Three weeks in the revolutionary heartland of eastern Libya.
- By Ryan CalderRyan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.
View a slide show of the graffiti of the Libyan revolution.
Ryan Calder is a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. An Arabic speaker and former Dubai-based McKinsey & Co. analyst currently studying Islamic banking, Calder left California in late January to view the Arab revolutions firsthand, visiting Egypt and Bahrain during their respective upheavals before traveling on to Libya in March. He arrived in Libya four days before the international intervention began and is currently in the rebel-held city of Benghazi, where he has been interviewing the revolution’s participants and witnesses and writing a blog, from which parts of this series are adapted.
Benghazi, March 27: Democracy, drag racing, and a decent cup of espresso
“Qaddafi had a hold on Benghazi like this,” a 30-year-old butcher-shop employee in the city told me on March 26, clenching his fist. “But no longer. Now, we’re free.”
These political motivations for rebellion are the ones that tend to filter out of Benghazi through the news media to the outside world. In part, it’s because people here — official and otherwise — do frame their fight in those terms: In my three weeks in the city, I’ve found that anyone in a position of formal authority in the interim government — from national-level leaders to staff at the rebel-run media center in Benghazi to town-level representatives of the interim government — is aware that “democracy” and “freedom” are bywords that will portray the “new Libya” in the right international light. (They’re also careful to argue that there will be no partisanship (hizbiyyah) and no tribalism (qaba’iliyah) in the new Libya.) This is one of many ways in which the eyes of the outside world are shaping this uprising, and all of the 2011 Arab uprisings: Liberal-democratic discourse has gone utterly and completely global and is now reflecting back upon itself.
That these political motivations — the desire for civil liberties, the rule of law, and democracy — are self-conscious does not mean that they’re disingenuous. But it’s worth noting that socioeconomic concerns are also central to this rebellion. Some people will start a conversation about the revolution by talking about political freedoms, but will end up talking about the distribution of oil revenues a minute later. Others dive straight in, criticizing Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s government for its cronyism. Here are some typical quotes from people in eastern Libya:
“Libya produces 1.6 million barrels of oil a day. [Every Libyan seems to know this number.] But where does the money go? Into the pockets of Qaddafi, his children, and his friends.”
“Look at the United Arab Emirates. They have beautiful buildings and great infrastructure. Why isn’t Libya like the UAE? Or like Qatar? Our oil is of even higher quality than theirs, and we’re a country of only 6 million people. [Libyan crude traditionally commands relatively high prices on the world market because of its quality, and every Libyan knows this too.] Instead, look around you. We’ve driven through the desert for 100 kilometers, and there hasn’t been a single proper road sign. All you see are those faded milestones — and they date back from the era of King Idris [who ruled Libya from 1951 to 1969]. We’re running out of gas, and there’s no way for me to know where the nearest road sign is!”
“Look, the Libyan people are a simple people. What does a young Libyan guy want? A job, a house, and a car. So he can get married. These are the things he’s really concerned about.”
“Africa, Africa, Africa. [This is a reference to Qaddafi’s turn toward African unity and away from pan-Arabism. This turn began in the 1990s.] Qaddafi is always talking about Africa. In school, we had to study African history. But why should Libya have connections with [sub-Saharan] Africa? Look how backward those countries are. Why can’t we have good relations with the West instead — with Europe, the United States? With developed countries that have something to offer us? What good does Africa do us?”
[While driving through central Benghazi, a few hundred meters from the city’s central square:] “Look at these roads! [Points to potholes in a bumpy unpaved road.] In the middle of the city! Can you believe it? That’s Qaddafi for you. Forty-one years, and this is what we get.”
To understand the significance of these kinds of comments — which I hear everywhere — it’s important to understand the creaky character of the Libyan rentier state, which has been malfunctioning since the start. This is partly because of the rentier state’s poor fit with Qaddafi’s revolutionary socialistic Green Book ideology, partly because of Dutch disease, partly because of reliance on expatriate labor (both inside and outside the oil sector), and so on. Parallels with the Soviet Union also abound: A revolutionary ideology and charismatic leadership raised expectations in the 1970s, only to disappoint the masses as the regime ossified, with a state-dominated economy failing to produce improvements in the standard of living from the 1980s onward. (The timing doesn’t coincide with the USSR’s trajectory, but the general contours do.) Qaddafi’s foreign adventurism and his turn toward Africa have, in many Libyans’ eyes, only exacerbated the problem.
