Archive for the ‘Libya’ Category

Salwa – lost for words

In Libya on July 15, 2014 at 23:45


Salwa Bugaighis was a human rights lawyer and founding February 17 Revolutionary who was one of the first activists to protest on February 15th in front of the Courthouse in Benghazi, Libya.  She was a member of the National Transitional Council and fought courageously for human rights & dignity and especially for women’s rights in Libya.  On the night of June 25 2014, Salwa was mercilessly gunned down in her own home by suspected Islamist  militants who fear freedom, dignity, democracy and the rule of law.  I filmed this interview with Salwa in Tripoli soon after the overthrow of Gaddafi and she talked about her hopes for the future and some of her fears – all somewhat prophetic now.  Another tragic loss that has become the blood bath of post-conflict Libya.  Too many sacrifices.  May she rest in peace.

Fatima Hamroush & Salwa Bugaighis

Dr Fatima Hamroush (Libyan Minister of Health), Sharron Ward & Salwa Bugaighis in Tripoli November 2011



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Vote Democracy!

In Libya on August 22, 2012 at 20:41

July 2012:  I should be writing this post whilst listening to the hum of my Air Conditioning unit, with my toes dipped in the water leaking from it, sat on the balcony of my Hotel overlooking the mosque and the Mediterranean.  Instead of the unrelenting humidity of the Tripolitanian climes, I am writing this from the far less agreeable yet strangely sunny garden of my home in London.  Certain events (more on that later), have meant my second filming trip to Libya was cut unceremoniously short.  But I’m going to write about some of my experiences and observations about my recent jaunt back to Tripoli to continue filming Libya: After the Fall.

Room with a view

I was back in my Hotel, which we had affectionately dubbed “Hotel California” and was back in the same room that I had stayed on my first filming trip.  It was like I had returned home.  Everything was the same – apart from a few significant changes.  It was hot.  Incredibly hot.  The day I arrived it was 42 degrees.  Stepping off the plane was like literally walking into a sweltering furnace.

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Welcome to the Hotel California

In Libya on August 21, 2012 at 22:55

It was like a scene from out of The Shining, you know the bit where the kid pedals down the hallway – the tracking shot above his shoulder as he ominously makes his way down the corridor in his toy four-wheeled motorbike.  It was the hallway of the Hotel that time forgot.  In fact it was a Hotel that hadn’t had any guests for some time.  The carpets were faded, the decor reminiscent of the 70s, the seats sat empty and the lanterns hung, well they just hung “ominously.”  It was like the Mary Celeste.   Oddly, there was an abandoned, anaemic Christmas tree that had been left on one of the landings.  It had closed down during the civil war, and now after the fall of Gaddafi it was slowly welcoming us as new guests.  Not many mind, just a motley crew of 5 or so freelance Western journalists.   It was November 2011, and we had discovered the Hotel through a fellow Ukrainian journo who had stumbled upon it during his many excursions on the way to the Corinthia Hotel – a swanky 5 star hotel that anyone on a freelance budget could ill-afford.  We often joked it was like the Hotel California, where you could check out at any time you liked, but you could never leave.   The Hotel was near the “crazy market” of Rashid St, an area oft-described by local Libyans as very “downmarket.”   The many friends who drove me home via Rashid St often remarked how dirty and horrible it was.  It was certainly a seedy area, but conversely, it had a police station right next to it, and we were told that there was in fact little petty crime as the stall owners took care of things – any crime would deter customers, so they made sure there wasn’t any.  Plus the location was handy, close to Martyr’s Square and near enough to the Radisson where other media on more generous expenses would stay.

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A Conversation with the Janzour Brigade

In Libya on August 21, 2012 at 18:12

December 2011:  Safa and I had been driving around her home suburb of Janzour, on the western fringes of Tripoli.  She had been keen to show me the sites of where fighting had taken place, and the square where Gaddafi had shipped in pro-Gaddafi supporters from other areas, to make it appear as if Janzour residents supported Gaddafi.  Janzour was in fact a steadfastly anti-Gaddafi suburb and was one of the first suburbs to fall in Tripoli.   I had been filming Safa Futuri and her family about their experiences living in Tripoli under Gaddafi, and of their time during the Revolution.  It hadn’t been easy for them or anyone living in Libya, but now things were starting to get back to normal.  As we were driving along, I noticed a colourfully painted wall, with a huge set of gates daubed in the revolutionary flag.  This was the tell-tale sign of a Khatiba (Brigade) headquarters, and Safa told me it was the base for the Janzour Brigade.   I asked her if we could go in.  She hesitated, being a Libyan girl from a conservative family she was unsure if she should.   But with the brash Westerner  in tow, we walked in and started talking to the guards on duty.  I flashed them my press pass (it was the first time I had ever used it, no one else had ever asked to see it), and soon more Khatiba members emerged and were eager to talk.

I wanted to know how they felt now Gaddafi had gone and what were their hopes and dreams for the future, for the new Libya.

It seemed they were full of hope and optimism for the new Libya.  One older brusque-looking brigade member, named Ali told me “Insh’allah (god willing) the people who’ve stepped up and done what was right and what was needed for Libya; we hope they don’t disagree or argue over the rebuilding of Libya.   We are all brothers.  We don’t want any factions or tribalism.”  He said in an apparent reference to   Gaddafi’s attempt to create a tribal war –  “he tried to create those differences amongst us, and we hope these differences cease to exist.”  He continued, “Libya is not a poor country.  Libya is rich and has natural resources and its future is guaranteed, god willing.”

Filming the Janzour Brigade

Another brigade member chimed in – “and we’re rich not just in natural resources not only petrol, but even just look at the thuwar (revolutionaries) – you have engineers, you have doctors –  this all speaks well for the future. ”

A younger militia member sat nearby cleaning his pistol and added to the conversation – “God willing, what has been set up by the transitional government, which is led by Al Keib hopefully this will enable us to hold the elections and hopefully the most qualified individual will hold the relevant position.”  In a reference to the nepotism and cronyism of the Gaddafi era, he said  “there’s no more hypocrisy.   The age of hypocrisy and all the other nonsense that came from before is past and Libya is now brand new.  The people with the right qualifications will hold those positions.  We don’t want any more lying, no more of the old Gaddafi mentality.”   Everyone seemed optimistic that Libya was re-born a new and that things “Inshallah” would get better.

I knew from talking to Safa that Janzour was ready and waiting for Tripoli to fall, and the brigade filled me in on the details.

“On the night of the 19 august we all came out in Janzour – we were already holding home-made weapons and we were ready to defend this city.   A lot of people don’t know this, but Janzour was already liberated by the time the freedom fighters came down from the mountains to liberate Tripoli.  We we saw them waving the independence flag, we welcomed them, we hugged them and they went on their way straight through on the road to Tripoli,” said Ali.

