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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.

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