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
The Qaddafi government established a pervasive security and intelligence apparatus that extends into every neighborhood. Its most notorious component is the Revolutionary Committees (al-lijan al-thawriyah), the vanguard and defenders of Qaddafi’s revolutionary vision. They seem comparable to China’s Red Guard during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. These, I suspect, constitute some of the die-hards whom you see waving green flags and kissing pictures of Qaddafi in the live feeds from Tripoli.
Even in rebel-held zones, people are scared of the Revolutionary Committees and other core Qaddafi groups. “You should be careful in Benghazi,” they say. “Even though it’s a rebel-held city now, the Revolutionary Committee members are going out and shooting people — even women and children — all over the city. And they even have women fighters among them.” Whenever I am warned not to take cars with people who “aren’t trusted” or to be careful walking around, I am told that Revolutionary Committee members could be about.
“Did you know who in your neighborhood were Revolutionary Committee members?” I asked one interviewee. “No,” he replied. “They were hidden, for the most part. You didn’t know. But with some of the other internal-security groups, you did know.”
“In February,” this 30-something interlocutor went on, “during the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, I was with a group of people [in a major eastern city], and I started to blurt out that maybe something like that could even happen in Libya. It just came out of my mouth, you know? But I stopped myself halfway through the sentence. A middle-aged man from the neighborhood, whom we all knew was a member of al-Bahth [another Qaddafi loyalist group], looked at me. He is a neighbor of some of my relatives. ‘You’re lucky that I’m a friend of your family,’ he said. ‘Otherwise, I’d report you.’
“Then, after the revolution had started — maybe around February 22 or so — a group of revolutionaries surrounded this Bahth guy’s house. He was still raising the green flag [of Qaddafi]! So the revolutionaries said, ‘You have one minute to pull down the flag, or we’ll burn your house down.'”
“Did he take down the green flag?” I asked.
Late one night a couple of weeks ago, I heard automatic weapons fire and loud booms from my room at Benghazi’s Uzu Hotel. I opened the window and saw red beads of anti-aircraft tracer fire rising into the sky above Benghazi’s harbor. Curious, I found a driver and went back into the center of town. When we got there, I discovered that the fire was not coming from any fighting, but just from young men driving around in jeeps and firing their weapons into the air, letting off steam and pumping themselves up. Testosterone.
Then at 3:30 a.m., I heard tires squealing loudly on the road in front of the hotel. Were pro- and anti-Qaddafi forces chasing each other? Was someone fleeing an attack? I opened my window again — and saw a line of 20 cars full of raucous guys in their teens and 20s, waving the revolution’s black-red-green tricolor, dancing with their heads sticking out of their car windows and sunroofs, chanting off-color slogans about Qaddafi and his hair, and drag-racing across a highway bridge. Drag-racing for the revolution, you could say. From Oakland to Benghazi to the Tokyo Drift, shabab will be shabab.
Libya is a great place to get an espresso. That’s one of the few good things that the Italian colonial government left behind here (though it doesn’t make up for the genocidal campaign of forced migration, starvation, and disease that killed half of Cyrenaica’s population in the 1930s). And when your joe comes from an espresso machine with a rebel flag pasted on it, it tastes better.
At my hotel, the coffee comes in little paper cups with a logo that says “Coffee Tycoon.” Great name for a coffeehouse chain, no?
Between Benghazi and Ajdabiya, March 28: In Uncle Curly’s footsteps
Last night, CNN was reporting breathlessly (and, frankly, a little confusingly) from the highway between Benghazi and Ajdabiya, the putative front line of Libya’s civil war. But word this morning is that Ajdabiya is firmly in rebel hands, after having been under siege for 10 days. So my friend Xavier, a reporter for Barcelona’s La Vanguardia, and I hop in a taxi in Benghazi and head south to Ajdabiya.
I’ve never been to Bakersfield, the pumping heart of California’s oil industry, but I suspect driving there is much like driving to Ajdabiya from Benghazi. You pass stretches of farmland and stretches of windswept scrub. You pass rest stops and gas stations and stretches of not much at all, where lone trees inexplicably grow sideways. A late-model Chevy Tahoe zooms past you. So does a Kia Rio. Your clunker hums along in the slow lane, doing the best it can.
