Conspiracies and Karama

“But it is horrible… …to fear the place you once loved.”

 Erica Bain

The revolution has really taken its toll on Benghazi. We go from one problem to another, all the while trying to keep a positive outlook and pray that, insha’Allah, things will eventually get better.

After more than two years and 150 assassinations of the police and army, the Islamists* have finally been hit back, and by no one other than Khalifa Hiftar.

Remember that guy I told you about a few months ago, with the half-hearted coup? Well, it seems he had bigger plans than anyone had anticipated. He has declared a war against terrorism, under the name of Operation Karama. What makes this proclamation more powerful than his previous one is that he now has the might of the Libyan National Army behind him.

What army, you ask? Well, the Special Forces, the Navy, the Air Force and pretty much every military unit in East Libya. They are the ones who have borne the brunt of the attacks, so it makes sense that they will join an operation that seeks to protect them.

Many have asked why the army didn’t act before Hiftar appeared on the scene. The truth is, they have tried numerous times to secure Benghazi, each time ending badly for them. No matter how bad it got, they refused to use force against other Libyans.

Another important question that’s being asked; who are the terrorists?

This is where things get murkier.  Ansar Shariah are known for their anti-democracy sentiment, and have been oddly silent on the issue of the assassinations in Benghazi. There has also been increasing rumors of Al-Qaeda affiliates controlling the city of Derna. These are the people considered the number one target for Operation Karama.

But what about the “thuwar” (revolutionaries/rebels, depending on what you think of them)? They’ve declared Hiftar’s operation to be a coup and an attack on Libya itself. They staunchly defend their militias and claim that they are not involved in the violence in Benghazi.

The current situation has divided Libya deftly in two. The pro-Heftar camp (mostly in the East, those who are directly affected by the violence) say that he is the last hope for a dying city that has been ignored by government and international community alike. The anti-Heftar side claims that Hiftar has skeletons in his closet where the Chad war is concerned, and that his public renouncement of the GNC is a blatant grasp for power and will destabilize Libya.

The government itself has also been divided in two. The provisional government has made statements that clearly indicate a schism between them and the General National Congress, currently headed by Ahmed Maetig, who is holding the position illegally.

The GNC, meanwhile, is pretending like nothing out of the ordinary is happening. They’re pretty consistent in their behaviour.

Many parties, both in and out of Libya, have said that the parliamentary elections, due to be held this June, is crucial to restoring order to Libya. Until then, Heftar has continued to carry out his attacks against the armed groups in Benghazi, in what can be described as a rather precarious and clumsy manner.

The most ubiquitous question being asked now between Libyans is, “Who’s side are you on?

The extreme polarization that we’re facing as a nation has broken apart families and friends as everyone clings to their own ideology, being sustained by the social media group of their choice. What’s sad about it is that, as we bicker, the country is crumbling around us.

It’s also irritating because, ultimately, we all want the same thing; security, stability, prosperity, a country we can be proud of and yes, dignity. It’s almost baffling how a country that agrees on these basic points can be so torn apart.

But it’s because we feed on conspiracy theories and jump to slander the other side that we’ve lost sight of the ultimate goal, which is a better Libya. We’re still in the infancy of our democracy, and frankly, we need to grow the hell up.

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* I hate using the word “Islamists”, even though that’s the term used to identify them in the media. There is nothing Islamic about their behaviour by any stretch of the imagination, and associating that term with them is insulting to actual Muslims.

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February 20, A Sunday

More fighting, a rising death toll. Funeral processions are being fired at. At the cemetery, an entire family was buried, killed after mercenaries fire on their car. People talk of going to Al-Abiar, a district just outside of Benghazi, where it is reported that there are weapons.

Videos from the Eastern area are being played on the news channel. We watch people smash the monument to the Green Book in Derna, and protesters gathering in Baytha chanting for the fall of the regime, proof that the Eastern area is almost free. Benghazi is the last stronghold. Everyone keeps repeating it like a soothing mantra; if Benghazi falls, he loses the East.

There is a noticeable decrease in the fighting outside of the Fatheel barrack. Snipers have been positioned all around the area, and anyone who nears the area is fired on. And yet there is no sign that anyone will give up; on the contrary, the more the death toll increases, more people go into the streets.

