Letter From - Winter 2014

Letter from Benghazi: After the Revolution

By Clare Morgana Gillis | December 6, 2013
A June 2012 ceremony in Tripoli, Libya, marked the anniversary of a 1996 massacre in which 1,200 prisoners were killed by forces of Muammar al-Qadhafi. (UN Photo/Iason Athanasiadis)
A June 2012 ceremony in Tripoli, Libya, marked the anniversary of a 1996 massacre in which 1,200 prisoners were killed by forces of Muammar al-Qadhafi. (UN Photo/Iason Athanasiadis)


I first met Enas Aldrsey the day I arrived in Libya, February 25, 2011, 12 days after her graduation from Benghazi’s Gar Younis University and eight months before the death of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi. Aldrsey’s serious demeanor and red plastic-rimmed glasses befitted the degree she’d just earned in medical engineering, but she was entering a new, uncertain world in which her activism surfaced at the mere mention of his name. “Qaddafi!” she would spit out with a scowl.

Benghazi’s air vibrated with a new energy, the sudden freedom to mock the “Leader,” openly, in front of God and everybody, feeding a kind of revolutionary high. The Libyans had 42 years’ worth of stories to tell, they would say, and words tumbled from their mouths too fast for me to write them down.

Since that encounter three years ago, Aldrsey has related again and again her despair about Libya after Qaddafi’s demise. “I am so sad,” she says. “This is not what we wanted.” And, since the deaths on September 11, 2012, of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at the hands of Benghazi militiamen, there has been a rash of bombings, armed attacks, and assassinations. The security situation has only deteriorated.

Going back further, more than 50 prominent Benghazis have been targeted and killed since July 2011, when General Abdel Fateh Younis, field commander of the eastern army, was assassinated. His corpse was burned, a violation of Muslim practices of respecting the dead, and dumped in the outskirts of Benghazi. More recently Abdelsalam Mismari, a civil rights attorney, was shot and killed as he left a mosque after Friday prayers. Though it is widely agreed that homegrown Islamists, the older generation of whom in the ’80s fought in Afghanistan against the Soviets, are responsible for these killings and the 2012 ambush at the U.S. diplomatic mission, no one has yet been brought to justice because the courts are in disarray and no official body is able to guarantee security for judges.

U.S. and Libyan authorities have named Ahmed Abu Khattala and others in the militia Ansar Sharia, of which Abu Khattala is the commander, as the primary aggressors in the attack. Benghazi residents find it strange that Abu Khattala still walks free. The blowup in the press following an October 27 report on 60 Minutes, an account of the attack later retracted by CBS, shows how public attention to the case continues to be dogged by factual questions and U.S. politics. Neither of the contradictory versions of the events given to CBS and the FBI by Dylan Davies—an employee of the security firm hired to protect the building—challenges the claim that Abu Khattala and his men are primarily responsible for the attack.

“Black Saturday,” June 8, 2013, confirmed for many just how bad things have become. Benghazi residents gathered at the headquarters of Libya Shield One, the main brigade responsible for securing the city, to protest what they saw as abuses of power and inability to provide security. The confrontation turned violent, and at the end of the day 32 were dead, mostly from the ranks of protesters. After Black Saturday, Libya Shield decamped and the Special Forces (Saiqa, “thunder”)—a national force with branches in Tripoli, Benghazi, and Sebha—took over.

Aldrsey used to drive a car, one she proudly bought with money she’d earned working for human rights initiatives that sprang up in Benghazi after October 2011, the end of the Libyan civil war. But because she is a staunch advocate of women’s rights and, unlike most Libyan women, does not cover her hair, her tires were repeatedly slashed until one day the car was torched. An unfamiliar voice on a phone call from a blocked number told her, “This time it’s your car; next time it’s your head.”