There are, however, differences. Forty-five minutes from Benghazi, we drive past a charred multiple rocket launcher (MRL). This is the first of many mangled remnants of Qaddafi’s army that we’ll see in the 100 miles between Benghazi and Ajdabiya.
After another 15 minutes, we stop to inspect about half a dozen destroyed vehicles in a field. All are from Qaddafi’s forces: tanks, MRLs, armored personnel carriers. It looks like a one-sided battlefield, where only one side showed up to get destroyed. This is how the coalition’s air power has changed the game. These tanks were menacing Benghazi until a few days ago. Not anymore.
Now, it seems, the rebels wait for Qaddafi’s equipment to go up in flames; then they press forward along the empty highway to Ajdabiya, then on toward the oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf. And then, presumably, hugging the coast, they will move on to Qaddafi’s birthplace of Sirte. And then on to Tripoli, inshallah.
Thirty or so people mill about the battlefield: all civilians, all Libyan. Most are young and middle-aged men, but there are a few families. People snap photos and climb on top of tanks, prying open the hatches. From the other side of the road, where a few other vehicles lie, comes a stench. I steer clear of it.
Spray paint, incidentally, is vital in revolutions. When you liberate a building, you spray-paint your slogans on it. When you come across a destroyed enemy tank, you spray-paint that too. Someone tagged this one “Athar Bu Shafshufah”: “Uncle Curly’s Ruins.”
Uncle Curly, of course, is Muammar al-Qaddafi. The colonel’s hair gets a lot of attention in this country. Caricatures highlighting his famous ‘do now cover the walls of central Benghazi.
A middle-aged man in glasses, clean-shaven and neat in a blue oxford shirt, has a camcorder out, surveying the wreckage. He approaches Xavier and me, greeting us in English. Atif is a surgeon in Benghazi, and before coming here today, he was working in the hospital for two days straight, treating the wounded. He studied medicine in France and worked there for years, but returned in 2003 to be near his extended family.
Atif complains that in Libya today, people are appointed to important positions without the requisite qualifications. “Take Qaddafi’s minister of health,” he says. “Is he a doctor? Does he have background in medicine? No. He’s a teacher! But he got the job because he’s close to Qaddafi.”
We get back in the car and move on, south toward Ajdabiya. Every five minutes or so, we pass more wreckage. Some of the tanks are pancaked. We see minivans and SUVs that are charred and smashed; I think I even see a BMW 3 Series burned out on the side of a hill. Had these passenger cars also been with Qaddafi’s forces? Or had they just been parked along the highway on the wrong day of the week, when coalition planes were destroying anything in sight?
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images, Ryan Calder
We keep driving. Despite the intermittent heaps of twisted metal, life goes on here. We pass a shepherd boy, tending a flock of sheep. A car with its hood up sits beneath a tree by the side of the road, and from a distance I assume it has been bombed. But it’s intact, and there’s a family sitting next to it; they’ve stopped to have a picnic and have put the hood up to cool the engine.
We pull into a rest stop. It’s packed. We order sandwiches, and another guy in line picks up our tab, refusing to let us pay, despite my best efforts. He’s doing it out of gratitude to the foreigners who are here reporting on Libya’s revolution. Libya has been virtually closed for decades, after all. And people who support the opposition know that foreign attention is vital to foreign support, and foreign support vital to victory. They’re grateful. In the past few days, countless people have approached me and said, sometimes in halting English, “Thank you, Sarkozy! Thank you, Obama! Thank you, Cameron!”
We get back in the car, driving and munching on sandwiches. A beat-up Toyota station wagon passes us. The guy on the passenger side has two fingers up in the air, out the window, exulting. A Lincoln Navigator zooms by, with one red-black-green rebel tricolor pasted on the back and another fluttering from a pole held out the window. It’s like driving to a football game.
Above the flag, a sticker on the Navigator’s back window advertises in English for an eyebrow-shaping service. As a driver in the city of Al-Marj explained it to me, “We can’t afford new cars here in Libya. But since around 2003, when Libya’s relations with America improved, we started importing used cars from America. The other countries in this region won’t import cars that are banged up, but in Libya we will.”
