The courage of ordinary people standing up to Gaddafi

The Middle East. A man with a car fashioned into a bomb. He disguises his intent by joining a funeral cortege passing the chosen target. At the last minute the man swings the vehicle away, puts his foot down and detonates the propane canisters packed into the car.

It all sounds horrifyingly familiar. Mahdi Ziu was a suicide bomber in a region too often defined by people blowing up themselves and others. But, as with so much in Libya, the manner of Ziu’s death defies the assumptions made about the uprisings in the Arab world by twitchy American politicians and generals who see Islamic extremism and al-Qaeda lurking in the shadows. Ziu’s attack was an act of pure selflessness, not terror, and it may have saved Libya’s revolution.

In the first days of the popular uprising he crashed his car into the gates of the Katiba, a much-feared military barracks in Benghazi, where Muammar Gaddafi’s forces were making a last stand in a hostile city. At that time the revolutionaries had few weapons, mostly stones and “fish bombs” — TNT explosive with a fuse that is more usually dropped in the sea off Benghazi to catch fish. The soldiers had heavy machine guns and the revolutionaries, often daring young men letting loose their anger at the regime for the first time, were dying in their dozens as they tried to storm the Katiba.

Then Ziu arrived, blew the main gates off the barracks and sent the soldiers scurrying to seek shelter inside. Within hours the Katiba had fallen.

Ziu was not classic suicide-bomber material. He was a podgy, balding 48-year-old executive with the state oil company, married with daughters at home. There was no martyrdom video of the kind favoured by Hamas. He did not even tell his family his plan, although they had seen a change in him over the three days since the revolution began.

“He said everyone should fight for the revolution: ‘We need Jihad,'” says Ziu’s 20-year-old daughter, Zuhur, clearly torn between pride at her father’s martyrdom and his loss. “He wasn’t an extreme man. He didn’t like politics. But he was ready to do something. We didn’t know it would be that.”

Ziu may have been unusual as a suicide bomber, but he was representative of a revolution driven by dentists and accountants, truck drivers and academics, the better off and the very poor, the devout and secular. Men such as Abdullah Fasi, an engineering student who had just graduated and was in a hurry to get out of a country he regarded as devoid of all hope until he found himself outside the Katiba stoning Gaddafi’s soldiers. And Shams Din Fadelala, a gardener in the city’s public parks who supported the Libyan leader up to the day government soldiers started killing people on the streets of Benghazi. And Mohammed Darrat, who spent 18 years in Gaddafi’s prisons and every moment out of them believing that one day the people would rise up.

Fasi joined the revolution on day two. The protests began after sunset on February 15 outside the police headquarters to demand the release of a lawyer, Fathi Terbil, who was arrested over a lawsuit against the government on behalf of the relatives of 1 200 men killed by Gaddafi’s forces at Abu Salim prison in 1996. Relatives of the dead men and lawyer friends of Terbil started to march. As they moved through the city, the crowd swelled and chanted slogans from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions. The police attacked them with water cannon and the government unleashed young men wielding broken bottles and clubs against the protesters. All that did was to bring thousands more on to the streets the next day, including Fasi.

‘We just wanted a constitution’
“At first we didn’t ask Gaddafi to leave,” he says. “We just wanted a constitution, justice, a better future. Then they came shooting and beating the people. After that we said Gaddafi must leave.”

“I knew I had to go to the Katiba. They were shooting us. In front of me they killed seven people in those four days. The last day was very very hard. People started to get TNT from the other camps and make the fish bombs. Every five minutes I heard a fish bomb explode.”

Then Ziu charged the Katiba’s gates on his kamikaze mission. What followed wasn’t pretty. “(The revolutionaries) were beating Gaddafi people they captured, it’s true. When they captured a Gaddafi soldier they said: ‘What was this man doing? He was shooting us.’ Gaddafi’s soldiers wanted to kill anyone. They were using anti-aircraft weapons on humans. It cut people in half. People were angry,” says Fasi. So angry that some of Gaddafi’s soldiers were lynched. At least one was beheaded.

With the battle of the Katiba won and the revolutionaries in control of Benghazi, Fasi gravitated toward the city’s courthouse on the dilapidated Mediterranean sea front, a mix of ornate Italian colonial-era buildings and ugly but functional modern constructs. The revolutionaries had burned the court and the neighbouring internal security offices as symbols of repression. Now they were rallying centres and something of a shrine. Relatives of Gaddafi’s many victims over four decades pinned up hundreds of pictures of the dead on the courthouse walls alongside those killed around the Katiba. Ziu’s portrait is there as an heroic martyr. While some mourned, others let loose with graffiti plastered across Benghazi declaring that the 42-year nightmare was nearly over.

