The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Facing death in Libya

Our sometime correspondent Abu Ray is in Libya. Here's what he wrote.

Death has been a lot on my mind since coming to Libya. It's not that I've been in any real danger, it's just it's sort of out there, all around me and hard to ignore. The other day, we were driving back from Bayda, a medium size town nestled in a stunningly beautiful Green Mountain area of Libya. A high mass of wildflower studded fields set in the middle of an otherwise arid coast.

It had been a long day of chasing an elusive politicians and visiting decrepit military bases trying to find out if the rebel east really had a shot of marching on Tripoli. There was some success, but mostly we were exhausted after a long day, like so many other long days since we came roaring across the Egyptian border into Libya a week before.

We settled into the car, anticipating a sleepy two hour car ride back when we noticed that the old fellow we had hired for the day kept veering into the oncoming headlights. We offered to drive, he said no he was fine... then abruptly pulled over and said he'd rather we drive. Turns out he can't see at night.

So I got behind the wheel, one of my rare moments driving since I don't own a car in Egypt, and embarked on a white knuckle drive along winding mountain roads with no markings and a filthy windshield admirably lit up by everyone's oncoming hi beams.

The Spanish journalist I'd been traveling with laughed from the backseat where he was busy writing his article on a laptop, "hey, looks like you're finally facing death in Libya."

Because the thing was, when we crossed the border into revolutionary Libya we had no idea what to expect, certainly not enthusiastic border guards wearing civilian clothes asking for their pictures to be taken.

We were some of the first journalists to cross the border and we were a novelty, and a sudden outlet to the rest of the world. They had just thrown off a suffocating blanket of silence of the past forty years and wanted to talk about it.

In Tobruk I was led by the hand, here the dreaded revolutionary committees collected information about people, here the people were tortured by the police, here Qadhafi hung people in the main square every night one Ramadna in the 80s. And here they fought the police and liberated their town.

The generosity was incredible, throughout this trip, people have been constantly handing out crackers, wafers, juice boxes or sandwiches to us. In Benghazi there are several charity operations just churning food for whoever wants it, especially in the courthouse square that has become the symbol of the revolution.

And then there are the dead. The martyrs. We hear about them in every town. Twelve martyrs died here, cut apart by the heavy caliber bullets of Qadhafi's mercenaries. Here five died assaulting the police station. "Have you seen the videos of the dead bodies? of the dead mercenaries?"

Twinned with the martyrs in all these stories are the dreaded mercenaries. Qadhafi did recruit Africans and darker Libyans from the south into a pan-Islamic brigade once and he has most likely used the Chadian and Darfurian rebels he funds to support his rule -- but certainly not all the people firing on civilians are "black mercenaries" many or most likely his Libyan soldiers.

But rather than confront the specter of Libyan on Libyan violence, the mercenaries have become the bugbear-scapegoat of this whole struggle. Even if Libyan soldiers were involved, there was inevitably a fearsome black mercenary holding a gun to the back of his head.

The result has been devastating for the vast numbers of African migrants working in Libya, attracted by an oil economy with a neverending hunger for foreign workers. In a miserable series of sheds on the cold windswept Benghazi port huddle hundreds of Africans, Bangladeshis and others from countries too poor to evacuate them.

Across the port water they watch Greek and Turkish cruise ships and British destroyers come pick up Europeans, Americans, Australians and even Vietnamese and Chinese workers while they stay. Cold, rained on, and terrified of going back into town where they're afraid of being accused of being mercenaries.

On the top floor of the Benghazi Courthouse, a vibrant bubbling cauldron of vigorous new politics and enthusiastic volunteers are a pair of grim barred cells holding African migrant workers and black Libyans accused of being mercenaries who maintain they were just caught up in frenzied sweeps.

Outside, three effigies labeled mercenaries were hung from the lamposts.

The city is covered in grafitti, most of it about bringing down Qadhafi, proclaiming Libya free aqnd generally enjoying a riotious freedom where for so long absolutely nothing was allowed. Inside a burnt out building next to the courthouse that must have housed something related to the old regime, young activists paint poster after poster lampooning Qadhafi and denouncing his regime.