We were momentarily startled, when the top of the turret of the tank opened, and out popped another brigade member.   He flashed a big smile and Ali continued, “We were with the revolution from day one –  from February 17, there were two areas in Janzour that  had joined the Revolution.  We started with writing graffiti and making protests, but many of our young men were imprisoned  – Janzour had a lot of people imprisoned from our area in Tripoli,” he said.

Janzour had paid a heavy price with men either being incarcerated, or dying in battle.  Talk naturally turned to the topic of retribution and reconciliation.  An older heavier-set brigade member said, “We want those that violated our women and those that have blood on our hands –  those are the people we want to find.  But those that were put by Gaddafi to monitor the streets, or were given a gun and told to “sit here and watch this place” – we’re not looking for them, but those that went and committed crimes and have blood on their hands – those are the ones we want to bring to justice.”

A younger member named Khaled agreed – “Those that committed crimes like thievery or just stealing stuff that’s one thing, but the ones that he mentioned, well those are the people we need to find.   For the petty stuff there’s a court system for them, but if you think about it we’ve only got 6 million Libyans and if you were trying to punish everyone who committed a small crime during the revolution it would never end.”

“But what about those that are currently causing trouble in Libya,” I said?  The ones who were carjacking and attacking institutions with bombs etc?  “That’s nonsense,” Ali said, “that’s the fifth column – trying to cause trouble and ruin the reputations of the freedom fighters and their good character.  We are all young men that were oppressed by the regime, we couldn’t have our rights, and these are the young men that were being arrested by Gaddafi because they were poor and couldn’t earn a living and so they were doing petty crime.  But they went out and they fought for their freedom.”   They were keen to make a distinction between those that were forced to steal out of poverty, and those Libyans considered to be pro-Gaddafi loyalists known as the “fifth column” who were currently trying to cause instability inside Libya.

“And what of the future?” I asked.  “Step by step the country will progress.  Whatever comes from God is good.  This Revolution happened with us saying the takbeer, for me right now it’s enough to have freedom.  For 42 years we’ve been depending on ourselves. We’ve been eating from what we could provide for ourselves – Gaddafi never gave us anything – so we’re not going to struggle, it’s  not a question of that. ”  This was another refrain I heard so often in Libya.  Gaddafi had never given them anything and so Libyans had learnt to be extremely resourceful and fend for themselves.  Perhaps it provides some explanation of how a rag-tag army were able to improvise home-made weapons, solder anti-aircraft guns onto the back of pick up trucks and manufacture make-shift ammunition, before the intervention of sophisticated weaponry sent to them by Qatar and neighbouring countries.

The Janzour Khatiba

It was getting late, and we were about to leave.  I filmed some of the barracks and we took some photos by their tank – a typical “Libyan revolution” souvineer that most journos took.  Just as we were saying our goodbyes and giving our thanks I told the Brigade – “Sitting back at home in the UK we had all watched the Civil War on our TVs, and many of us hoped and prayed for their success.”  I said I was sure that one day, when the security was better, many westerners would come and visit Libya as tourists.  This drew a great chorus of approval.  Ali said in return, “We hope that we’ve given a good impression of ourselves from this Revolution and we can host you as soon as we develop our tourism.  We can host you in our tourist spots, and you can help us get back on our feet and build the country and bring your companies and have business with us, and employ our youth and you would give them culture.  For 42 years we’ve been built on ignorance  – even the internet – some of us don’t know how to use it.  We want our people to have a proper education and to educate themselves and be civilised.”  After 42 years of not allowing or welcoming westerners into the country, Libya it seemed was now crying out for them.  Their sense of isolation was profound.

Then in the spirit of the Revolution, they all flashed me a “V” sign to a chorus of “Libya Hurra” (“Libya free”) and “long live free Libya, long live Janzour, long live Zintan, long live Misrata.”  And with that we left.

Bahiya Kanoun: One Woman’s Sacrifice for Libya

In Libya on August 21, 2012 at 00:12

December 2011: I was fortunate enough to have probably the first western interview with Bahiya Kanoun, who was at the time given the post as Deputy Minister of the Martyrs & the Missing.  She was just one of only two women given posts in the interim Government appointed by the NTC (National Transitional Council).  I met Bahiya, in the luxurious surroundings of the Corinthia Hotel, a softly spoken diminutive woman wearing a pretty blue and white checked hijab.  I had just met her bodyguard, Abdul a kindly man, wearing the classic Middle East security “uniform” of black leather jacket.   After carefully concealing his gun inside said leather jacket, Abdul gave me his number in case I ever had any problems with security.  Although, I was sure I wouldn’t need it, it was nice to know that I could call on the help of a Minister’s bodyguard.  Bahiya was one woman however who was very much in need of a Bodyguard.

As we sat at the end of the mezzanine level, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, Bahiya told me her astonishing story.  She had fled to Tunisia with her children as her life was in danger after working underground to challenge the rule of Gaddafi.  Speaking in a mixture of broken English and Arabic Bahiya told me, “these are unpleasant memories but every time I think back I wonder how strong I must have been to withstand the situation.  I never thought that I could be as courageous as I was at that point in time.”  Her identity had been exposed on State TV by the notorious pro-Gaddafi propagandist Hala Misrati.  Hala Misrati was a name I was to hear over and over again.  She was a young Libyan woman who had risen to prominence as a State TV broadcaster who had her own toxic show.  She used her broadcasts to name people who were suspected of working in the opposition movement against Gaddafi.  She was well known for her incitement for pro-Gaddafi loyalists to do serious harm, if not kill, those she named in her broadcasts.

Bahiya Kanoun

Bahiya told me, “the regime had previously attempted to physically harm me – they had stolen my cell phone they had been listening in on my conversations by tapping my phone, they stole my wealth, my finances, they destroyed my car.  I was the topic of a discussion of an episode on Libyan state TV hosted by Hala Misrati – she dedicated an entire episode to me.”  So Bahiya took her 3 children and fled to Tunisia – “because I knew the following day the Libyan regime would have been hunting me down. I knew what my fate would have been.”  Bahiya ended up taking refuge in an internally displaced camp for Libyans in Tunisia.  “The strategy for me and my children was to hide amongst the refugees in the camp.”   During that time, Bahiya received death threats on her phone – she told me, “they tried to kill me and kidnap my children. The Tunisian police – recorded this.  I had fifteen messages on my mobile phone, saying they will kill me and rape me.”