Our driver Fatih’s car, which is getting passed by pretty much everything on the road, is a venerable Daewoo with 582,736 kilometers (around 360,000 miles) on the odometer. “This car is my life,” Fatih tells us as we press on to Ajdabiya. “I don’t have a government job. Qaddafi gives me nothing. All I have is this taxi — to feed me, my wife, and my two bambino.” (In addition to espresso and cappuccino, another charming legacy of the brutal Italian occupation is a tendency to pepper Libyan Arabic with the very occasional Italian word, though the grammar isn’t always quite right.)
I ask Fatih how he feels seeing the bombed-out tanks.”How do I feel?” he replies. “I feel great — I feel like celebrating. Look, if the French and the Americans hadn’t bombed these tanks, do you know where they’d be right now? In Benghazi. The city would be destroyed by now. My whole famiglia would be dead.” I ask him about the U.S. bombing of Tripoli and Benghazi in 1986: How did he feel about the United States then? “Look. Back then, there was no satellite television. There was no proper media, you know? We didn’t know what was going on in the outside world. All we heard was Qaddafi, Qaddafi, Qaddafi, ranting at America, America, America. But now, it’s different. Now we know what’s going on in the world. Now we have Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, you name it.”
After two hours of driving, we arrive in Ajdabiya. It’s a dusty, colorless provincial capital of around 130,000. A few storefronts and homes have been hit by mortars, but on the whole, the city looks much like it presumably did before. Which was pretty shoddy.
The shelling from Qaddafi’s forces was the most intense in the city’s northern neighborhoods, where rebel forces established themselves after moving in from the ring road. We pull up next to a guy walking down the street wearing reflective wraparound sunglasses and a gray polo shirt. Fatih rolls down the window. “Hey, I’ve got a couple of foreign journalists here,” he calls out. “Can you tell me where to go to see something in the city that got hit really hard — you know, something that got bombed out really badly? Something these guys could get some good pictures of?” Neither Xavier nor I is keen on that approach; we’re more interested in talking to people. Regardless, the guy in the wraparound sunglasses jumps in the car with us. “I’m from the neighborhood,” he says. “I’ll show you around.” His name is Ibrahim. He’s probably in his late 20s.
We spend the next hour walking with Ibrahim and a half dozen locals from shelled home to shelled home. Every tenth structure or so is damaged, some irreparably so. We walk through living rooms and kitchens turned into piles of rubble, through bed boards and tricycles and space heaters lying amid plaster and ash. Most of the neighborhood’s residents had evacuated by the time the rockets and mortars came, but a few stayed, and some were unlucky — Ibrahim points toward one home, saying a man passed away there, and then to another.
But most of the damage Qaddafi did to the neighborhood seems to have had nothing to do with the bombing. The neighborhood is in a decrepit state. The roads are rutted and completely unpaved, with water mains showing. Half-built cinder-block structures are everywhere. I ask Ibrahim about the exposed water mains: Was this part of an ongoing improvement project? “Improvement?” he scoffs. “They don’t improve a thing around here. Nope, some Chinese company is supposed to be fixing this stuff up, but nothing’s happening.”
Most of the houses are still vacated, but a few people are returning. Some of the unlucky ones whose houses were struck are piling their possessions on top of cars. Xavier asks me to ask one man how he felt during the shelling. The man hesitates, not knowing what to say. “Well, it was scary,” he begins. One in the crowd of onlookers chimes in sarcastically. “It was fantastic! It was awesome, man. He loved it! He was playing music and dancing! How do you think it felt?”
Smart-Ass has a point.
Driving back from Ajdabiya to Benghazi, we stop at another bevy of broiled tanks, two on each side of the highway. At the top of a sand dune, next to one of the tanks, lie Russian-made missiles and some opened plywood cases with orange labels reading “EXPLOSIVE.”
The atmosphere here is even more carnivalesque than at the other site. One dad walks his young son and daughter across the street, while another helps his kid up onto a tank and hands him a rebel flag, posing him with it for a picture. Passing drivers rubberneck and clog traffic, honking and taking pictures on their camera-phones as they move down the highway. Tractor-trailers pass by, hauling tanks and MRLs taken intact from the enemy, with the rebel flag planted atop them, ready to be recycled by the rebels. On a destroyed tank across the street, someone has spray-painted “Rabish Bu Shafshifah: Al-Bi’ah bi-l-Jumlah” — “Uncle Curly’s Junk: All for Sale.”