The themes are remarkably similar each time, but they do not seem to tire reproducing his unforgettable visage endlessly, perhaps to make up for all the ones they tore down around the town.

In a way, like the Egyptian revolution (which is looking increasingly unrevolutionary) I missed the real conflict. The last of the fighting had ended by early Monday, and I rolled into town on Wednesday, they didn't even have any widespread looting and exuberant late night gunfire aside, it's been a remarkably calm city.

Instead I heard the stories of the titanic battles against the army barracks in the center of town surrounded by a wall that had been breached by bulldozers, erratically driven tanks and finally a car bomb that shattered the gates.

And then on Wednesday, I met martyrs of my own. After more than a week of concentrating on towns close to Tripoli, Qadhafi sent forces against the oil installations in rebel hands just a few hundred kilometers from Benghazi. 

Little had been done to defend them, with the rebel army made up of remants of defected units largely trying to figure out what guns it had and where and who was really in charge.

Instead it was the local militias that challenged the couple of hundred government forces that took over the Brega oil terminal and nearby university. Following the news of early morning clashes, we drove the two and half hours down there, not expecting much, only to stumble on the sounds of heavy machine guns and mortars exploding in the air.

Goading forward our reluctant driver, we drove on a coastal road along a beautiful beach leading to the oil terminal where militia men were walking along with their Kalashnikovs, some with just big knives, others carrying single coke bottles filled with gasoline with a card board wick.

We got out of the car and walked with them, until they turned off the road, and started crossing the sand dunes towards the distant sounds of battle, which occasionally came uncomfortably close with the odd mortar burst that sent me digging into the sand, while trying to send text messages back to the office, about what was going on.

Then would come the hysterical shout of "sahrawi!!", meaning desert, as in desert vehicle, and someone would send their four wheel drive pickup truck on to the dunes to pick up the wounded. After the black smoke of mortar rounded appeared perilously close, we decided to follow the wounded back to the hospital.

The local hospital was a simple affair and it was clear the doctors and nurses were a little overwhelmed by the sudden arrival of the groaning bloodsoaked wounded.

The weird thing is that once a bullet wound has been cleaned off, say on a corpse, it's often a tiny little hole, that somehow so much blood leaks out of. 

And then a pick up truck pulled up and inside were just bodies and the crowd of young men outside went hysterical, crowding around, shouting God is great, and there is no god but God and the martyr is the beloved of god. Someone started firing their gun in the air. 

Weirdly the nurses later started chanting about martyrs, and maybe it was how you cope with death.

Dead people, as it turns out, look a lot like they do in the movies except for they're a lot dirtier, in this case covered with blood and sand because they died on the beach. The next day, I saw them again, about ten of them, in the morgue, some cleaned up, a lot with blood  and wounds still all over them, where they await the relatives to claim them before they are buried.

There was something truly disturbing about seeing a form inside a metal drawer with no lights on inside. Didn't seem right. How can you breathe in there?

So as it turns out, the ragged militia repulsed the government forces, with the help of reinforcements from Benghazi and some heavier weapons than makeshift molotov cocktails. That evening everyone who hadn't fired a gun rolled around town in pickup trucks shooting into the air, truly deafening, and a bit scary. What goes up, must come down. Luckily not near us that time.

Uprisings are sweeping the Middle East, but Libya's long time leader is not going without a fight. He does seem to have united much of the country against him, but he can still hold together some kind of fighting force to keep the capital and a number of other towns.

Libya's revolution will not be the mostly peaceful mass uprisings of Tunisia, Egypt and even Bahrain, and perhaps Yemen. It's going to be a fight. Qadhafi will not go easily unless the security forces he's paying so well suddenly turn on him. For now, neither side can really advance from their territory and it all depends on further uprisings, something he is savagely putting down.

The result may be the stalemate of a divided nation. Either way, it looks like there will be a lot more martyrs to this revolution, but on a positive note, at least in the east, chaos has not resulted and it's been a remarkably colorful ride..