Posts Tagged ‘Tripoli’

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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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.

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.

The Horrors of Abu Saleem

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 23:59

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

Police in Tripoli

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

“Feb 17”

Tripoli graffiti

Graffiti in the souk

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

Abu Salim prison

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

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

Say “V”

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

Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim “underground”

Abu Salim dungeon

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

Prison window

Walls of Abu Salim

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

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


Mohammed Gurmin’s drawings

Mohammad bin Lamin

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


Ziad Labib at Abu Salim prison

Abu Salim courtyard

Abu Salim prison

Filming on the roof

Misratan brigade member

Tweeting Tripoli

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 18:16

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

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

Ali Tweel

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

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

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

The Tweel rooftop overlooking Bab Al Aziziyah

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

Tripoli Mosque

Fear and loathing in Tripoli

In Libya on August 17, 2012 at 15:54

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

Damage to Bab al Aziziyah walls

Air base strike

“Jalloud & the sack of mice”

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

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

Moussa Ibrahim

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

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

Driving in Ain Zara

“Huda the Hanger”

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

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

Revolutionary flags in Soug al Juma

Mosque in Soug al Juma

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

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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