But despite this, Bahiya insisted that “none of this mattered to me because I was working for the good of my country. My friends even advised me to stop what I was doing, to stop for the sake of my children, they would say ‘you have to be aware that they are now in danger,’ and my response to them would be that ‘the country is more important than anything.’”  Gathering momentum, and choking back tears, she continued – “I told my friends – ‘my people, my countrymen who are being tortured – if I were to stop out of fear and you were to also stop out of fear, who’s going to stand with them – who’s going to support them?’ ”

Tears were now running down Bahiya’s face – “If the price I had to pay was with my children’s lives it wouldn’t matter.  It’s true that my children are the most important thing to me but my country does not compare and freedom does not compare and dignity does not compare, the most important thing to have is dignity, and under this tyrant we did not have dignity – not in our own country or in front of the world. “  I was astonished, but not surprised to hear such patriotism and piety, “and praise be to God, I’m a strong believer and if it was written that my children’s lives would be cut short, then my leaving activism would not do them any good – it wouldn’t change things.  God doesn’t give us anything we can’t bear.  I was personally willing to sacrifice everything,” she paused wiping away her tears.

Bahiya pondered, “I think back and I wonder what was it that kept me going?  Where is this strength coming from?  I then realised what it was that was pushing me forward – and it was the oppression of my people, and the oppression that I used to see every single day when I would go to the refugee camps and visit the injured.  I felt like I had done nothing compared to these people.  And everything I gave compared to them looks cheap – it doesn’t weigh up to what they’ve given.  Compared to the sacrifices they have given, we have done nothing.”

I was humbled listening to the defiant words of Bahiya.  She was a softly spoken, gentle woman but her words showed great strength, courage and conviction.  I could not imagine the many sacrifices that she and many other Libyans had made to rid their country of Gaddafi.  Bahiya was just one of many Libyan women who had stood strong and remained steadfast throughout the Libyan civil war.  She was keen to talk of the crucial role Libyan women had played in the Revolution.  “Libyan women have contributed to the Revolution in a phenomenal way, the Libyan woman was excellent, she was strong, she was innovative, she planned –  they were key in distributing information & they contributed with smuggling arms to the frontlines.”  She stressed, that just because women weren’t fighting on the frontlines, their contribution was significant; “women had many roles in the Revolution, whether they were reporting information, or preparing meals.  They were looking after the families of the freedom fighters, allowing them to feel at ease while they were away fighting – knowing that they’re families were okay.”  She was adamant that “because Libyan women have contributed so immensely to the Revolution, the Libyan Government must now stand with them & ensure that they are included & recognised.”

Bahiya Kanoun

Indeed, her own efforts had been recognised, for she was now in the post of Deputy Minister for the Martyrs and the Missing – a Ministry newly formed in response to the growing problem of accounting for the many thousands who had gone missing or who had “disappeared” during the civil war.  There had been a great deal of criticism of the NTC for not looking after  the needs of the injured, the families of the martyrs or indeed identifying the many hundreds of bodies that had subsequently been discovered in mass graves all around Libya.  Some NGOs – including the work of the Missing charity Mafqood had helped pressure the interim government to do more about the sadly neglected victims of the Revolution.

“With respect to the missing in Libya – the number of missing is great, but it is not to the scale that we all perceive it to be, it’s not as large as we think it is,” Bahiya countered.  “We had estimated that 50 – 70,000 people were missing in Libya, but we believe that the real figure is somewhere between 20 – 25,000.”

I knew from talking to others, that there had been a great deal of criticism about the Ministry, that they hadn’t ascertained the real number of missing, and that they had done nothing to preserve the bodies or establish their identities.

“Upon the establishment of this Ministry, we found that existing NGO’s and charities were very well organised in their efforts & they were made up mostly of women, so the Ministry joined in their efforts and we visited the mass graves to determine what was going on,” assured Bahiya.

“We want to assure the families of the Missing that there is a real strategy set up to address this issue.  That there is accountability, so for example, a family member can know where to go – that there is a specific file about them and so they have somebody at the Ministry they can speak to about it and that it is official.”

“We’re going to start analysing the bodies, we have the samples ready for analysis, for DNA testing –these are samples that were collected from two months back that we are going to be analysing. This will allow us to identify the bodies, inform the families, and prepare for the respectful burial of these individuals,” she lastly added; “We realise that time is against us – we need to do this in the quickest time possible and with the best use of resources.”

Mass grave in Libya

I asked Bahiya what kind of renumeration she was getting as Minister, what kind of rewards did she hope to attain for her role?

Bahiya said she was pleased I had asked her this. “At this point in time (December 2011), for the past few months we are all working for the sake of Libya not ourselves.  I (and the Ministry of Martyrs) do not seek any thanks or gratitude or compensation for these efforts or elections for political positions. We wish to build a strong Ministry and a strong country.  I don’t have any political aspirations at this point in time.  I want to return the rights back to these people and back to these families.  This is the essence of our motivation.”

We turned back to the topic of the role Libyan women must play in the new Libya.  “God has provided us with rights & I’m certain that the Libyan Government will give women the opportunity to exercise their rights, and Libyan women will do so with confidence.”   “Libyan women,” she asserted, “do not lack intelligence, education, or originality, she strives to hold the best positions, she is respectable & dignified; she has all these qualities.”

Revolutionary Libyan woman

I could not argue with her, for sure Libyan women were more than capable of running ministries, taking part in political debates and passing laws, but I asked her, would Libyan men allow women to do this and would Libyan women grasp this opportunity?

Baihiya, didn’t hesitate in her answer – “It is up to the Libyan woman to claim and maximise the opportunity that the Government has given her, to grasp it with the same dedication that she had during the Revolution.   Libyan women know that men do not have any advantage over them in their desire to change and develop Libya.”  She added with a smile, “she has the intellectual competence to do this, and time will show to the world that Libyan women are more than capable of this.”

I hope she gets her wish for the sake of all Libyan women.

In an ironic contrast, as I came out into the fading light of the Corinthia, Abdul – Bahiya’s bodyguard told me that someone had been shot in Omar Mukhtar St – not far from my Hotel.  He said it was not safe for a woman to be out on the streets and insisted on having someone drive me the 5 minutes to my Hotel (an easy walk for me).  I laughed at this manly Libyan concern for what he probably thought was a vulnerable Western woman.  I had walked backwards and forwards in the dark to the Corinthia many times, but for once, just once; it was nice to be driven.

Grounds of the Corinthia Hotel

Update October 2012:  Bahiya worked in the Ministry for 3 months and then worked as Under-Secretary for social care and worked on a  programme helping to train women’s involvement in the elections and the parliamentary process in areas such as Sabha, Zawara, Nalut,and  Tripoli.  She believes now is a difficult time for women working in the government due to the insecure nature of Libya and the militias that are kidnapping, attacking and threatening government officials, including women such as ex-Minister of Health Dr Fatima Hamroush.  She is now working on a project to help the reconciliation process for the people of Tawergha and is looking at the dire need for psychological assistance to those injured and raped during the Libyan civil war.

