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Eyewitness Account: The Battle for Gaddafi’s Capital

5 minute read
Francesca Spinola / Tripoli

On Tuesday, Feb. 22, I woke up to the scrap-metal sound of aKalashnikov outside my window. I looked at the clock. It was four in themorning. For three years, I lived in Libya as the only accreditedwestern journalist in the country. By Wednesday, I would leave a citythat was no longer itself.

This is how it all began to change. The news of the Feb. 15 uprisingin Benghazi and Cyrenaica, hundreds of miles to the east, had trickledinto the capital — as did accounts of the regime’s attempts to crushit. We journalists have always been under tight control in Libya. Butjust a few days before the uprising in Tripoli began, it got a littletighter. I had been taken in by plainclothes security forces — a kindof warning. They blocked my cell phone number and did the same to threeother colleagues.

(See TIME’s pictures of the turmoil in Cairo.)

On Saturday, Feb. 19, a day before the rebellion reached the capital,I met a Libyan friend who works for a foreign diplomatic mission. Shewas stocking food supplies. She was afraid. “Since Benghazi and Cyrenaicaare at war,” she tells me, “Tripoli has become a place where they lookat you with suspicion. Nobody knows which side to be on. Your neighborcould become your executioner.” Then, with tears in her eyes, she toldme about two children she knew, aged 11 and 13, killed in Benghazi.

I called friends, sources. I wanted to know how they were, what theythought would happen. They were all afraid, locked in their homes,waiting. Then I got a call from A., a police officer I’d known for threeyears. He told me of six inmates killed in al-Jadaida prison in Tripoli.They were from Benghazi. I asked, “Was it retaliation against theirfamilies or an attempt to quell a revolt?” He did not answer. He wasclearly a cop who had passed to the other side, a dissident. He wasafraid, yet determined, and when I told him to be careful he gave me ananswer I will never forget: “This is the blood we have to shed for ourfreedom.” I too began to fear.

(See “Tripoli on Lockdown.”)

Then, the telephone company cut off communications completely. OnSunday night, the fighting began. About 3,000 people from thesurrounding towns flocked to the center of Tripoli. They set fire to carsand garbage cans, and burned the police posts that lined thestreet. There were shouts, and the sound of horns. At about midnight,Saif al-Islam, Gaddafi’s “reformist” son, gave a speech. It capturedeverybody’s attention, but disappointed those who believed in him, whothought he embodied the possibility of democratic change.

I took refuge at the house of a friend. From its roof, I watched moreanti-Gaddafi demonstrators arrive late Monday afternoon. They came downfrom the surrounding cities, members of clans that have long harboredanti-regime sentiments. In the place of the green flag of MuammarGaddafi’s Libya, they waved white banners and shouted slogans in Arabic.But before they came, I saw helicopters pass, transporting troops,African mercenaries paid by the regime to do its dirty work.

For three nights, it would be urban guerilla warfare, a battle devoidof images, unreported, obscured by a regime that has no love forjournalists or those who collaborate with them. It was a battlerecounted in the sound of gun shots and of the trails of fire left bythe passing demonstrators.

By then, it was clear to everyone: Tripoli was in chaos. Betweensupporters and protesters, police and army, security forces andmercenaries, nobody knew who to believe. For three mornings, the firstrays of sun chased away the shadows of nocturnal combatants, men armedwith rifles patrolling the neighborhoods in search of anti-Gaddafidemonstrators. With first light, there was our race to the store forsupplies. At night, there was apprehension as loyalists hunted thoseopposing the regime as Gaddafi brutally reimposed control.

Within 48 hours of the fighting, thousands of expatriates beganleaving the capital. Pouring into the airport, they occupied everypossible space, parking lots, roads, sidewalks. Inside was a carpet ofhuman fear. Among them were Tunisians, Egyptians, Algerians, Syrians,nationalities accused by Gaddafi’s supporters of having been the sparkthat ignited the revolt in Libya. Together with them are many Asianworkers employed in the construction yards, which have been attacked andraided.

Then, there are the Europeans like myself. Organized in groups by ourembassies and shuttled through the city’s impromptu checkpoints to theairport, we were evacuated to our home countries. Italy even sent acharter flight to take us back. I took my place in a large group ofpeople waiting to depart. Staying in Libya was no longer safe. When myplane finaly took off, the applause was liberating.

Francesca Spinola is a correspondent for ANSA, the Italian newsagency. Based in Libya since July 2008, she covers the Mediterranean andAfrica and has been published in L’Espresso and LaRepubblica, and has appeared on the news network France24

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