Benghazians still marvel at their own courage in taking on the regime. Failure would almost certainly have meant execution, years in one of Gaddafi’s brutal prisons or exile. Yet otherwise ordinary people inspired each other to take the risk, not for an ideological cause or over some ethnic divide but to enjoy the basic freedoms few have ever known.

Future devoid of hope
Middle-aged men said they stood against Gaddafi because they couldn’t bear the thought of their children growing up to face a future devoid of hope. Younger people spoke of a realisation that they could either seize the moment or resign themselves to a half-existence under the tutelage of the next generation of Gaddafis. Even a few weeks later when the regime’s tanks were at the gates of Benghazi and the revolution looked as if it might be lost, expressions of regret were rare. The hardcore of revolutionaries — the female dentistry professor with an eight year-old child, the accountant with a family in the US, the shopkeeper who wonders where the money to feed his family will come from because the revolution has killed trade all said that at least they would die as free Libyans.

Few revolutions have been more inspiring. After years of reporting uprisings and conflicts driven by ideology, factional interests or warlords soaked in blood — from El Salvador to Somalia, Congo and Liberia — Libya’s uprising seems to me more akin to South Africa’s liberation from apartheid. For a start, the once pervasive fear of a hated regime is gone.

From the first days, scores of enthusiastic young revolutionaries, high on the prospect of looming victory, indulged the newfound freedom to finally say what they thought. They churned out screeds listing the dictator’s crimes and posters caricaturing Gaddafi as a common thief and agent of Mossad. Some posters imagined him on trial before the international criminal court or strung up on one of the gallows used for public hangings to terrorise the Libyan population.

Revolutionary committees sprang up. Among them was one charged with getting the message to the outside world that Libya 2011 was not Tehran 1979. The savvy revolutionary activists watching CNN and news websites were not slow in recognising the fearmongering in parts of the US media and Congress over what kind of revolution this was.

Almost the only foreigners in Benghazi during the early days of the revolution were journalists. We were feted with free coffee in cafés and regularly stopped on the street and thanked for coming. But reporters were also quizzed by Libyans who picked up on the talk about Islamic extremists hijacking the revolution. Where, they wondered, did the idea of al-Qaeda in Libya come from? Couldn’t people see what kind of revolution this is?

It is hard not to notice how desperate the core of revolutionaries is to be accepted by the west. It is common enough to run into accountants, oil executives and engineers on the frontline who have studied in Nottingham, Manchester and Brighton. They say they admire Britain and the US. Denunciations of America are noticeably absent, at least on the rebel side of the line. France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is a hero in rebel-held areas for recognising the revolutionary administration.

Cult of Gaddafi
Yet it is also not hard to see why the outside world was uncertain about the revolutionaries. No other country in the Middle East is quite so defined by its leader.

The cult of Gaddafi and his Green Book, his links to terrorism and the sheer brutality of a regime that publicly hanged students at Benghazi university for dissent, left little to be admired. The Libyan leader’s colourful behaviour, including a taste for Amazonian bodyguards, led much of the world to conclude that he was unstable as well as dangerous. From the outside, there were good reasons to wonder if the collective sanity of the Libyan people had not gone off the rails in those 42 years, especially when Libyans were seen on television in near hysterics as they fanatically waved Gaddafi’s green flag and swore to die for him.

“He made us ashamed of our country. He made us ashamed of ourselves,” says Mohammed Darrat, the former army officer who, in joining the throngs outside the Benghazi courthouse during the first days of the revolution, committed his first political act since Gaddafi flung him into jail in 1970. “Gaddafi gave this image to the world of the Libyan people as criminals or fanatics. It wasn’t true. We knew all along that he didn’t speak for us. It was always the people of Libya versus one family, the Gaddafis.”

That may not be entirely true. Many Libyans did very nicely out of the regime, at the price of unyielding loyalty to the “brother leader”. But it is true that large numbers of Libyans regarded Gaddafi with contempt. Fasi (23) grew up listening to his parents talk of Gaddafi as mentally unstable. “They thought he was mad — all my family talking about him and what he did in the 70s and 80s. They regarded him as a criminal for Lockerbie and a lot of other things. They hated it that the rest of the world only saw Gaddafi and not the Libyan people,” he says.

‘We left it to God to deal with him’
Fasi was warned by his parents never to repeat such views outside the house. That didn’t stop him. “For my generation, we were talking about it a lot. You can’t say Gaddafi is mad to just anybody. You can say it to close friends, but not to someone you don’t know properly, in case he’s a spy for internal security. In the last few years we were talking about that a lot among ourselves, saying we don’t want Gaddafi. But none of us expected Gaddafi to fall. Everybody was waiting for him to die. We left it to God to deal with him and we told ourselves whatever happens after there can be no one worse than Gaddafi,” he says.

