Voices from Libya

Published: September 4, 2011
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Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war.

Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war.

Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war. Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war. Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war. Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war. Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war. Whatever the endgame, the Libyan people will pay a heavy price for this war.

Hamed Karim has been standing in front of a wall in Benghazi for hours now, staring at the portraits and pictures that cover it. The people in these photos are Libyan rebel fighters and civilians, who were killed or abducted in the rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi’s dictatorial regime. Among hundreds of these framed faces, four images belong to Hamed’s brothers and three to his close friends. As a tear slides down Hamed’s cheek, over 650 kilometres to the west the capital of Tripoli is rocked by explosions as Nato jets bomb Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound.

By the time you read this, Qaddafi’s tottering regime may have fallen, and the colonel himself may be dead or in custody or still in hiding. But however the endgame pans out, it will be left to the Libyan people to count the price they paid.

Accurate figures are impossible to get from a war zone, and depending on who you ask, anything from 3,000 to 13,000 lives have been lost. Many times that number opted to flee the country towards Europe, Egypt and Tunisia, with estimates as high as 100,000 — even more if you factor in the immigrant workers who fled the conflict.

“Schools have been closed since February,” says Maimoona, a second year student at the University of Misrata, who managed to escape Libya during the war. Along with other Libyans, Maimoona and few of her family members managed to take a 17-hour boat out of Misrata, to Tobruk.

“It was terrifying, and we didn’t know if we’d be able to make it out. Qaddafi’s forces were shooting any boats they’d catch sight of.” Of the thousands who took to the sea, many were reportedly killed by patrolling loyalist forces. Since Nato joined the war, “things became better”, she says.

For those who stayed behind, survival was difficult. Food stocks were available in Misrata, but were sold at such inflated rates that most people could not afford to buy. But, at least in mostly middle-class Misrata, no one went hungry. In the nearby small towns, populated mostly by low-income families, having enough to eat was a luxury. With business and markets completely shut down, daily-wage earners were the worst hit. It was the network of family and tribal ties that saved them from starvation. “Libyans treat each other like family and are very generous when it comes to sharing food and supplies with those who can’t afford the inflated rates,” says Maimoona. “So as long as you have an extended family which can afford to buy food, you don’t go hungry.”

The real problem was the uncertainty. “Everyone was affected by the war in one way or the other,” says Maimoona.  Many of her friends from university were kidnapped by Qaddafi’s army while many others joined the rebel forces against Qaddafi’s. “My friend’s uncle was abducted in February and no one ever heard back from him. Some of the arrested people were taken to prison from the battlefield, and kept in isolated conditions. But some (very few) managed to flee.”

The lucky ones who managed to escape tell tales of containers being used as makeshift prisons-cum-torture cells. A few prisoners were released after being brutally tortured, in order to serve as a warning for others. It clearly had the opposite effect.

“The people couldn’t watch their loved ones being tortured and killed, and joined the rebel armies to ensure Qaddafi’s defeat,” says Maimoona.

Maimoona’s brother, an X-ray technician at Misrata Hospital stayed back to help the wounded.  “He knew he was not safe, he didn’t know whether he would live through these times, but he wanted to be there in the fight. He wanted to make sure the hospital didn’t lose staff-strength and that no one died due to a lack of staff. So he stayed back to work on, from body to body.” In a wavering voice, she adds, “He wanted to do his part.”

Maimoona and others who escaped Libya, had to struggle to be able to speak to their families in Misrata. Most of the phone lines were down, and those that did work were tapped by the government. “Only journalists were allowed any form of communication. They had satellite phones and the internet.”

Initially, Qaddafi tried controlling people’s minds and the flow of information by giving false reports.  “He constantly lied on national radio and television” about the intrusion of external forces and enemy attacks. Alaa, a Libyan based in Qatar, who was in touch with her family in Zawwiya and Tripoli, explains her shock when she woke one February morning and saw Qaddafi giving a speech blaming ‘anti-state forces’ for causing trouble.

“My uncle had been kidnapped a night before from his own house, by Qaddafi’s army. Qaddafi would tell these lies, but no Libyan would believe him.” Alaa’s father, who speaks to Al-Jazeera regularly about events in Libya, was also under constant threat by the government. Earlier one of Alaa’s other uncles was also killed by the same forces.

Even though the game seems to be up, the possible consequences of Qaddafi’s defeat send chills down the spines of those whose loved ones are missing. “Qaddafi’s forces still have the prisoners and no one else knows where they are hidden,” says Hamza Malik who has been sending updates from Libya via Twitter and Facebook. “I don’t know what he will do to the thousands of prisoners if he becomes desperate.” Indeed, Qaddafi’s unpredictability is in itself a cause for concern. “Qaddafi was always delusional beyond belief,” warns Malik, “and one has to be careful of what steps he may take, as his narcissistic attitude could lead to more lives being lost.” For the rebels, only his capture or death will bring closure. “We will chase Qaddafi from hole to hole,” one injured fighter told the BBC.