Now she spends most of her time in her family’s downtown apartment, a cozy labyrinth of brightly colored carpets and big-screen TVs, scented by her mother’s cooking; the building has a weapons market on the ground floor. When she goes to her office, 20 minutes from home, at a quasi-governmental human rights association, her father and brother drive her. She says she intends to stay in Benghazi long enough to get an English language certification, which she needs to study in the United States or the United Kingdom.

During the civil war, Benghazi functioned as the de facto capital, but after the liberation of Tripoli in August 2011 and the capture and execution of Qaddafi two months later, national offices returned to Tripoli. So did political headquarters and the offices of NGOs that had recently sprung up, including Aldrsey’s former place of employment. But fearing for her safety, her family would not allow her to relocate to the capital.

The civil war brought together Libyans of radically different backgrounds who all refused to live under Qaddafi any longer. Aldrsey joined the revolution the same day as General Wanees Bokhamada, commander of Saiqa.

In 1980, when he was 20 years old, Bokhamada signed up for Qaddafi’s army and was promptly sent to northern Chad during the Libyan-Chadian war, an obscure and complex desert conflict fought, during most of the ’80s, over territory in the border region. He quit serving Qaddafi on February 15, 2011, when he refused to shoot protesters. Most of the men under his command defected with him, and others stayed at home that day. Mass defections in eastern Libya’s army are what made Benghazi the military, political, and cultural headquarters of the uprising. Eastern Libya’s territorial integrity helped make NATO’s no-fly zone enforceable in a way that, for example, Syria’s rebel-controlled areas cannot be.

Dressed in a faded yellow djellaba, Bokhamada seemed tired and worried on the day I spoke to him in September. He was seated at a plastic table in his front yard within the dusty, concrete Saiqa compound. We met at eight A.M. on a Friday morning. His assistant brought us a string of morning refreshments—Arabic coffee and biscuits, tea. Friday is the beginning of the Islamic weekend, and eight o’clock is an hour when most Libyans are still sleeping. “We [in Saiqa] don’t have Fridays,” he said. “We work night and day because we’re in a very dangerous situation. And it’s the third year like this.”

Saiqa headquarters, a sprawling, walled complex of low buildings and training fields, is just outside Benghazi and was the only place we could safely meet. Like Aldrsey, Bokhamada lives under constant threats to his life from radical Islamist brigades, such as Ansar Sharia and from common criminals and Qaddafi loyalists. His wife and children live with him in the compound.

Saiqa is the only security outfit that seems to be working at all in the city. It currently guards Jala Hospital, the Libyan Central Bank’s Benghazi branch, the Benghazi airport, and the city’s electrical power station. Saiqa plans to expand its responsibilities. “But we are not trained for internal security, and we have no powers of investigation,” said Bokhamada as he lit his fourth Marlboro Red and considered his words. “We can’t use tanks and airplanes in the city. And if the police were working the way they should, you wouldn’t see what you’re seeing now.”

The Libyan government hasn’t managed to integrate the various militias, which vie with each other for power, into a national army or police force, not least because government is more an aspirational term here than a real one. Prime Minister Ali Zeidan himself was kidnapped for several hours on October 9.

In daylight, Benghazi appears to be a functioning city, a typical North African mix of traffic jams and speeding cars, women walking in the streets, and men gathering in seaside cafés to smoke shisha pipes. A surprising number of luxury hotels, restaurants, and shops selling home-decor items made of silver and Czech crystal have sprung up in the city. Intrepid foreigners, in Benghazi on business, stay in the hotels; wealthy Libyans patronize the restaurants. Some people in Benghazi speculate that such upscale establishments must be laundering money taken in by a flourishing black market of weapons and drugs, and by the smuggling of foreigners through Libya’s porous borders.

But bad things happen at night. In the six days I spent in Benghazi, a car bomb killed a former Ministry of the Interior functionary and injured his son, another explosion that I could hear in the predawn hours of September 11 went off downtown in the former U.S. diplomatic building, and a rocket-propelled grenade attack also occurred downtown. I heard the grenade launch and the explosion, soon followed by men’s voices and the sound of moving cars. It couldn’t have been more than 500 yards away. I asked around the next day, but no one knew anything about it.

