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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.

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