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Hope Among The Ruins

16 minute read
Abigail Hauslohner

The fortress was once believed to have been 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 6-sq-km 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, but, even in the messy months after his fall and death, she is still incredulous at the achievement. “We can speak,” she says. “We can express our ideas. Before, we couldn’t even say we were suffering.”

Libyans still feel giddy about their revolution, the most thorough of the Arab Spring and perhaps in all modern Arab history. “Nothing has changed in Egypt, where the military stayed in charge,” says Saad Abdel Ghader, a resident of Benghazi, the birthplace of the rebellion. “Here we got rid of everything! The Libyan revolution turned out the best.” But it was a violent upheaval and there are still guns — lots of them — everywhere, though they aren’t fired as often as they used to be. The Libyan capital, Tripoli, is relatively, sometimes surprisingly, sedate nowadays. The space formerly known as Green Square, the scene of many Gaddafi rallies, has been renamed Martyr’s Square and is a breezy gathering place for families. Couples pose for pictures. Vendors hawk cotton candy. Teens cruise by on in-line skates. At the same time, however, 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 how Libya’s enormous oil and gas resources are going to be shared.

(PHOTOS: The Gallery as Public Square: ‘Almost Dawn in Libya’)

To find out if Libyans think their revolution has been worth it — and whether the changes so far promise a future worth suffering for — I went on a 1,600-km road trip with photographer Yuri Kozyrev, traveling the cities and towns we traversed while covering last year’s revolution. We started in the eastern city of Tobruk near the Egyptian border, carried on through the Green Mountains, Benghazi, Sirt, Misratah and Tripoli, and ended up in the western Nafusa Mountains and Zintan, not far from Tunisia. The journey took us through different tribal territories, meeting with winners and losers in the struggle for the country, through desert, lush hill country and oil refineries, past old battlegrounds and new grave sites. The main question I sought answers for was this: If the old Libya of Gaddafi has been so thoroughly purged, what is the new Libya going to be built on?

The Federalists
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. He looks out from the top of the highest cliff in the ancient city of Cyrene, onto the verdant hills and pastures and waves his hand saying, “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, in fact, letting it rot with malignant neglect. “We were marginalized,” Esbak says. The towns of eastern Libya are crumbling, despite the fact that the region holds some 80% of the country’s proven oil reserves. Farmers must still use rutted roads to bring their crops to market. As for tourism, there is not a single hotel in Shahhat to house any would-be sightseers.

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 either side of the argument gets too pushy.

(MORE: Will Elections Bring Stability to Post-Gaddafi Libya?)

Oil is the basis for 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, sat on 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 their functionality from zero to 80%. “You can see the mosaic of people working here — from Tobruk, Zintan, Sirt, the south,” says Hasan Murtaza, a Turkish engineer at the Harouge Oil Operations export terminal. Some of his employees even fought on opposite sides of the war but most have 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,” he says. “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.”

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, the leader of the federalist cause. “We may create &militiaacute to protect it, but if you’re talking about selling, that’s for the country to decide.”

MORE: Libya’s Oil Industry: Don’t Expect a Quick Comeback

The Wounds of War
Working together is one thing. But the wounds of the civil war are still fresh and may take generations to heal. 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 have been uprooted like trees after a hurricane. At a new children’s center run by a local NGO, one child has 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 has 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, for the people of Sirt, who hail mostly from Gaddafi’s tribe — the Gaddadfa — not all’s well that ends well. Many worry that the name that once ensured them of the best connections may now shut them out from power in the new Libya. “I’m carrying a lot of anger in my heart,” says a petroleum engineer who gives his name only as Jumaa. Most of his neighbors have fled the town — or even the country — and have yet to return. “Before, I would have died for my country. But I have no nationalism now.”

(VIDEO: Libya to Citizens: Give Up Your Guns)

To Sirt’s east, the city of Misratah tells stories from the opposite perspective. The last time I saw Mohamed al-Shami in October, he wore fatigues, shouldered a Kalashnikov and commanded a rebel brigade that, along with other fighters, had broken Gaddafi’s months-long siege on Misratah and had pushed on to help liberate Tripoli. Al-Shami has now traded his fatigues for a suit, and he’s driving a brand-new white BMW. Misratah, so recently the symbol of Gaddafi’s brutality and rebel fortitude, has gone from bombed-out to boom town. BURGER KING, COMING SOON TO TRIPOLI STREET, reads a colorful billboard on Misratah’s main drag. (It is 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 even in victorious Misratah, there is bitterness. 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.”