With thanks to Ayat Mneina for translation.

Nader – A Martyr’s Story

In Libya on August 20, 2012 at 15:14

December 2011: I was filming Mohammed Ali Leghuil, a young medical intern from Tripoli, who having witnessed the brutality of Gaddafi’s forces during the fateful assault of February 20, had joined to fight with the Tripoli Brigade.  He told me about a young Canadian-Libyan by the name of Nader.  Nader Benrewin was a well-to-do 26 year old IT consultant living a comfortable life in Canada.  But he couldn’t stand idly by and watch his fellow Libyans being slaughtered by the Gaddafi regime.

“Bashir” training in Benghazi © CNN

“He had it all, he was an amazing guy he threw it all away hoping for a better future for Libya and for the next generation,” said Mohammed Ali.  Nader had been training on the beaches of Benghazi and was actually filmed anonymously by a CNN crew.  Wearing a balaclava and answering to the pseudonym of “Bashir”, Nader was filmed learning to handle weapons and explained his reasons why he left a comfortable life and came all the way from Canada:  “I tried to stay there and live with it, just to send money or collect donations and go and protest and stuff. But I realized that that’s not enough. And I could not sleep; I could not work.”  He told CNN’s Sara Sidner.  Nader told his close family members his plans, but they deliberately did not tell his mother, for fear she would worry.  As Nader’s family all lived in Tripoli, he also had to be careful to conceal his identity for fear Gaddafi’s men would arrest them, like many of those fighting in the Tripoli Brigade.  Mohammed Ali told me that they had fought together all the way from the Nafusa Mountains to Tripoli itself, but during the crucial Battle of Bab Al Aziziyah, he was tragically hit by sniper fire.  “That was a really difficult day for us all; we lost our Commander on that day also.”

Nader Beurewin’s family in Tripoli

I went to visit Nader’s grieving family in Soug al Juma, a suburb famous for its anti-Gaddafi resistance in Tripoli.  I was greeted in the family home by Nejat – Nader’s mother, Eyna his sister and Dr Mabruk his father.   He had only died 4 months before, and so their grief was still horribly fresh.  Again I was offered traditional Libyan sweets, and again Quality St chocolates (what is it about quality street?) and a glass of Pepsi Cola.  Always hospitality in Libya no matter how hard the circumstances.  I felt slightly intrusive filming their still raw grief, but I let Eynas his sister tell me his story.  “Nader was very close to me, he was my brother and he was my friend.  He was everything in my life,” said Eynas Benrewin in between stifling her tears. “He always hated Gaddafi, he always said that.  ‘How come our streets are like this, how come we don’t have any infrastructure?  We can’t say that we are a country. We are still living like a village.  If I have the chance to be against Gaddafi I will.  I will fight against him.’ ”  I looked at Nader’s mother Namet, who was wiping away tears.  I too could feel the tears welling up in my eyes.  I knew what it was like to grieve, to lose a loved one, having lost my own husband only two years before.  I tried to reassure them, that I knew how they were feeling; but that in time, they would learn to come to terms with their terrible loss.  Small words of comfort, but it was the best I felt I could do.  At least I could film their story so that others would know of their son and his brave sacrifice.

Nadir’s family told me that they had seen the report on CNN of “Bashir” and instantly knew it was Nader from his voice and mannerisms.   But they didn’t let his mother see it, and when he made furtively coded phone calls to his family in Tripoli, they pretended to her that Nader was on holiday somewhere abroad.  They didn’t want her to worry.  Sadly that day on entering Tripoli, Nader had excitedly called his family to tell them he would be home that night.  But Nader never made it.  Another martyr who died to give Libya a better future.  “We are so proud of him, so proud of what he achieved – freedom for Libya, and I will never forget him, he was so brave,” cried Eyna.  Nader was buried in the local cemetery just a few metres away from the Benrewin household.  “We feel he is still here with us and we can go and visit him whenever we want,” said Dr Mabruk quietly.

A small portion of the Nader’s story can also be viewed on the Guardian online.  Nader’s story – the film is now online here.

The film can be seen on Youtube  here.

“Alzawiya len tenhani”

In Libya on August 18, 2012 at 18:19

December 2011:  I had been talking to a young, dynamic Libyan woman named Issraa Murabit about her family’s recently launched NGO “Voice of Libyan Women.”  The Murabit family were an educated, liberal family who had lived for many years in Canada, but had returned back to Zawiyah their home town, about a 30 minute drive from Tripoli.  Sitting in the makeshift offices of VLW in Tripoli, Issraa told me about the dilemma Libyan women now faced.  She told me of her frustration that Libyan women were too often happy to sit back and let others decide their fate, “but they must learn that they have to demand their rights – their rights aren’t just going to automatically come to them, they must ask for them, and fight for them!”  She told me about a series of workshops VLW were conducting in Zawiyah in the coming week.  “Zawiyah?” I said, “the site of the massacre that took place back in March?”  “yes, she said, my brother and my father were involved in that protest and my father spoke to the international media about it – he’s ‘Dr M’ she said.  It turned out that her father was the infamous “rubber bullet Doctor,” who had spoken anonymously to the world’s media during the brutal crackdown of Zawiyah by Gaddafi’s forces.  It was during an interview with the UK media when asked if Gaddafi was using live bullets or plastic bullets, that Dr M (his face now being shown) – incredulously responded “are you joking, these are real bullets!”

I had watched the horrific reports of the brutal massacre of Zawiyah on the news during March 2011, and I wanted to meet Dr Murabit and see for myself what had happened there.  I was fortunate enough to bum a ride with Dr Mohamed Murabit and his family driving to Zawiyah where Mohamed showed me around Zaiwyah Hospital and Martyr Square where the mosque itself was attacked.  It turned out that his son Ferras Murabit had met Alex Crawford and the Sky News team as they were all taking cover from live fire.  Ferras had joined the protestors who were attempting to march from Zawiyah’s Martyr Square to Tripoli on Friday March 4 2011, before they were attacked by the Khamis Brigade.  Ferras himself was in the ambulance with Alex Crawford and her team as they were fired upon en route to Zawiyah Hospital.  “Later on I could see bullet holes in the ambulance that were like inches above my head from where I was sitting – that was pretty scary,” he said.  It was at the hospital that “Dr M” met Alex Crawford and her team and he helped them in their incredibly brave efforts to expose the brutal crackdown in Zawiyah.  Dr Mohamed joked with me that “maybe in other countries protestors would be met with rubber bullets – but in Libya it’s the real thing or nothing.”  He showed me around Zawiyah Hospital pointing out the numerous bullet hole marks that had been hastily plastered over.  I could see the same green ceramic tiles on the walls that I had seen on all the TV reports.