Under Qaddafi, the Ministry of the Interior was the most feared security branch, and the current government has not managed to reconstitute a suitable replacement—an institution with the authority to investigate, detain, and prosecute. Many of those held prisoner in Libya are illegal immigrants—often sub-Saharan Africans detained on suspicion of being mercenaries who fought on Qaddafi’s side during the war—and well-known loyalists, as well as criminals whose guilt has been determined by common knowledge rather than by proof of law.

I was not the only foreigner Enas Aldrsey had welcomed to  Libya. Starting on February 22, 2011, when the Egyptian border patrol opened the crossing into the country, and continuing throughout that spring, Aldrsey volunteered to help orient newly arrived journalists.

After decades of media coverage that trickled out of the country—normally through organized and government-supervised junkets—thousands of fresh eyes had come to look at revolutionary Libya. Activists and artists expended unforeseen creativity in their songs, graffiti, newspapers, and speeches. Every day, chants rose in front of the courthouse, which became the so-called media center for the rebels. Journalists worked there and activists embellished it with posters and slogans.

On that first visit, I found characters on the streets I could appreciate. One middle-aged man, for instance, stood on a pavement carpeted with spent 14.5mm anti-aircraft shells, remnants of an hours-old victory that had driven regime troops from the city. Gesturing toward his prayer cap and long robes, he said, “I look like Taliban! I look like Bin Laden! But I am not. I am an engineer and a freedom fighter!” Who could not love him a little bit?

Then there were scenes worthy of cinema. Kalashnikov-toting shebaab (young men)—heads wrapped in kaffiyehs and feet clad in designer training shoes—raced toward the frontlines, piled 10-deep in pickup trucks with anti-aircraft weapons bolted in the beds. Each had a story to tell about a brother shot at the protests, a father killed in the 1996 Abu Slim prison massacre, an uncle detained and tortured for years.

Since war’s end, journalists have curtailed their Libyan visits, many of them drawn to the bloodier and exponentially more complex Syrian conflict. The dangers of working in Libya—no significant diplomatic missions exist outside Tripoli, which itself is by no means a safe haven—have helped keep Libya unscrutinized by outsiders.

Many of us journalists have asked ourselves and each other what we got wrong. Were we blind to the possibility that the outcome could turn as dark as it now appears? And though active warfare may look like the hard part, surely the more arduous task is the decades-long effort to rebuild. Is it right to abandon a place and its story once they drop from the top of the news cycle?

Journalists worked hard during the rebellion to identify rebel failings, including disorganization, war crimes, staged POW tours, the inability of cities to work collaboratively with each other, and tribalism that smothered the fragile shoots of national identity. But we were not wrong to report as well the breathless intensity of those early days when everything seemed possible. Perhaps, following the rebels’ lead, we were too easily inclined to hope that the problem lay exclusively in the dictator and, once he was dropped from the equation, freedom would take hold.

A young man I met on a side street downtown in Benghazi in March 2012 made very good sense to me. He was decked out in a turquoise tracksuit and wore gold chains around his neck. His name was Barracuda, he said, and he was selling cigarettes from a cabinet painted to look like a pack of Marlboros. Tucked behind the Swiss, Algerian, and Egyptian cigarettes were sticks of hash and rolling papers.

While we were talking, one of his clients puffed on a joint and by chance blew a cloud of smoke into the face of a passing policeman. Shouldn’t he hide his wares from the cops, at least a little bit? I asked. “Police not like Qaddafi time, police good!” he explained, dancing around with a bouncy nervous energy. He broadened his chest and shook a fistful of Libyan dinars at the sky.

Referencing first a famous American and then the man who was Libya’s prime minister at the time, Barracuda shouted, “No Obama! No Mustafa Abdel Jalil! Democracy, myself!”

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