On the drive home, I count two dead camels. Well, one and a half.
Between Ras Lanuf and Brega, March 29: The menus and the mixtapes of the revolution
Here’s what dinner is like in Libya: You and three or four other people sit on the floor around a large metal basin about 2 feet in diameter. It’s full of rice, couscous, or pasta flavored with spices or sauce, often tomato-based. Mixed in with the rice might be chickpeas, cauliflower, slices of bell pepper, tomato, onion, etc. On top of the rice are large chunks of meat on the bone — usually lamb (at least in the homes that can afford it). A bowl of salad (lettuce, tomato, onion, cilantro, all chopped) sits on the side, in a dressing of lemon juice and salt. There might also be green chilies or long green onions to nibble on while eating. Harissa, red chili paste, is a common condiment. Each person gets a spoon. And then you tuck in.
After the meal, you sit around on cushions, chat, and watch the latest news from Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya on the TV that is always on in the main living/dining room. “Is it only since the revolution began that everyone has been watching satellite news nonstop at home?” I once asked over dinner at a farmhouse in Al-Marj. “No,” I was told. “Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya is always on, revolution or no revolution.”
Last night, I had dinner with some rebel fighters in Brega, the port city south of Benghazi, who invited Xavier and I to stay in the homes they are sleeping in while they fight. We’d just shown up out of the blue, but they insisted on sharing their dinner with us. This little oil town is normally inhabited by petroleum engineers and oil technicians who work in the fields and refineries nearby. Compared with Ajdabiya, with its rutted, unpaved streets, Brega is neatly kept, with well-paved streets, painted curbs, and even landscaping. But the town is now deserted, except for those rebels given use of some of the houses by sympathetic owners who have evacuated with their families. Some of the homes are now pockmarked with bullet holes from Qaddafi’s forces.
While watching Al Arabiya and talking about the meeting that is to take place in London of foreign ministers seeking a diplomatic end to the conflict, we ate lamb with peppers and penne (or, as all pasta is called here, makaroon — macaroni). “This is the consummate Libyan meal,” said one of the fighters. (The rebel fighters I have seen, by the way, are all men, ranging in age from their teens to their 60s.)
“Who cooked?” I asked.
“Me!” the fighter said.
It was pretty good.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
Last week, during the battle for Ajdabiya, I was sharing a ride from Tobruk to Benghazi with a 25-year-old guy dressed in a green knockoff Adidas soccer jacket with yellow stripes. I struck up a conversation.
“Why are you headed to Benghazi?” I asked.
“I’m stopping in Benghazi for the night and then heading to Ajdabiya,” the young man — I’ll call him Hussein — replied.
“It’s my hometown. Going to fight.” That is, to join the rebel forces.
“Take care of yourself, man,” I said.
“Thanks. What’s your name?”
“My name’s Ryan. I’m from the United States.”
“I’m Hussein. Your name’s Bryan? I love Bryan Adams. Celine Dion, too.”
“Uh, the name’s Ryan. With an ‘R.'”
“Oh.” Hussein told me he had four brothers and one sister. Four of the five sons are fighting with the rebels.
“Your mom must be scared,” I said.
Hussein had been studying engineering at a university in Benghazi for a while, but dropped out. “What’s the point?” he said. “All of my friends who had graduated weren’t getting jobs anyway.” To get a proper job — an official one, with a regular salary, he later explained — you need to have been in the army. “And even then,” he went on, “it’s pretty damn hard to get a proper job. You need connections.” Most formal employment is controlled by the state. Otherwise, people work in the informal economy.
Hussein told me he had been involved in the rebellion “from the beginning. I was one of the protesters who started even before February 17” — the revolution’s “official” start date, he said.
“How did you know to join the demonstrations in the first place?” I asked.
“Facebook,” he said.
“And how’d you get into Bryan Adams and Celine Dion?”
“Facebook, you know? And other websites. Online, people are always talking music, sharing music.”