We met a doctor who had been inside the mosque in Zawiyah’s Martyr Square when it was attacked.  Dr Koum told me “that was a terrible day; we all thought we were going to die.”  Later when they saw the mobile phone footage of captured Gaddafi soldiers laughing at the attack on the mosque he said “I couldn’t believe that, that people could laugh and attack a mosque like that.  They are Muslims I can’t imagine that they would have done that” he said shaking his head in disbelief.  But for Gaddafi it seemed, it was routine to attack mosques.  Nothing or no one was spared his brutal assault.

Dr Fouad Koum at Zawiyah hospital

Mohamed himself was arrested three times by the Mukhabarat (the secret police) and was tipped off at a checkpoint that he was on the wanted list for further arrest, and so he had to “lay low for a while.”  A warm, generous and humorous man, Mohamed wryly joked with me, “When the intelligence police say ‘can you just come with me for 5 minutes’ – it can turn into 10 years … or in fact death.  So when someone says ‘just come with us for five minutes’ you know you’re in trouble.”

Later, Mohamed took me to Martyr Square in Zawiyah town centre.  All around the square were bombed out buildings, still after nine months the evidence of a terrifying assault was obvious.  Nothing had been repaired.  Mohammed showed me the site where the mosque had been razed to the ground – I remember so well seeing news reports of the mosque disappearing – a symbol of resistance that Gaddafi’s men were keen to erase.  Mohamed said they had to demolish the mosque as the damage was so bad.  He pointed to a make-shift tent and said “this is where they are praying now. For sure they will rebuild the mosque, no doubt about it.”  He later showed me the burial mounds were martyrs had been hastily buried.  Ferras said “when Gaddafi retook this square, they exhumed the bodies; they dug up the bodies and threw them in a landfill.”  Mohammed said “you know even in death Gaddafi gave us no dignity – in life or in death.”

Dr Murabit at the site of Martyr Square Mosque

In Martyr’s Square was a “museum” a mausoleum of a kind dedicated to the Zawiyah massacre.  In a cordoned off section was a horrifying array of 15 calibre bullets, grad missiles, mortar shells and ammunition.  “This is Gaddafi’s gift to the people of Zawiyah,” said the museum attendant.  They later talked about Alex Crawford, the Sky correspondent and her team who had cowered in the mosque with them, as it came under a relentless attack and who had bravely reported on the massacre.  “Everyone thought they would die that die.  She didn’t need to be there, it wasn’t her battle, she is a hero in Zawiyah” they said.  Rare praise from a Libyan man indeed.  All along the walls of the museum peered back row upon row of martyr’s faces – woefully staring out, lovingly framed.  Mohamed pointed out the face of one martyr.  “This was a friend of ours who cooked us dinner that night when Alex Crawford and her team took refuge in a hotel in the square.  He sadly died a few days later.”

“Dr M”

After the square, we were met by Issraa and her mother Nejat.  Nejat along with her daughter, Aala Murabit and other family members, were the driving force behind the Voice of Libyan Women, and as we drove along the streets of Zawiyah they pointed out the bullet holes in many of the buildings.  Then we pulled up outside a farm yard stop.  They were barbequing joints of sheep on a spit-fire roast.  We pulled up some chairs and sat in the farm yard itself.  We were to have dinner Libyan style, with chunks of chargrilled meat from the very sheep right from the farm itself.  Thankfully being a kiwi and sheep being the national icon, I was not a vegetarian and felt right at home!

Over dinner, sitting amongst the palms and cobbled mud walls of the farm, there was more talk of Gaddafi, of his demise and what this meant for the future of Libya.  There was a lot of talk of the hypocrisy of Gaddafi, and of the security situation which now had to be resolved.  “You know during the time of Gaddafi it was illegal to own a gun, you couldn’t even have one single bullet!”  But of course Gaddafi and his men all had guns.  Now ironically, Libya was awash with weapons – too many weapons – and this was their number one concern, to get the militias under control, demobilise and get the weapons – particularly the big anti-aircraft guns I had seen around Tripoli – off the streets.  “There have been too many deaths now to celebratory gunfire and to petty disputes that have now been resolved through gun fights.  This must stop if Libya is to be secure and peaceful,” everyone around the table agreed.

But the fight was worth it.  “You know,” Mohammed continued, “We originally came out in protest to support Benghazi.  Benghazi are our brothers and we all came out to protest against what was happening there.”  Then the Khamis Brigade commanded by Khamis Gaddafi came back, (their barracks were only 15 km away from Zawiyah) – and a new slogan emerged “Alzawiya len tenhani” – “Zawiyah will never bow.”  And Zawiyah never did.

You can also watch my film of the Zawiyah massacre on The Guardian here.


The Horrors of Abu Saleem

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 23:59

December 2011:  I was standing in the heat of the midday sun, waiting for Ziad to come and pick me up.  I had taken shelter by a small wall, in the grounds of the Corinthia Hotel – one of the few 5 star hotels in Tripoli – most notably known for the amount of NTC members and foreign dignitaries staying there.  It was one of the few places people went to get a decent internet connection and a “proper” cappuccino.  As I was filming, I marvelled at the sheer amount of traffic driving past.  Gaddafi had never invested in any kind of public transport system and so Libyans drove everywhere.  This resulted in horrendous traffic jams, and I watched as one lone police officer on duty tried to bring some semblance of order  (he was one of the very few brave enough to come back on to the streets of Tripoli).  I had barely seen any police officers on the streets since my arrival, and it was explained to me that as members of the security apparatus, many police were seen as complicit in the crimes of Gaddafi, hence many stayed at home for fear of being attacked.

Police in Tripoli

I listened to the cacophony of horns honking & laughed quietly to myself as I watched a tow truck inch its way down the road, even its door was graffitied with “Feb 17” – this was a sight I saw over and over again in Tripoli – no surface was immune to its tag.  Everywhere was emblazoned with the fateful date of Feb 17 – the date of the beginning of the uprising.  Around the streets on billboards, walls and gates, you could see insulting caricatures of Gaddafi himself derogatorily known as – “Shaf Shoufa” Libyan slang for “messy hair” due to his unruly bushy hair.  “Gaddafi game over” my taxi driver would gleefully repeat to me in his broken English.  I had also noticed that during Gaddafi’s time, Libyan shop owners had painted their shutters green – Jamahiriya “Gaddafi” green – but now miraculously all over Tripoli shutters had been repainted red, black & green in the colours of the independent flag of Libya – from the days of King Idris, who had ruled Libya prior to Gaddafi.