As Benghazi was liberated, Libyan political analyst Ana El Gomati struck a note of caution. “There is an immense level of hope, but also a healthy amount of scepticism in the air which means it will be necessary to proceed with caution for the process of nation building to be a successful endeavour. I have attended the funeral prayer of a martyr and with the same people kissed the head of a baby born during the revolution, and so life continues in this incredible city.”

The hard task of rebuilding this war-torn land is a challenge for the immediate future. For the moment, the overwhelming emotion here is relief. Hamza Malik captures the feeling of millions of Libyans when he says, “We will celebrate this Eid as free men, inshaAllah.”

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 4th,  2011.

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Reader Comments (9)

  • Tony C.
    Sep 5, 2011 - 12:36AM

    I do not know were Kiran Nazish derived his information about the Libyan war, but from my reading of the whole sorry debacle I think he has been talking to the tooth fairy. We are led to believe a group of so called rebel liberators started a popular uprising, mysteriously became equipped with all the weapons of war, and then because of their heroic bravery, and suddenly acquired fighting ability, fought a brutal standing army to a standstill whilst leaving the local population unscathed.

    It is quite obvious that the whole thing has been a setup from the beginning. NATO leaders, probably British, trained the so called rebels, provided mercenaries and British military personnel to lead them, provided equipment for them to fight with, carpet bombed and used RAF gunships to mow down any area that put up resistance. There were other minor incidentals such as full electronic communications for the rebels to keep in touch, and call in air strikes as soon the going became a little tough. There was also the British high command back in Whitehall, London who had the whole control system working with the help of powerful computers, as well as providing ships and aircraft which were constantly supplying the rebels with their needs as they ran out of items such as food, fuel, ammunition and all the other paraphernalia of war.

    There is not much point in reviewing, at length, who committed which war crime. Colonel Gaddafi will get the blame. The rebel fighters will not. The British RAF pilots who carpet bombed cities and destroyed or severely damaged hospitals, water supplies, electricity plants, and killed people on a wholesale basis, will be absolved of any, and all, responsibility for the genocide they have committed. We could go into the details of the dreadful life the Libyans will now have for the foreseeable future, but why bother. We just have to look at what NATO did to the Iraqi people, and they are still suffering ten years later. It will be particularly hard for Libyans who had the highest standard-of-living in Africa.

    And what will they be enduring this suffering for? So that Britain, France, and others can control Libyan oil and billions of dollars worth of Libyan gold. I am afraid that life will never be the same again for Hamid and Maimoona. I doubt very much that the new administration of Libya will allow Maimoona to go back to Mistrata University free of charge the way she has been doing under Colonel Gaddafi? I doubt that Hamid will get extremely low cost housing, free electricity, very low cost fuel, free education, interest free loans, free health care, and all the other myriad benefits he has enjoyed so far.

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  • Omer
    Sep 5, 2011 - 2:46AM

    Brilliantly covered story. I know a couple of people from there who have families in Libya and it looks like no one was safe, during the war. The past midnight kidnappings and disappearences – only god knows how much courage this nation had to keep fighting it this long. What civilians had to go through under Gaddafi’s cruel regime was beyond comprehension at times. What people went through, the cruelties, the hardship, the treatment and the lies and manipulation .. just horrendous.
    Ofcourse it wont be easy for Libyans to acquire full freedom as a lot of external forces will try to have their influence and find opportunities here, but if Libyans work it out wisely, the way they did and took a a stand against Gaddafi. they will make it through.

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  • Bishop Dr. Ijaz Inayat
    Sep 5, 2011 - 3:09AM

    I appreciate your style of writing and stand with the suffering Libyans in their struggle for freedom.
    I also watched prisoners burnt alive by the forces of Colonel Gaddafi.

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  • Hamza Malek
    Sep 5, 2011 - 3:39AM

    @Tony C.:
    Oh Tony C, I’m sorry to tell you, but you’re the one who sounds like they’ve been getting their information from the tooth fairy, or worse, the Gaddafi propaganda machine.

    Before I continue, I want you to honestly ask yourself “When did I really start following the events in Libya and how many Libyans do I know?”

    Gaddafi had lost 7 of the 10 most popular cities in Libya within three days, yes it was a popular uprising.

    “Mysteriously became equipped”? The rebels got their weapons initially from the defected brigades in the east, including the special forces that were under the command of General AbdulFattah Younis, and were able to get the rest of their weapons from the MULTIPLE weapon storage facilities and barracks across the eastern part of Libya and the cities of Misrata and Zawiya.

    And have you seen the rebels fighting in the beginning and throughout the revolution? They were definitely for the most part not experts in battle. Furthermore, high school youth in Libya are required to go through a general military training, although many find ways out of it.

    I’m sorry to tell you there wasn’t any “mercenaries” on the side of the revolutionaries, they already had enough fighters from the east of Libya, Misrata, Zawiya, the Nafoosa mountains, and pe,ople who escaped the occupied cities under Gaddafi’s control. I challenge you to show me one video of anti rebel protests in areas controlled by rebels. I can show you hundreds of videos of people risking their lives in Tripoli protesting Gaddafi.