We call our aunt, who lives near the Al-Jala hospital. She says that there is a major crisis there, no space in the hospital for the living or dead, decreasing medical supplies, and a lack of doctors and nurses. Despite the situation there is an atmosphere of unity, strength and defiance in the face of all this violence. Everyone is contributing blankets (because of the cold), donating blood, average citizens are assisting at the hospital.

We have passed the point of no return. If we don’t win, he will destroy Benghazi.

We find out later what happened that day at the Katiba, an act of heroic bravery that will forever be remembered by the people of Benghazi.

Mahdi Muhammed Ziu, a 49-year-old citizen of Benghazi, drove straight into the Katiba entrance. The soldiers automatically opened fire on him, but what they didn’t know was that he loaded his car with gas canisters and gun powder. It exploded, creating a hole in the entrance and causing the mercenaries to flee. It was the chance the protesters needed to take control.

Meanwhile, Libyan State television announces that Seif Al-Islam will shortly be addressing the country. He doesn’t appear until 2 in the morning. I can’t tell you what we expected him to say. Previous presidents like Housni Mubarak and Ben Ali have promised to improve the country and have acknowledged the protesters demands as legitimate.

But, Seif Al-Islam is Muammer’s son, which means he spent an hour calling the protesters drunken gang members who are high on hallucinogen pills. He then inexplicably goes on to say that if the issue is not resolved Libya will be divided, that there will be no more oil or gas, and the country will be plunged into civil war.

There was a time when these threats might have held some credibility. But now, after hundreds dead and mercenaries in the streets, the people have had enough. At the courthouse, they set up a projector aimed at the wall so the people demonstrating there could watch what was happening. Their response to Seif was to throw shoes and other objects at the projection as he spoke.

February 19th, A Saturday

Continued protests across Libya. By now, the media is very much aware that something momentous is happening in Libya. Calls are coming in from across the country, on channels like AlJazeera, AlHiwar, AlHurra, CNN, etc. People calling from Shahat and Derna claim that those areas are completely free, and that the mercenaries were trying to escape to the woods.

The joy that this news brings us is quickly shattered by the mounting death toll in Benghazi. As the day progresses things continue to look bleaker. A quick tour around the city does nothing to encourage us. Soldiers are stationed at every military barrack, weapons at the ready. But the place witnessing the most action is the Fatheel Bu Amer Barracks. There, the area is surrounded by protesters, some with their heads and faces covered by the keffiya, grouped together in serious discussions. From time to time we hear gunfire. As we leave the area, we see young men atop a bulldozer headed in the direction of the barrack. We learn later that they managed to knock down a wall, but one of the men inside was killed.

At home, the calls we hear on AlJazeera paint a frightening picture. Helicopters overhead are shooting at protestors with high caliber weapons and bodies are mounting at the Al-Jala hospital. Possibly the scariest moment was when Fathi Terbil managed to contact AlJazeera through the internet. He declares that a massacre is taking place in Benghazi. As he speaks, another man writes notes and places them in front of the camera, elaborating Terbil’s words with messages like “200 dead, 800 injured”. We stay up well into the night waiting for any more news, but there’s nothing new.

Benghazi, February 18th, A Friday

Media attention! AlJazeera is taking calls from citizens talking about the protests. Due to Libya’s unique press situation (no reporters or offices except those approved by the government, which is virtually none), they’re depending on eye witness accounts, which means that nothing can be independently verified (a phrase I’ll come to really hate in the following weeks).

After Friday prayers, some brave sheikhs gave a sermon about the state of the country, and why it’s our obligation to change things. One sheikh even called AlJazeera and stated the demands of the protestors.
We get into the car and drive to the scene of action – Jamal Abdul Nasser St. The protesters have already moved on, but evidence of their presence is everywhere. Upturned garbage cans, debris lining the street. But the most shocking – and most incredible – appearance is the graffiti lining the walls. From the beginning of the street to the end (and it’s a pretty long street), slogans like “Down with the Regime!”, “Down with Gadhafi!”, “The People want Freedom!”. This kind of blatant anti-Gadhafi activity would land you a one-way ticket to Abu Sleem prison, where you would not only die in their custody, you’d wish it came as quickly as possible. But now, the veil of fear seems to have been lifted.

As we drive further down the street, we see the downtown ‘mathaba thoria’ (revolutionary headquarters) has been burned. This turns out to be the case for every government building, like the interior ministry and security department. However, police stations, banks, hospitals, etc. remain untouched.