“Feb 17”

Tripoli graffiti

Graffiti in the souk

I was waiting for Ziad, a young IT consultant from Tripoli who had been imprisoned by Gaddafi’s forces in what is considered to be the most sinister prison in Libya: Abu Saleem. It is the site of the horrific 1996 massacre of around 1,200 prisoners who were executed in cold blood.  It has long been a prison used for detaining, torturing and beating political prisoners.  During the Revolution, Gaddafi filled the prison to the brim with political dissidents, underground activists and freedom fighters caught during the uprising.  Ziad was one of them.  After having peacefully protested, and trying to combat the propaganda war online, Ziad finally went to the frontlines and started training in the Nafusa Mountains.  He was to be a member of one of the many sleeper cells which was to operate in Tripoli. On his way back to Tripoli, Ziad was captured near the Tunisian border.  On being taken to Abu Saleem prison, Ziad said he was met by the “welcoming party” where all new arrivals were beaten.  As we were driving to the prison, Ziad asked me what I had thought of Libya before.  He said “everyone used to think of Libya as terrorists – IRA, Lockerbie, guns and that mad man Gaddafi.  I used to be ashamed to say I was Libyan.  Whenever people used to ask me where I was from I would say ‘North Africa.’ ” He said.  “But now since the revolution, I can hold my head up high and say I am Libyan,” he smiled sweetly at me.

Abu Salim prison

This was only Ziad’s second visit back to the prison since being freed.  We drove into the foreboding gates.  A bulldozer was at work smoothing over the ground.  The prison itself inside was a wreck.  It had been looted and debris and rubbish lay strewn all over the site.  Graffiti – particularly from the Misrata brigade which had first arrived to liberate the prisoners was everywhere.  I was struck by two words spray-painted on one of the outside walls: “Viva Libya Viva Liberty” – I couldn’t imagine what fate would have befallen whoever had written those walls, should Gaddafi still be in power.

When we arrived, we were met by one of the members from the Misrata brigade who was still guarding the prison.  He had been amongst the first to liberate the prisoners.  Ziad said in thanks, “I owe this guy my life.”  We were met outside by a local older man from Abu Saleem, who had told us as soon as the militia came to free everyone (the guards had already run away), they all ran to the prison to come and help.  I took his photo and instinctively he flashed me the “V” for Victory sign.  A reflex that was to repeat itself over and over in the many photos I took.

Say “V”

It was a beautiful day, a brilliant blue sky with a radiant, sparkling sun.  Seeing the prison in this light, it was hard to imagine its sinister purpose, what darker and unimaginable horror lay beneath its surface.  But we descended down a flight of stairs and it soon became apparent.  We were in the dungeons of Abu Saleem – where Ziad said people were taken to be tortured.  In the dark, dust and dirt I could just make out old bed frames, shattered TVs and what seemed like a belt strap perhaps used for whipping.  I shuddered to think what would have gone on here, it was too horrific to imagine.  Some political prisoners were incarcerated here for years – some for over a decade for simply expressing dissatisfaction with Gaddafi’s rule.

Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim “underground”

Abu Salim dungeon

Upstairs, Ziad found his cell in one of the wings of the prison.  He showed me the hole that they had smashed through – this was replicated throughout each cell wall – so that they could talk to other prisoners and share food and supplies.  I noticed the scraps of fabric that had been tied together as rope that had been strung up around the high windows.  Ziad told me this was so that prisoners could climb up the ropes and talk to other prisoners in other wings.  This was especially important to talk to new prisoners and to gain information about how the civil war was going.  Was Gaddafi winning or were they?  Ziad remarked, “one day a new prisoner came in and he told us about Major General Fatah Younis’ death.  That was a really sad day for all of us.”  Younis was a defected General in Gaddafi’s army but had changed allegiances and was commanding the rebels when he was assassinated in Benghazi under mysterious circumstances.

Prison window

Walls of Abu Salim

It was while we were in one cell that we found the most beautiful and inspiring art that had been drawn on the walls as a symbol of defiance.  The words read “The Future will be us” – and in the words of Omar Muktar – the famous resistance rebel who led the resistance movement against Italian occupation – “We win or we die.”   Such fitting words for the rebel resistance that was now the Libyan civil war.   But what was most touching was the final inscription – surely a retort to Gaddafi and a reference to him wanting to be the “King of Kings” – “If you want to be a King, first you should be a man.”  This artwork was signed by Mohammed Gurmin, and amazingly I managed to find him and interview him on the very last day I was in Tripoli – it was one of those last minute fly-by-the-seat of our pants interviews as I was due to fly out in less than an hour before the interview!  Mohammed told me about his time in Abu Salim and very kindly offered to drive us all to the airport.  We nervously laughed as his crazy Libyan driving – high speed whilst texting, prompted a quip from my travel companion – “Slow down – we just got through a civil war Mohammed – we don’t want to die in a car crash!”  His own story will be featured in a later film.

I could see the some other art work was signed by a Misratan named “Mohammad bin Lamin” and I resolved myself to find this man (if he was still alive) and film his story.  It wasn’t till a second visit to Libya that I discovered he was alive and well and was in fact arrested with his brother in Misrata by Gaddafi’s forces at the very beginning of the uprising on February 15.  He spent the whole of the Revolution jailed in Abu Salem.  I hope to meet him one day and film his story.  Whilst sat in a hotel room in Tripoli during another visit I saw his remarkable story filmed for Al Jazeera English.  Using art as a spiritual answer to daily repression, Mohammad is a symbol of enduring resistance to the rule of Gaddafi.


Mohammed Gurmin’s drawings

Mohammad bin Lamin

Later, upstairs on the rooftops over-looking the Prison, Ziad showed me the intelligence files which were written about him.  Someone had found them in another intelligence office on the other side of Tripoli, tracked him down and given it to him.  Ziad’s photo was stapled to the front, in his red “execution suit” staring back at us.  He read some of the statements and laughed, they were all forced confessions he had made.  The irony of sitting on top of the prison which had denied him liberty for three long months seemed almost too much to bear.  Ziad looked to the Misratan guard who had accompanied us on our “tour” of the prison.  He asked him “what do you want most for Libya?”  “Only to be free” he replied with a beautiful smile across his face.  The short film I made of Ziad at Abu Salim can also be seen on The Guardian website here.


