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Posts Tagged ‘Bab Al Aziziyah’

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.

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

Salaam Libya!

In Libya on August 16, 2012 at 20:20

November 2011: We were flying low over a brown, dusty scorched landscape, dotted only by a few olive trees, outhouses, and the odd mosque standing proud with its tell-tale minarets.  Somehow I was surprised at the barren un-developed landscape – I had imagined that Tripoli was much more urban and developed.  There were cracks in the runway at Tripoli International Airport, over-grown grass all around us, and a huge skeleton of a building that had obviously stopped mid-construction.  Everything had appeared to have stopped during the civil war that had only really ended just two months before.  It was a miracle that Tripoli International Airport had opened at all, but a few carriers were brave enough to fly into an unknown security vacuum.  Libya was currently listed as “unstable” and as I had discovered, was about the lowest ranking you could possibly get on the insurance security index.  I had flown into Tripoli to start researching and filming my documentary “Libya After the Fall.”  I was mainly interested in documenting the many activists who had worked underground during the Revolution.  Their actions had gone largely unreported during the uprising, as Gaddafi had managed to exert a tight grip on foreign media visiting Tripoli during the civil war.  Now, with its fall I had a chance to meet and film some of the activists I had been following on twitter, Facebook and watching through the news.  But I also wanted to cover the post-conflict scenario.  Whilst many journalists and filmmakers were intent on documenting the revolution itself – I was more interested in “what’s next?” I am more interested in the complexities of war and its aftermath.  Getting rid of Gaddafi was the easy part – now came the long slow painful road to “democracy” – and I wanted to be there to document this chapter in history.

Tripoli International Airport

Standing in the queue at immigration I looked around me.  There were very few western faces – mainly oil and telecoms workers, scattered with a few humanitarian volunteers who had opted to come and do what they could.  The visa system was barely functioning and the process was to pick one upon arrival.  I was lucky enough to bump into Sami – a Libyan who had lived in Britain and who spoke perfect English with a British accent.  He offered to drive me to my Hotel and in typical Libyan hospitality he even offered me a phone and SIM card.  He was a security consultant and was looking at building up his business in Libya.  We chatted as I filmed on the long drive into downtown Tripoli.  Sami gestured to the right of me at a block of non-descript residential buildings.  “Just a couple of months ago, he said, they had green flags flying here.  This is a pro-Gaddafi suburb” – it turned out we were driving past the Abu Saleem neighbourhood, the site of Abu Saleem prison a notorious symbol of Gaddafi’s repression.

On the way, we stopped off at Bab Al Aziziyah – Gaddafi’s infamous and feared compound.  We drove around the sprawling grounds – it was a substantial site with numerous watchtowers, buildings (some of which Sami said were makeshift prisons), and underground bunkers.  It all lay in ruins – even Gaddafi’s famous residence – with the fist-gripping-the-American-missile statue – had been destroyed.  It was all rubble.  In a collective act of defiance and revenge anything to do with Gaddafi was mutilated, defaced and destroyed.  Many times I had seen footage of this statue, where Gaddafi had stood in front, defiantly shaking his fist and ominously threatening to hunt the people of Libya down “Zenga Zenga” – alleyway by alleyway.  Now many Libyans were treating it as a tourist attraction, driving in and hanging about taking photos, what a sweet victory it must have felt, I thought.  Sami had told me that people used to be even afraid of driving past it, now they were having picnics in it.

Sharron Ward filming at Bab al Aziziyah compound

Underground bunker at Bab Al Aziziyah

Driving into downtown Tripoli I was struck by three things.  One was the driving.  Libyans it appears don’t know how to drive.  This is of course a mass generalisation, but most Libyans will tell you the same thing.  I once joked with a driver from the ICRC about this and he said “Yes Libyans got their driver’s licenses from Santa Claus!”  An old joke to be sure, I can remember as a child in New Zealand laughing at the well-worn joke, that bad drivers got their licenses from “the bottom of a Weetabix packet” – the prize you get from a box of breakfast cereal.  It is however no laughing matter.  Libya has one of the worst RTA records in the whole of the Middle East.  It is the third-leading cause of death in Libya, according to the World Health Organization.  One explanation has it that “some attribute Libyans’ atrocious driving habits to the stifling political climate, with limited personal freedoms leading many to drive with little regard for others.”   Gaddafi may have controlled every aspect of Libyan life, but on the road one was free to do as he pleased.  A combination of cheap petrol, easily attained driver’s licenses and a disregard for road traffic rules, it seems make for a fatal combination.  Yet even with Gaddafi gone, the hazardous driving remained.  The main problem seemed to be that no one stayed in or stuck to a lane.  Lanes it appeared were “mere suggestions…” and so drivers just wove in and out of traffic lanes at will.  I have never seen this kind of driving anywhere else apart from Italy – Naples in particular.  Another oddity is the seatbelt.  Seatbelts, at least in taxis, are merely there for decoration.  I lost count of the number of times I had jumped in the back of a taxi to reach for a non-existent seat belt.  And if there was a functioning belt, you can bet it was covered in dust!

