Libya: Old ways under new flag

“They would call you a Gaddafist if you drove one of those 4×4 cars,” says Bashar, emerging from a traffic jam in Tripoli.

“Today almost every rebel commander has one.”
Since the city fell into rebel hands in August, this young man of 30 has watched life change by the day through the windshield of his battered taxi.

Like most Libyans, Bashar has known only one form of government under Muammar Gaddafi. Today it’s different, but he’s far from happy with Libya’s newly-appointed executive.

“Is this the freedom and peace the rebels were supposed to bring us?” he asks, after going through yet another militia-run checkpoint.

“Are these the new leaders of Libya?”
A fake smile and the tri-colour flag hanging from the rear-view mirror are his political licence to ply his taxi.

“Muammar, Muammar . . . ” Bashar cries wistfully, at the sight of the destruction in Bab al-Aziziya, Gaddafi’s former residential bunker.

The scars of war are also clearly visible in Abu Salim neighbourhood three kilometres south of Martyrs’ Square in downtown Tripoli. Craters of all sizes mark walls around blackened windows from which, surprisingly, laundry sometimes hangs.

The old bazaar area is also struggling to return to normal. But few have as yet opened their stalls in the huge market that North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) bombs reduced to rubble.

“People are leaving,” says Abdul Rahman who has recently added second-hand taps next to the kitchen equipment he was selling before the outbreak of war.

“Everybody is afraid of the militia patrols. They break into the houses under the pretext of searching for Gaddafists and take our young people to an undisclosed location.”

The end of the war was officially announced on October 24 — three days after Gaddafi’s death — but Abu Salim area saw violent incidents between militiamen and alleged Gaddafi loyalists in November.


Besides, several casualties were also reported last month after clashes in Bani Walid — Gaddafi’s penultimate stronghold.

It’s hard to say whether organised Gaddafi militiamen were involved, or whether this was just an angry and spontaneous response from residents constantly harassed by raids and arbitrary arrests.

A United Nations (UN) report revealed last month that around 7 000 people are being held in Libyan detention centres controlled by “revolutionary brigade” militias.

l Ahead of a Security Council meeting on Libya’s reconstruction after the death of Muammar Gaddafi, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated that foreigners and many women and children were among the detainees.

Several of them have been tortured, according to the report.

Bilal, like others, preferred not to give his full name. The former electronics retailer from Abu Salim was among many who were held in Jdeida prison, Tripoli’s main detention centre. Bilal will never forget the hellish week he spent there before he was released without any explanation.

“They accused me of having joined Gaddafi militias and killing a woman and her two children in Souk al Juma district,” Bilal recalled. “I was tortured with electrodes and lit cigars daily.

They would always tell me they had a witness to confirm their suspicions, that the sooner I confessed, the better.

“One day, somebody told me to stand by the back wall of the cell. I noticed somebody was watching me through the peephole. A few hours later they told me to pick my stuff and leave.” He says he has no plans to go back to Abu Salim.

Testimonies like Bilal’s are also common outside the Libyan capital. The town of Majer, 150km east of Tripoli, came on the map after a Nato air strike on August 8. Gaddafi government spokesman then, Musa Ibrahim, spoke of 85 civilian deaths.

Nato pointed to “military and mercenary casualties”.
Relatives of many of those killed said they had buried 35 persons.

Today, these families are torn by grief over the loss of their loved ones, but also by anxiety over the militia constantly criss-crossing this former Gaddafist stronghold.

“Not only have we not been recognised nor compensated, we have become the scapegoats of the new regime. They loot our properties, steal our cars and then they accuse us of those, or any other crimes,” complained local resident Merwan.

Back in Tripoli, Suleyman (40), who made his fortune in the days of the ousted regime in construction and “import and export”, still drives the same 4×4 luxury car he has had for the last three years.

“Of course there was corruption during Gaddafi’s years, but I doubt it was higher than in other Middle Eastern countries, or even in the European-Mediterranean,” says Suleyman at a trendy coffee shop in Gargaresh neighbourhood — an exclusive district in the Libyan capital. Some of the country’s most expensive shops are spread alongside its main street. Parked cars boasting distinctive rebel symbols are in the minority.

Suleyman admits he was loyal to the deposed colonel “until the very day he died,” and so has not bothered to fly the tri-colour. He owns several apartments in the area, doubtless a safe cushion amid the uncertainty of a post-war economy.

Whatever tomorrow brings, this successful local businessman doesn’t look concerned about the recent and violent changes in his country.

“We businessmen always manage to find our way through the jungle,” says Suleyman. “Besides, my contacts in the new government are practically the same ones as before.”

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