Ziad Labib at Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim courtyard

Abu Salim prison

Filming on the roof

Misratan brigade member

Tweeting Tripoli

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 18:16

November 2011: Ali Tweel was another brave Tripolitanian who was tweeting undercover during the Libyan Uprising and ensuing civil war.  Tweeting as @TrablesVoice, Ali heroically got the word out of the extent of the anti-Gaddafi sentiment in Tripoli.  He tweeted about the number of protests taking place in Tripoli and told me some terrible stories about relaying information of horrific injuries from his friends on the ground attending protests, to tweeting it to journalists and the international community.  “I tried to be Tripoli’s voice” Ali said to me, modestly.  Sitting in his home, an impressive 3 storied apartment block, with his brother Abdulhakeem Amer Tweel and his family living above him, Ali told me how he and his brother would rush up to the rooftops at night whenever they heard a NATO sortie flying overhead.  They lived in the Bab Ben Ghashier district, close to the infamous Bab Al Aziziyah – Gaddafi’s notorious compound.  They filmed and documented many bombing raids on their rooftops and gathered under the cover of darkness to talk secretly about the extent of the damage and the success of the uprising against Gaddafi.  “We had to be very careful about who we talked to –  and when we came up on the roof to talk and film we had to be very quiet – you never knew who was listening or who would report you around here,” said Abdulhakeem – gesturing to the neighbouring houses.  “This neighbour and that neighbour,” he said pointing at the surrounding residential blocks – “they are all pro-Gaddafi.”  Ali told me – “my neighbour here, he used to have a green flag, but the day after Tripoli fell, suddenly the flag was gone.  But they are still “green.”

Standing on the rooftop of the Tweel family home, Ali showed me his two-way satellite dish that he had modified so he could overcome Gaddafi’s blocking of the internet and tweet to the outside world.  “I was paranoid that Gaddafi’s men would be outside scanning for internet signals and they would find it.”  One night, he tells me that Gaddafi’s men did indeed come to his home.  Quietly in the dead of night, they rang his door bell.  Peeking out from a hiding place, he could see the men standing in the street light, looking up at his fortified home.  He pretended not to be there, and so they mercifully they left.  “In this area”, Ali told me, “because it is generally pro-Gaddafi and close to Bab Al Aziziyah, Gaddafi’s men didn’t want to make a commotion, whereas in other parts like Tajoura or Soug al Juma – they didn’t care they would just shoot you in the street.”

Ali Tweel

Ali also told me about the attack that Gaddafi soldiers carried out on their neighbouring mosque – Albadri Mosque, he recorded it all on video from their rooftops, and he and his brother even came under fire themselves.

Filming Abdulhakeem Tweel on the rooftops. Photo by Ali Tweel.

I was struck by the quiet and unassuming nature of both Ali and his brother Abdulhakeem.  They hated Gaddafi and saw it is as their duty to defy his rule.  They said they had no other choice.  Standing on the rooftop, looking out across a melange of satellite dishes, building blocks and AC units, Abdulhakeem poignantly reflected on the brutal rule of Gaddafi.   As the sun started to set over the minarets & mosques, and the call to prayer drifted in the sultry breeze, he told me “Gaddafi hated us.  He was not a true Libyan.  He knew nothing of us, of Tripoli.  He took everything from us – our property, my father’s land – everything.  He kept us barely alive and took everything for himself.  On the night of August 20, on the liberation of Tripoli, I was reborn.  I became a new man – I feel like I am just a baby now, a free man learning my way in the new Libya.  I am so happy.”  He praised the under-reported contribution of Libyan women too.  “You know not many people know of the brave sacrifice of these Libyan girls, these Libyan women.  Some of them were braver than the men!   Because it’s easier for a Libyan girl to hide something on her person.  Because of the culture, they won’t get searched; some women pretended to be pregnant and hid rifles and guns!”   And then I heard another familiar refrain:  looking around his neighbours’ houses, Abdulhakeem said “so many of Gaddafi’s supporters were poor, uneducated people.   They were brainwashed by State TV.  I would ask them “What did Gaddafi ever do for you?”  And they could never answer it.”

The Tweel rooftop overlooking Bab Al Aziziyah

Sitting back inside the comfort of Ali’s home, came the traditional offering of Libyan sweets, Quality Street chocolates (again!) and curiously for me at least, a glass of Pepsi Cola.  I didn’t have the heart to tell Ali I hated cola of any description, it was a kind gesture – I didn’t want to offend and so I drunk it.  Abdulhakeem joked – “chocolates! Oh Ali never serves us chocolates – I had better take some of these while I can!”  He then told me another joke – “when Benghazi was liberated and they were free, they would call me on my phone and say ‘Abdulhakeem why aren’t you guys protesting in Tripoli, rise up!’ And I would say, ‘wait, wait it’s not so easy for us now here in Tripoli – you know we have the iron hand.’  And the joke was at the time – if you want people to go out on the streets of Tripoli – just cut the chocolate!  Then they will be really angry …!”  Even in the depths of despair, during the dark days of the crackdown, Tripolitanians kept their humour.  But of course they did go out and protest in the streets – in their thousands.  Many died.  And many quietly held their ground and waited for the secret sign: for the cry of “Allahu Akbar” from the mosques around Tripoli – that was the signal that the battle for the liberation of Tripoli would begin.  The loud-speaker cry rang out on the dawn of August 20 – and so the battle for Tripoli began.

Tripoli Mosque

Fear and loathing in Tripoli

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 15:54

November 2011: One of the most prolific tweeters during the Libyan revolution was a man who went by the handle @2011feb17 – known as “Tweeting Tripoli.”  He had tweeted crucial and relevant information to the outside world and to journalists trying to work out what was really happening in Tripoli during the media and internet blackout Gaddafi had imposed across Libya.  I set up to meet this “twitterist” who after the revolution reverted back to his real name – Hamid Ahmed.  Hamid turned out to be a well-educated, eloquent retired University Professor, and family man living in Ain Zara.  He helped fight the propaganda war during the dark days of the civil war.  Whenever Moussa Ibrahim, Gaddafi’s silver-tongued spokesman told the international media that the NATO bombs hadn’t hit Gaddafi’s compound, for example, Hamid would prove otherwise by tweeting photos of the damage to the compound walls – at great risk to his own personal safety.  He lived very close to an air base that was struck by a NATO bombing raid – so close that they could see the loose rockets from the base hurtle like fireworks into the air.  He tweeted to the world the extent of the damage.

