribe will be marginalized.” Indeed, the people of Sirt, who hail mostly from Gaddafi’s tribe–the Gaddadfa–worry that the name that once ensured them the best connections may now shut them out of power in the new Libya. Many left the town–and even the country–and have yet to return.

Building Safeguards

Libya’s coming exercises in democracy–a parliamentary election in June, a constitutional convention soon after–are crucial to setting up the framework for its future. A lot can go wrong. People with guns, unhappy with the results, may once again take matters into their own hands. Most Libyans are cognizant of the enormous tasks ahead–and remain almost preternaturally optimistic. The bitterness left by war is not insurmountable, says Salem al-Ferjani, who was formerly with the transitional government and now works for a Tripoli NGO. The key is reconciliation, he says, and getting the country’s fledgling justice system on track. Fair trials for prisoners from the Gaddafi era, al-Ferjani argues, may also facilitate the dismantling of the militias. “This is one of the reasons why people in Misratah, Zintan and Tripoli are still afraid. They are afraid that the Gaddafi loyalists will come to power again or that no one will send them to court.”

Many Libyans too are willing to be patient with the electoral process. “We would be idealists if we expected the first election to be perfect,” says Nasser Ahdash, the leader of a pan-Arab nationalist party, the National Libyan Forum. “Even the second and third elections might not be perfect. But we have to review our faults after the first election, and we have to work on them.”

In the capital, Tripoli, stands the wreckage of an unrecognizable Gaddafi museum, which the dictator used for thumbing his nose at the U.S. Built around the damage caused by an American air strike in 1986, the museum became a backdrop for Gaddafi’s long-winded speeches. It famously displayed a sculpture of a fist crushing a U.S. plane. (Rebels from Misratah eventually hauled it away as a trophy.) On the day I visit, two young brothers, Haroun and Moussa Milad, scramble over the museum’s wreckage as if it were a jungle gym as their father Ibrahim looks on proudly. “Now there may [be] weapons in every hand, but we’re living securely,” he says. “That just shows you that Libya has a better chance than any other country. It’s a unique situation: a big country with a small population and great resources–and it has all been wasted for four decades.”

When the kids return, he asks them what their contribution to Libya is going to be. “Every human being is a tree, and when he’s small he has to gather more knowledge in order to grow up,” Haroun says. His father beams. “I’m not naive,” he says, turning to me and squinting against the bright sunshine. “I know we have a huge challenge ahead. But I think we’re going to make it.”

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