In Benghazi’s central square, nationalist songs celebrating Libyan freedom stream out of large speakers in the tent set up by the University of Garyounis, the largest university in the city. (In Benghazi, as in Cairo and Manama, student groups, women’s activists, professional associations, and other organizations set up tents near the center of the protest action, showing their solidarity with the revolutionary cause.) One clever Shargawi (that’s what you call someone from Benghazi) remixed to a beat a speech by Qaddafi in which the colonel vowed to take Benghazi back from the rebels street by street, house by house, room by room. Titled Zenga zenga, dar dar — “Street by street, room by room” — it has become a pop sensation in liberated Libya.
Yesterday, as we drove through a checkpoint, some rebels on inspection duty asked where we were from. “I’m from the United States,” I said in Arabic. “Yeah, man! I loooove heavy metal,” he responded in English, putting his fingers up and rocking his head back and forth, doing his best Ozzy Osbourne impression.
This morning, one of the fighters I had dinner with in Brega — Khalid, a 39-year-old bakery owner from Benghazi — called me over from the next room.
“Hey Ryan — come here for a second.”
“You like Sabaringasteen?” he asked.
“Sabaringasteen? You don’t know Sabaringasteen? He’s American.”
I drew a blank.
“Listen to this,” Khalid said, punching buttons on his phone. I recognized the opening snare hits and guitar riff immediately. Then the Boss’s voice kicked in. “I was … born in the USA…”
“I love Sabaringasteen,” said Khalid with a broad smile. “And Kenny Rogers. You know Kenny Rogers? Kantaree” — country — “music. I love kantaree music.” Khalid was wearing a red turtleneck and stonewashed jeans. He had a handlebar mustache and a bit of a paunch. It worked — all he needed was a ten-gallon hat.
As I write this, it’s 7 p.m. on March 29, and we’re driving back from Ras Lanuf to Brega. We pass young rebels with Kalashnikovs who had never touched a gun until the revolution, driving their own cars to the front, wearing camo and black-and-white checked kaffiyehs and reflective sunglasses — thawra chic. Groups of them sit by the side of the road, eating dinner. Some have brought along whatever they could find at home for protection: construction helmets, work boots, and even those plastic dive masks you wear to go snorkeling. Toyota Hilux pickup trucks zoom past, carrying Russian-made artillery pieces older than I am. This is what a 21st-century volunteer army looks like. These guys are all heart, not much coordination, and no training whatsoever.
To the north, in the stone’s throw between us and the Mediterranean, rises an orange gas flare from the Ras Lanuf Oil and Gas Processing Company. Here, from the Sirt Plain, come most of the 1.6 million barrels of oil that Libya produces each day. (Or at least, that was the figure before the revolution; it’s much lower now.) Behind us lie the gutted, burned-out shells of Qaddafi’s tanks and supply vehicles.
We pass a yellow road sign with a camel symbol on it. Camel crossing.
Muhammad, the driver, slips a CD into the stereo. The rapper Akon comes on. “You’re so beautiful… I wanna get with youuuuuu…”
Benghazi, March 29: The Sarkozy effect
There is no question who the most popular man in Libya is right now.
“I love Sarkozy!”
“Sarkozy mia mia!” (Mia mia means, literally, “100%.” It’s a common expression meaning “great.”)
“Sarkozy is number one.”
“Thank you, Sarkozy! Also, thank you, Obama. Thank you, Cameron.”
There are French flags all over Benghazi’s central square. One was draped over the central courthouse building until a few days ago — it was even larger than the rebel flag draped on the building. “Merci,” reads one sign.
One petroleum technician with whom I spoke in Ajdabiya two days ago said that the Libyan people want French President Nicolas Sarkozy to come to Libya and be their new leader. I’m not sure he speaks for all Libyans, but you get the picture.
Today, a rebel fighter in Ras Lanuf turned and pointed to the five comrades in the back of his pickup truck. “If it weren’t for Sarkozy,” he said, “all these guys would be dead. So would the people of Benghazi.”
The word “Sarkozy” has actually become shorthand for foreign air attacks on Qaddafi’s troops. Yesterday and the day before, there was great optimism on the rebel side as coalition jets pounded Qaddafi’s forces, allowing the rebels to advance.