Damage to Bab al Aziziyah walls

Air base strike

“Jalloud & the sack of mice”

Hamid was a great source of historical and local information, telling me many stories about the history of Gaddafi, giving an intriguing insight into the mentality and personality of the crazed dictator himself.  After our long filmed interview where Hamid regaled me with tales of tweeting undercover during the Revolution, he drove me back towards downtown Tripoli.   On the way, he told me a well-worn tale that revealed the mind-set and mentality of Gaddafi.   Gaddafi’s right hand man for decades was Abdessalam Jalloud – who was also once Prime Minister of Libya.  During the 1980s, Gaddafi is said to have given Jalloud a sack of mice and asked:  “Tell me Jalloud, how do you pick up mice?”  Jalloud dropped the sack of mice on the floor and scrabbled around desperately trying to pick up the mice that had quickly scurried straight for the nearest skirting board.  He wasn’t able to pick up a single mouse.  Gaddafi then showed him how it was done.  He took the sack of mice, and swung it round and round in the air.  Then he dropped the bag on the floor.  Dazed and confused, the mice lay on the ground unable to move.  Gaddafi quietly and calmly picked up each mouse one by one and put them back in the sack.  “That,” he said to Jalloud, “is how you do it.”

Gaddafi, Hamid explained, ruled out of chaos and fear.  He confused and bamboozled the Libyan people by constantly changing the rules.  To say that Libya was chaotic (and still is), is no understatement.  One day, Hamid said, you would own your property – the next day you didn’t.  Gaddafi “nationalised” many private family homes and gave them to “other” people, which usually meant privileged members of the Regime.  Gaddafi would change the rules constantly, and woe betide anyone falling foul of those rules.  Libyans didn’t have time to “rise up” against its Ruler; they were too busy simply trying to survive.  A classic tactic taken straight out of the Dictator’s Totalitarian Regime Manual.

Moussa Ibrahim

Hamid told me about his favourite name for Moussa Ibrahim: “Pinocchio.”  Whenever he came on TV telling his lies during the Revolution, he would say to his kids “look boys, there’s Pinocchio!”  They would all laugh at his lies, but worried that the world would believe him.  It was up to them to tweet and film and tell the truth of what they saw.  Far from Tripolitanians being angry with NATO for bombing, Hamid told me that many welcomed NATO’s involvement.  I had already heard about the defiant cheering and quiet whistling in the night as the NATO bombs fell on Gaddafi targets, it was an act of defiance itself just to cheer.  I had heard and seen many videos of people cheering during the night raids.  Hamid told me that many people called the NATO planes “wannassa” – Libyan slang for “nightlight” – they found the NATO planes comforting knowing that they were on a mission to stop Gaddafi.  After they had bombed for the night, Hamid said they knew they could sleep easy.  Of course this is not to say that there weren’t civilian casualties.  Despite the careful and tactical precision bombing, there were casualties and these have been reported by Human Rights Watch and other humanitarian organisations, but disappointingly, not acknowledged by NATO itself.

Hamid told me about how terrifying it was living in a pro-Gaddafi neighbourhood.  He remembers when Gaddafi’s forces started attacking Benghazi with brutal force, and how his pro-Gaddafi neighbours had come out around his house firing celebratory gun shots into the air – his neighbours knew his family was from Benghazi.  He told me of their ignorance.  “Most of them are not educated, they don’t understand.  After the Revolution I would say to them “What did Gaddafi ever do for you?”  One of my neighbour’s wives died due to kidney failure.  Her husband blamed it on the NATO bombings saying it wasn’t safe to go to the Hospital,” yet as Hamid noted, she had had kidney failure for years and because of the poorly run and administered health system, she never got the appropriate treatment or care.  This was a common story amongst pro-Gaddafi people that I was to hear from others also.  Hamid showed me as we were driving around his neighbourhood – “see that house?” – he pointed to a long stretch of ugly grey concrete walls.  “They used to have Gaddafi’s poster up all along this wall.”  Sure enough I could see the aging signs of glue marks where flyers had once been.  “As soon as Tripoli fell,” he said “they took them off, but they are still Gaddafi supporters.”

Driving in Ain Zara

“Huda the Hanger”

Another telling insight into the sadistic mind of Gaddafi was during Ramadan.  In the 1980s, Hamid told me, many dissidents including members of the NFSL – the National Front for the Salvation of Libya were arrested due to a failed assassination attempt on Gaddafi.  At least 8 of its members were hanged publicly.  One of the most tragic cases involved Sadiq Hamed Shwehdi, who was the victim of a show trial and public hanging in a stadium in Benghazi in 1984.  Hamid remarked that Gaddafi was so sadistic and warped that he would show live hangings on State TV – scheduled right of the time of if tar during Ramadan – when Libyans sat down to their first meal of the day – breaking their fast.  “He was sick enough to show public hangings on TV just as Libyans were sitting down to eat,” remarked Hamid.  Equally sadistic was the footage of an eager young woman dressed in green, named Huda who wanting to please Gaddafi, ruthlessly stepped forward and yanked the feet of the dying man so as to make his expiration more painful.  Footage has recently surfaced of this horrifying event.

Huda was forever known by the nickname Huda Al-Shannaga—”Huda the Executioner – and later became Mayor of Benghazi and was one of the most richest and powerful women in Libya.  A loathed figure in Benghazi, Huda Ben Amer fled her mansion during the Revolution and was later reported to have been captured in Tripoli.  Mysteriously however, it has been revealed that Huda Ben Amer managed to flee to Cairo where she now lives.   There are rumours that much money changed hands in return for her escape, like so many ex-Regime figures before her.

Revolutionary flags in Soug al Juma

Mosque in Soug al Juma

Driving back through the highways of Tripoli, past the palm trees, the rays of sun streaming through the cracks of unfinished buildings, and the mosques draped in revolutionary flags, Hamid told me about one of Gaddafi’s ludicrous rulings.  He had banned the learning of English.  Living up to his “Pariah of the West,” and the “Mad Dog of the Middle East” moniker, Gaddafi hated anything English (at least on the face of it).  His Education Minister – reportedly to be the uncle of the Libyan propagandist Moussa Ibrahim, had banned the study of English in schools, but paradoxically his own family members went to study English abroad.   Moussa Ibrahim himself speaks fluent English and studied for many years in London.  But it was the last story that Hamid told me which I found one of the most intriguing.  Driving past the famous “Radisson Blu” Hotel that had become home to many visiting foreign dignitaries and media, Hamid remarked, “this used to be known as the Mahari Hotel.  And many taxi drivers only know it as the Mahari.” The ailing Hotel was taken over however by the Radisson franchise, and so driving past it one day, Gaddafi noticed the words “Radisson Blu” in English emblazoned across its façade.  “What is this” – enraged Gaddafi, “what is this – this – English word doing there? Take it off immediately.”  And so it was taken down.  Gaddafi did not like to have any English words anywhere in Libya.  Now after the fall, the words have since been put back up, proudly display those “heathen” English words.

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