The Power of the Militias
In the western mountains is the town of Zintan, formerly a poor village of seasonal farmers and shepherds. But now it is one of the biggest victors of the revolution. Zintan has one of the largest arsenals in western Libya — 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 — simply standing idle and 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 militia 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.

(MORE: Can the Hague Wrest Gaddafi’s Son from Libya and a Powerful Militia?)

Zintani fighters are all over Libya, patrolling the country’s 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 newfound 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.” It is not just Zintan. There are militias as well operating out of Misratah, Benghazi and practically every city and town that joined the revolution.

The transitional government is now in the process of 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.”

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Salem al-Ferjani, who was formerly with the transitional government but now works for a Tripoli NGO, says incorporating fighters into a national army and police is a great plan but it’s not for everyone. “You have to open other channels for them,” he says. “Not all the rebels want to become soldiers.” He explains: “Before they used to call themselves rebels. Now they call themselves militias. But if you go back to the 17th of February [when the uprising began in 2011] and you consider who they are — doctors, engineers, students and the unemployed — they were people who found themselves in a situation in which they had to fight … These people need rehabilitation.” The government, he says, has dealt with the ex-rebels by throwing money at them. “I’m not against giving money — they deserve it. But far more important is that they’re just carrying their guns and they don’t know what to do. The war is finished and they’re still unemployed. They want to know what the future is. All they need — those militias — is someone to take care of them.”

Safeguarding Libya
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. At various points in the past six months, they have, in some cases sparking tribal clashes that have lasted for days. The federalists in the oil-rich east may also choose to not be so patient. Most Libyans are cognizant of the enormous tasks ahead — and remain almost surreally optimistic. The bitterness left by war, says al-Ferjani, is not insurmountable. The key is reconciliation, he says, and getting the country’s fledgling justice system on track. “If you think about reconciliation without truth and justice, it’s impossible to accomplish,” he says. 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.”

(MORE: Why Libya Is Becoming More Dangerous After Gaddafi’s Fall)

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.”

If democracy is a work in progress, so is Libya’s media. But local journalists have learned quickly to thrive in the free-for-all of a free press. “We have TV channels now that criticize the highest authority in this country — in fact, they’re criticizing everybody. So this is positive,” says Ahdash. “And I think people are learning. This learning is a process that must take its natural course.”

Even in Sirt, there is some optimism. Walid al-Zayni, 27, supported Gaddafi “100%” and lost his home, his business and a brother. But he sees a way forward. He says that if the government wants “Sirt to support the revolution, then they need to deal with the people’s problems — not by words but by action.” In some areas of his town, as in others in Libya, residents have started rebuilding on their own. It’s personal savings, they say, not government money. But it’s a start. The street corners of Sirt are already lined with Egyptian day laborers, who apparently are finding the relative hopelessness of Gaddafi’s hometown still more promising than the postrevolutionary landscape of their own country.

(PHOTOS: Libya Celebrates Liberation)

In the capital, Tripoli, stands the unrecognizable wreckage of a Gaddafi museum, which the dictator used to thumb 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 visited, a 12-year-old named Haroun Milad leaned out of the window of his father’s car to ask me, “Did you ever expect to see this?” Haroun, his brother and father had just come from a wedding and were visiting the place for the first time. His father Ibrahim says proudly, “I think it’s worth saying loudly that when this Arab Spring happened, it spread from the edges — from Egypt and Tunisia first. But Libya has everything it needs to recover itself, to become a superpower.”

He remembers the night in March 2011 when NATO first bombed targets in Tripoli. It happened to be close to their house. “And I told them all in the morning that we were going to survive,” he says as Haroun and his brother Moussa scramble over the museum’s wreckage like a jungle gym. “Now there may [be] weapons in every hand, but we’re living securely,” says Ibrahim. “That just shows you that Libya has a better chance than any other country. And I’m very confident that Libya will establish a new level of human rights, of economic distribution.” The country has only 6 million people spread over a territory bigger than France, Spain and Germany combined; its population is also relatively homogeneous. “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, 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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