But today, when there seemed to be no foreign air support in the Sirt Plain, the rebels were forced to retreat. They don’t have the armaments to fight Qaddafi’s forces on an even playing field. “Qaddafi’s forces have up-to-date artillery pieces that can fire 40 kilometers,” one rebel told me. “But this thing here,” he said, pointing to the light artillery piece in his truck, “is ancient. It’ll only fire five kilometers. Without Sarkozy, we can’t compete with Qaddafi’s technology. His militias will overrun us.” Another rebel showed me the date and serial number on his Russian-made Kalashnikov. It was made in 1976. “They [Qaddafi’s troops] have better weapons: tanks, rockets, heavy artillery.”
PATRICK BAZ/AFP/Getty Images
Between Benghazi and Ajdabiya, March 31: The Qaddafi fist-pump
It’s 2:15 p.m; we’re in a car headed toward the front, which is west of Ajdabiya. Muhammad, our driver, slips a CD in the car stereo. Arab house music comes on. A photographer sitting behind me starts pumping his fist in the air to the beat.
“Tell him not to do that, man,” Muhammad says to me in Arabic.
“Why not?” I ask.
“The rebels will launch a rocket at us,” Muhammad says, laughing.
“The fist pump in the air — that’s what Qaddafi and his guys do. The rebels do this,” he says, putting up two fingers in a “V.” “Stick with the two fingers.” He changes the CD.
Benghazi, April 2: The littlest rebel
Outside a pizza joint in one of Benghazi’s better neighborhoods, I met a rebel fighter they called “the littlest rebel.” He had a red-checked kaffiyeh wrapped around his head and was sitting with three or four guys twice his size on the bed of a pickup truck. The truck was patrolling the city with a large machine gun mounted on it.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“Thirteen,” the littlest rebel said.
“Do you know how to use that thing?”
Another guy in the truck, probably in his early 20s, explained: “We’ve taught him how to use it, but he doesn’t man the thing. I do. But if I’m killed during the fighting, he’ll know how to step in and man it.”
The littlest rebel was clearly proud of what he was doing. I mean, all of the rebels are proud of what they’re doing, in the sense that they believe in it. But he was proud in that 13-year-old-hanging-with-the-big-boys kind of way.
“What do your parents think of you being out here?” I asked.
“They support it,” he said. “They’re proud of me.”
“Be careful, buddy,” I said. The truck drove off.
MAHMUD HAMS/AFP/Getty Images
Benghazi, April 4: Kaboom!
Susanne Tarkowski, a Swedish media and communications specialist, related to me this exchange from a car ride with Mehdi, her Libyan assistant, bodyguard, and driver:
Susanne: “Mehdi, are you carrying a gun?”
Susanne: “Under the circumstances, don’t you think that might be a good idea?”
Mehdi: “We don’t need one.”
Susanne: “Why not?”
Mehdi: “I have this.” [Rummages in the beat-up Mazda’s glove compartment and pulls out… wait for it … a hand grenade.]
Susanne (stunned): “What the hell are you going to do with that?”
Mehdi: “I’m going to throw it at Qaddafi when I see him.”
I’m sitting in one of Benghazi’s best hotels. For some reason, there are few journalists and TV crews in this one — this seems to be where foreign-government types hang out. The demographic leans toward Caucasian men in navy-blue suits with salt-and-pepper hair. A U.N. delegation stayed here a few days ago. And the Transitional National Council is staying in special quarters next door as well.
Kaboom. Loud explosion. Sounds like a car bomb.
But car bombs haven’t been a part of this war. I go into the next room.
Me: “You guys hear that?”
Ahmad (a friend): “TNT.”
Me: “You think it was an attack on the Transitional Council?”
Ahmad: “They’re fishing.”
Ahmad: “In Benghazi, they use TNT to blow the fish out of the water.”
(This is a technique known as blast fishing.)
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images
Benghazi, April 6: Ghosts of the regime
On Feb. 17, at the beginning of the revolution, one of the first buildings that demonstrators stormed in Benghazi was the headquarters of the Revolutionary Committees. They razed it.
The Revolutionary Committees (al-lijan al-thawriyah) are Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi’s die-hards. Established in 1977 as the ideological vanguard of the Green Revolution, their members have a reputation as thugs who menace, beat up, and sometimes kill those who take issue with the regime. Being a Revolutionary Committee member can be lucrative, too. It has been widely reported that members receive special benefits — such as cars and cash payments — for their dirty work. Members have also been promoted to senior government posts, in recognition of their loyalty to the colonel.
