Posts Tagged ‘Revolution’

Katalyst blogspot archive 2009 – 2012

In Archive on November 23, 2015 at 20:15

For archive purposes, we’re reposting the old Katalyst Blogspot from 2009-2012 here.


“Addicted in Afghanistan” now available to stream or download!


It is with great excitement that we can finally announce our multi-award winning feature length documentary “Addicted in Afghanistan” is now available to stream or buy to download here!
Thanks to Distrify you can watch this film and if you embed it on your own blogs or websites, you get to earn  revenue from film sales!  Please see the Addicted website for further details about the film.

Sunday, 8 July 2012


Filming the “Accidental Activists”


As I am about to head back out to Libya to continue filming my documentary “Libya: After the Fall” and to film other stories about the many challenges Libyans face on the bumpy road to democracy, I wanted to take a moment to write about some of my experiences filming in Tripoli back in November & December 2011.  I initially wanted to make a film about the revolution itself entitled “Libya February 17.” It was to be a documentary recounting the brave stand many ordinary Libyans took to defy the rule of Muammar Gaddafi.  Armed with little but a tripod, my camera and a few contacts, I hit the ground running in Tripoli back in November 2011.  This post will mention just a few of these wonderfully brave Libyans I met.

Bab al Aziziya

Sharron Ward filming at Gaddafi’s Bab al Aziziyah compound Tripoli, Libya

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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.

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.

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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