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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.

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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