Persistence is a Must

By now you’ve probably heard of the most recent tragedy to hit Benghazi. A protest against a militia base became fatal after close to 30 people were killed, with dozens more wounded. You can get more details here. 

What the news agencies won’t tell you is that the militia in question, ‘Der’e Libya’ (Arm of Libya) has a notorious reputation and questionable leadership. One of their bases is stationed near our house, and their behaviour is suspicious, to say the least. Stinking of homemade alcohol and harassing passersby, these louts can hardly be considered suitable protection. The fact that they’ve been unable to make any serious changes in security speaks for itself.

Another thing the media doesn’t know is that the area of the incident, Kuwayfia, is a quiet suburb of Benghazi. The people living there are amiable and keep to themselves – until provoked. And Der’e Libya has done more than their fair share of provoking. When the residents crowded outside the base, demanding the militia disband or join the National Army, they were fired upon.

That’s when the protesters went to their houses and got their own guns.

A Libyan does not cower and retreat in the face of attack, especially if his family and community are under threat.

The Special Forces came on the scene (the same guys who were deployed here a few weeks ago after the hospital bombing) to try and stop what turned into an all-out battle. But even they weren’t spared from the militia’s attack.

All in all, the body count included protesters, militia members and soldiers of the special forces. It was a day of grief for everyone in the country.

I’m not going to analyze, or tell you which side I think is to blame (although I’m sure you must have surmised it); I’m writing to say what needs to be said every time something like this happens;

Benghazi is not a violent city. 

The people are not used to guns and weapons out in the open; we’ve never witnessed a bombing prior to the revolution; there has never been a mass killing between citizens that resulted in the death of dozens. This is all new to us and we reject it.

We will not play host to armed militias and sundry other gangs. We will not wait for the government to help us repair, develop and revive the city.

I say this not as a lone blogger, an isolated person in the country, I am echoing the sentiments of the people. A good friend recently quoted Jon Donne to me, “No man is an island…”, and Benghazi certainly is not separate from the Libyan mainland. These incidents bring us closer and make us more determined in our resolve. 

I realize that I am beginning to repeat myself, and you’re probably wondering if I’m going to make a sentimental, bleeding hearts post every time a catastrophe happens in my country. As long as the media airs news stories that talk about the tragedies, I will write a post countering the misconceptions.

And I say tragedies, because this one is not going to be the last. If we want a decent country, we will have to struggle for it.

As a final note, I just want to make mention of Syria, who started their revolution shortly after ours but who still are not free. New developments include the now openly-admitted involvement of the criminal Hezbollah. This group, who we once cheered on for standing up to israel, have declared their undying support for Bashar the human genocide machine. The people are now stuck between a rock and a hard place, and the situation is looking increasingly grim by the day. The least we can do is keep them in our thoughts and prayers.

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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.