Driving in Tripoli

Parking in Tripoli

The second thing to strike me was the general state of the infrastructure.  There was none.  The roads were cracked and poorly maintained.  Downtown Tripoli was in a state.  There was rubbish everywhere.  The main roads were paved, but the side roads were not.  I was shocked by this.  Libya was a rich nation, drowning in oil, I had naively pictured a Dubai-like splendour, with paved roads, clean and modern hospitals, and sparkling shopping centres – but I found nothing of the sort.  I had watched the images on the news of Tripoli during the civil war – the small snippets you could see was of the gleaming 5-star Rixos Hotel and the fancy fish restaurant where Gaddafi gave his humorous and somewhat deluded  interview – “All my beople love me…” he had said with a straight face.  But that appeared to be the only highlights.  The rest of Tripoli was sadly run down and neglected.

Tripoli street

Downtown Tripoli

Occasionally you could see beautiful colonialist Italian architecture, stunning picturesque mosques and princely palaces, stuck cheek-by-jowl with ugly 60s blocks.  The ruins of Marcus Aurelius arch stood out as an oddity proudly amongst the beautiful faded splendour of the old city.  What had become of this once famed “Bride of the Mediterranean?” Of course it’s easy to excuse the rubbish and general state of disrepair – Tripoli had just emerged from a civil war, it had been bombed by NATO, things were barely functioning or working, let alone the garbage collectors.  Some proud Tripolitanians had taken the initiative and started up their own “Cleaning up Tripoli” campaign.  But many Libyans I spoke to complained of the general state of disrepair saying “it was like this before the war, Gaddafi never spent any money on Libya – perhaps on Sirte and Bani Walid – and on his family – but never on the rest of Libya.”  Mohammed Ali, one of the Libyans I was to film remarked that Gaddafi didn’t care about the beautiful historical architecture nor of the extensive Roman ruins to be found in Libya, instead he put up block after block of ugly non-descript, impersonal buildings (not dissimilar to the ugly 1960s sink estates of the UK.)  He was ashamed of the streets full of litter and wanted me to film elsewhere – Libyans are rightly a proud nation, always wanting Libya to be seen in the best light and who could blame him.

Marcus Aurelius Arch

Beautiful palace

Corinthia Hotel

During my many interviews and chats with the residents of Tripoli, I was to hear one refrain over and over again: “What did Gaddafi ever do for us?  He did nothing.”   But I had said, “at least the main roads are good!”  Hamid, one of the twitter activists I was to later meet, explained to me that even the pristine main highways were built during King Idris’ time – it was not the work of Gaddafi.  I was to later visit TMC – Tripoli Medical Centre, Shah Zawiayh St hospital as well as Abu Saleem hospital – medical services which are described even by Libyans themselves as inadequate and “third world.”  Ali Tweel another “twitterist” active during the revolution told me that most Libyans, when they can afford it, go to neighbouring countries like Tunisia for medical health care.  He himself had just come back from Tunisia for an operation to his back.  The education system, the electrical infrastructure, the roads, the hospitals – you name it, Gaddafi had neglected it.  Hamid had remarked one evening on the long drive back to downtown Tripoli from his home in Ain Zara – “you see the road signs here? They have only just gone up in the last two years or so.  Gaddafi was paranoid that the Americans would invade us, so he took all the road signs down so they wouldn’t be able to find their way to Tripoli.  He’s so stupid,” said Hamid laughing, “he’s never heard of GPS.”

Tripoli road signs

The third thing that struck me about Libya was – the Libyans.  I have never met such a warm, generous and hospitable bunch of people.  Libyans have a great pride in their country and culture and wherever I went I was showered with traditional Libyan sweets, “Quality Street” chocolates (strangely enough) and offers of help and advice.   Many of the Libyans I met spoke excellent English – an act of defiance in itself, as Gaddafi had banned the learning of English in schools.  The vast majority of people seemed incredibly happy that they were now free.  Wherever I went filming in the streets of Tripoli, I was met with the ubiquitous “V” sign accompanied by victorious shouts of “Allu Akbar – god is great!”

For now at least, Tripoli was just happy to finally be rid of Gaddafi.

Tripoli Brigade, Martyr’s Square

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