We find out later that some people had been killed, which was the cause of the increased dissent and outrage.

Moving towards the military barrack, the soldiers have spread out even farther, and the noise of the bullets no longer sound like warnings. There are more people here, but keeping a certain distance away from the soldiers.

Opening Facebook, I found a friend online who had also been monitoring the protests. What he told me was chilling – the soldiers spread out through the city did not speak Arabic, they appeared to be from African countries. There were also rumors of men in yellow construction hats armed with clubs, attacking protesters.

Activity concerning Libya has increased on the internet, supporting the Libyan uprising – for that is what it was now, not just some random protests with no clear goals. Apparently there were protests in several cities across the country; Baytha, Derna, Tobruk, Zintan, Tripoli and Misrata. People were tweeting about the protests, maps appeared pinning down areas of activity.

When I look back on it now, it’s seems incredible how quickly we shook off the feelings of disbelief and got down to action. What’s even more incredible is how we answered our country’s call for help without any hesitation. Before the revolution you were hard pressed to find a Libyan who felt anything remotely close to love for the country, but when we saw how people were throwing themselves into the face of danger, I think it was then we realized just how valuable Libya was to us. Neglected and abused, Gadhafi had succeeded in reducing Libya into a mere patch of desert land inhabited by an obscure people.

The rest of the day passed into flurry of updates and a continual search for any new news.

Benghazi, February 17th , A Thursday –

The Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions have had a profound effect across the Middle East. Both Bahrain and Yemen are in turmoil, with protesters in the street demanding an end to the dictatorial regimes. Much of the slogans are echoes of the Tunisian and Egyptian demonstrations – The people want the fall of the administration.

Today is the designated day for Libyan protests to begin. Opposition outside the country have implored the people to take to the streets like their Arab brethren, demanding change from Gadhafi’s  government. Technically, Muammer Gadhafi is not the president of Libya – Libya has no official head of state – but for Libyans everywhere the truth is apparent. And it is this truth which renders the very idea of a protest – peaceful or otherwise – hopelessly perilous.

Driving through Benghazi, evidence of Gadhafi’s warnings about protesting today are just as effective as they’ve always been. Schools, offices and stores are closed for the day, and the streets are almost void of activity. Predictions that Libya could never be amongst the nations that fight for freedom seem justified. Everyone is too afraid to do anything.

There was a glimmer of hope, on February 15th, when some citizens in the city of Benghazi protested outside the central security station, demanding the release of Fathi Terbil. Terbil is a lawyer for the families of the Abu Sleem prison massacre, a 1996 incident in which approx. 1200 inmates of the infamous Abu Sleem prison were murdered in the course of three hours. The reason? They were protesting against the inhumane conditions they were being kept in.

But after that day there was no more mention of Libya in the news, and hope faded.

We reach Dubai St., a normally busy shopping district, completely empty. A pick-up truck full of soldiers pass by, telling anyone they find in the streets to go home. Even they seem confused.

Suddenly, at the head of the street, we see a crowd. Driving closer, it’s – YES! – a rally. A makeshift wooden sign says “Muthahara Silmeeya”, Peaceful Protest. For a country where protests are about as common as a polar bear sighting, this is unbelievable. And it’s a pretty impressive turnout, about 1,000 protesters in all.

As we watch in awed silence, a military helicopter flies overhead. This brings us to our senses, and we decide to drive around the rest of Benghazi.

Some areas are completely deserted, in stark contrast to the areas that are in complete chaos. Armored vehicles roam the Majoury area, while men in army fatigues guard the Fatheel Bu ‘amr military barrack. They hold rifles, occasionally sounding off warning bullets to anyone that gets too close.

In these areas you see people clustered together, unsure how to take all this in. But others do not hesitate, joining up with the bigger protests as they steadily gain in number. One man who passed us said, “We’re sick of him(Gadhafi)! He’s stayed for too long”.

Again, in a country where mentioning Muammer’s name in public is risky, expressing this kind of sentiment to complete strangers is remarkable.

We eventually go home, sure that there must be something in the news about today’s events. But AlJazeera is only talking about Yemen, Bahrain and Egypt, the same with the other channels.

The internet is a little more active. People reporting about different protests on Facebook and Twitter, some even with the courage to put up a picture or video. But the majority are silent, whether oblivious to the goings-on or too frightening to say anything.

The day ends with continued media silence…but a spark of hope.