Until that day, many young Libyans saw no future in their own country. They were generally less concerned with Gaddafi’s crimes against his own people — Benghazi was a favoured place for public hangings of political dissidents — than with the despair of living in a country where they saw no future. “I had to join the revolution because we didn’t have any hope here,” says Fasi. “A lot of my friends left the country after graduation. You see the outside, you see the other countries, you see how they live free. Even if their economies are bad, they are free. That’s the point.”

For Darrat, the revolution is about something else entirely. It’s personal. He knew Gaddafi from their army days, recognised the nature of the man and turned against him almost from the moment he seized power in 1969. “I went to military academy in Iraq. I saw that revolution and all the suffering there, the crimes,” he says. “After Gaddafi’s revolution I joined a secret group of army officers. We watched a lot of soldiers in the upper ranks behaving immorally, harming people because they wanted power. Because of what I had seen in Iraq I thought the same terrible things would happen here. I was right.”

Darrat joined a clique of officers planning to overthrow Gaddafi, but after a few months they were betrayed and arrested. “Gaddafi said we were traitors. They showed no humanity. They beat us day after day to obtain information. They smashed my leg and my back. I couldn’t walk,” he said.

Darrat was sentenced to life in prison. He left behind a wife and four children. Hundreds of other military personnel were also jailed. He describes prison as “very, very bad”. After two operations to repair the damage done by the beatings to his legs and back he was immediately returned to his cell without anything to control the pain.

Darrat brings out a picture of his military academy graduation class. In it is one of the army officers who brought Gaddafi to power in the 1969 coup. Another in the group was executed for opposing the Libyan leader. He has no idea why Gaddafi freed him early. “Who knows what Gaddafi thinks,” he says. “I don’t know how we allowed him to take control of our lives. We could all see what he was.”

Distinctive brand of socialism
When Gaddafi seized power he promised to do more for the poor with his distinctive brand of socialism. Wealthier Libyans lost properties. People in rented accommodation were told it now belonged to them. Yet for all the ideological rhetoric a substantial part of Libya’s population still lives in poverty.

In a corner of Benghazi rarely seen by its better-off residents is a warren of roughly constructed shacks and containers made into houses. Shams Din Fadelala built his own place from breeze blocks and corrugated iron on a piece of barren land that was once the compound of a German oil company. From the outside, the house does not have an air of permanence. Inside it is immaculately turned out with china models of flowers and birds on the coffee table.

Fadelala says he had lived much of his life without expectations. Gaddafi’s Libya did not encourage hope for a better life. The only real ambition for many Libyans was to stay out of the hands of the dictator’s notorious security police and find a job abroad. But Fadelala could not even cling to that small dream. As a gardener in Benghazi’s parks, he earns just $150 a month (“I give it all to my wife,” he says).

None of that stopped him from supporting Gaddafi. “I had always supported Gaddafi,” he says. “There was no one else, so who else could I support? He was the leader.”

As Fadelala watched the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions on al-Jazeera he marvelled at the audacity of the revolutionaries while not entertaining a flicker of hope that the same thing could happen in Libya. “It was interesting but I though it could never happen here. This is a different country. They didn’t have Gaddafi,” he says.

The regime calculated that unleashing violence against the protesters would intimidate men like Fadelala from supporting the revolutionaries. It was wrong. By the second day of the revolution, Fadelala was so appalled at the violence that he took the first political stand in his life and went to the courthouse in solidarity with the revolution. “When I saw what was happening, the shooting of protesters at the Katiba, I thought: ‘No more Gaddafi’. People were just protesting. He had no right to kill them for that,” he says.

Fadelala was not alone. Plenty of Benghazians eyed the uprising with suspicion, worried at the breakdown of order. But Gaddafi’s reaction — to slaughter protesters and accuse those demanding democratic freedoms of being drug addicts and members of al-Qaeda — revived memories of the most brutal years of the dictator’s rule in the 1980s and bolstered support for the uprising.

The revolution has still to be won. Gaddafi controls more territory than the revolutionaries. He managed to get his tanks into Benghazi before western air strikes drove them back. The residents of “free Libya” are in the peculiar position of being the only people on the planet pleading with foreigners to bomb their country.

Yet the uprising has changed everything. The fear of the regime is gone. The revolution has exposed the myth of Gaddafi’s invincibility even if he manages to hang on for another few months. Fasi says he now has a reason to stay in Libya. “I really want to share in building this country,” he says. “It’s a dream to be the best country in the world. We can be that now. I think it needs democracy, and this country is rich. Democracy and oil, that’s all we need.” –

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Chris Mcgreal
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