The Revolutionary Committee’s Benghazi headquarters looks like an outsized high-modernist tepee. A fence in green trim surrounds it. Inside its burned remains, there is a mural that reflects some of the ideological affinities between Qaddafi’s Third Universal Theory and communism. There are heroic laborers, rockets, and lots of right angles. It wouldn’t look out of place in Minsk.
A few other people are walking through the building, poking around. “Is this your first time in this building?” I ask a man in a black faux-leather jacket, probably in his late 20s. “Yeah — only Revolutionary Committee members were allowed in this place before,” he says. “And anyway, I wouldn’t have had any reason to come.” He seems a little nervous talking about it.
“You know, the Revolutionary Committee members — they’re not the kind of people you’d want to associate with,” a man in his early 30s, also on his first visit here, tells me. “If someone introduced me to a friend and said he was a Revolutionary Committee member, I’d stay away from the guy.” He shakes an imaginary hand as if only decorum demands it, and then feigns walking away. He adds that many people are still uncomfortable speaking about the Revolutionary Committees. “They’re scared that Qaddafi could come back, you know?”
At the center of the giant tepee is a globe. To one side is a small auditorium that seats around 100 people. Burned pieces of ceiling dangle like strands of a torn spider web. I wonder what kind of speeches neophyte Revolutionary Committee members had to listen to here. Marathon sessions in Green Book ideology, perhaps? I bet they were boring.
In another room, charred and askew, are file cabinets. The floor is strewn with file folders. A friend walks over with one that he has found on the ground, bearing the handwritten name and identification number of a teacher at the Benghazi Girls’ School. “These are the files that the Revolutionary Committees kept on the people they were monitoring,” says my friend. But the folder is empty, the papers that were once inside lost in the ransacking of the building.
Someone finds another file on the ground. It’s a membership dossier for the Revolutionary Committees, with two passport-size photos still paper-clipped to the front, showing a bored-looking guy with an ample mustache. It lists his name, tribe, date of birth, and other personal information.
Benghazi shook itself free of Qaddafi’s grip between February 17 and February 20. The security bulwarks of the ancien régime — the police headquarters, Internal Security headquarters, the Revolutionary Committees headquarters — were taken over or destroyed. Some of the troops stationed in Benghazi switched sides or surrendered. But others didn’t. After a pitched battle on February 20 to break through its walls, Benghazi’s youth stormed the Katibah, the headquarters of the main Qaddafi militia stationed in Benghazi. A few leading regime officials, including Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Sa’adi, narrowly escaped. The same drama played out across Cyrenaica, in Tubruq, Derna, Al-Bayda, and other cities. By February 21, Libya’s east was free.
Shortly thereafter, opposition leaders in the east announced that all Revolutionary Committee members had one week to turn themselves in, along with any weapons they possessed. If they didn’t, they were subject to imprisonment, or worse — especially if they were found with weapons on their persons or in their homes.
But by mid-March, Qaddafi’s militias had regrouped and his tanks had rumbled back to the outskirts of Benghazi. On March 19, Revolutionary Committee members emerged again from within the city. As Qaddafi’s tanks closed in from the outside, the die-hards on the inside prepared to take it back. Gunfights broke out throughout the city. The rebels — with vital support from coalition air strikes — drove Qaddafi’s militias away from Benghazi and pacified the city after several days of street fighting. The few remaining Revolutionary Committee members, the ones who hadn’t yet surrendered or been killed, melted away again.
So it’s not hard to understand why the residents of free Benghazi seem a little paranoid about the Revolutionary Committees. People still tell me to be careful about the cars I get a ride with at night, or the alleys I walk down. It’s like there are ghosts and goblins about. But when you’ve lived through decades of fear and silent monitoring — not to mention two bouts of bloodletting in the space of a month — paranoia isn’t so paranoid. And as Thomas Pynchon wrote in Gravity’s Rainbow, “Only the paranoid survive.”
I glance at Bored Mustache Guy’s membership dossier again. I wonder if he’s one of those who surrendered. I wonder how his life would change if his dossier were posted on the Internet. Anyone could do that, after all. Anyone can walk in here and find files like his on the ground.
Benghazi’s residents seem determined to move toward a peaceful future without Qaddafi — a future without the Revolutionary Committees. But coming to terms with the ghosts of the past won’t be easy — especially when the ghosts remain among the living.