    And what evidence do you have of carpet bombing cities?

    And don’t even get me started with comparing Iraq and Libya. Does Libya have foreign troops on the ground that are targets for insurgency or multiple religious and ethnic groups that have been fighting for power in the region for a thousand years? Nope.

    And highest standard of living in Africa? I’m assuming you’re talking about the HDI index, which many people have been ignorantly throwing around regarding Libya. How about you look at what goes into the HDI index? The high GDP per capita is due to the high oil production with a small population. The high literacy rate is due to the free education, yes, but that education is worthless past elementary school, 30% of the population is unemployed and about 40% of the youth are unemployed. Some useful education.

    And the part that literally made me LOL. Can you do me a favor and show me your source of the ridiculous statements you just made? Free electricity? In what dimension? Low cost housing? Since when? Housing costs in Libya reach $100,000 or more, but it kind of sucks when you only make $6,000 a year. I’m actually very interested in knowing your source of this, because I’ve heard this over and over but it is 100% false. I’m sure if you dig into your claims, you’ll find out they originate from a Gaddafi source.

    All of the NATO countries had and were getting lucrative oil deals. But lets assume you’re right. You know what Hamid and Maimuna now have that they didn’t under Gaddafi? The ability to criticize their government without fearing being locked up or killed :) I’m sure that’s something you take for granted.

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  • Tony C.
    Sep 5, 2011 - 1:05PM

    Dear commentators,
    I will not comment on all the critical items which have been written, because I am sure that some of the well written ideas are correct, and it would require a 10,000 word plus dissertation if I replied point by point. However, I stand by my original missive with the proviso that; yes, like everybody else I do not have full knowledge of everything that has happened in Libya over the last few months, and this is due to the fact that as a general rule Western media give questionable coverage to items they wish to keep the lid on.

    Further, I am Anglo-Saxon, not subject to middle eastern propaganda, have not been conditioned (I hope), and like to think that I can look at a situation from a rational and logical point-of-view.

    Obviously, war is brutal and brutality occurs on both sides. I could mention many incidents in recent history which highlight this point, and that is why I mentioned Iraq. Many people are brutally killed in any war, and although I have not been around that long could mention 20 plus wars in which hundreds of millions of people have been killed, .

    Strangely enough the U.S./British have been involved in most of them, rescuing people so that they can enjoy Western type christian democracy and freedom. Oh!, and I almost forgot, they usually snap up the rescued countries resources at bargain basement prices, and then the rescued people have to borrow huge amounts of money from the Western banking system (at high interest) to repair all the damage that was created.

    Also, if I keep mentioning the British involvement in Libya it is because I know them from old. Pick up any good history book of British history and it will explain that for several hundred years they have gone around plundering the world and as a general rule anybody who resisted them finished up dead. It has to be realized that the British are good at war, I hope they never want to rescue me, I think they enjoy it, they usually win for all kinds of reasons, and historical evidence shows they usually get what they want. You may think I am cynical but if not the British, I am reasonably certain (tooth fairy or not) someone will get a financial advantage out of the Libyan war. Actually Hamaz, their is reasonably strong empirical evidence that the tooth fairy exists. I always found a silver coin under my pillow the morning after loosing a tooth.

    Having said that I do not think we should argue about who are the good guys and the bad guys. It will probably take fifty years or so before that can be worked out rationally. If we try to do it now we will fall into the trap of the divide and conquer technique. The bottom line is that I do not wish to have dinner with Colonel Gaddafi, the rebel leader or Mr. D Cameron. They have all contributed to killing thousands of people, and making a dreadful life for the Libyans well into the future. It does not really matter what we say. The damage has been done. I, like many others have lost loved ones and I grieve for them. Many Libyans have lost loved ones unnecessarily, and that will be very hard for them to take for many years to come.

    I hope Hamaz is correct when he says that Libya is not Iraq, and that the countries infrastructure will be up and running very quickly.

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  • Tony C.
    Sep 5, 2011 - 3:51PM

    Dear Hamza Malek
    Sorry I got your name wrong. I had to write in a hurry. I do not really wish to get down to the micro level, but you did say that the RAF had not carpet bombed Libya, and you said I was not there so could not really be sure. However, by there own admission the RAF did say several weeks ago that they had made in excess of 20,000 bombing sorties over Libya.

    The U.N. no-fly zone edict comes to an end shortly so the RAF have been intensifying their bombing missions recently and therefore the total missions will be much greater. Their Tornado bombing aircraft carries about 6 two thousand pound bombs. Simple mathematics tell me that 20,000 x 2000 x 6 = 40,000,000 x 6 = 240,000,000 pounds of bombs as a minimum. Like you said I cannot be sure that the RAF carpet bombed Libya, but at the very least 240 million pounds of bombs sounds like an awful lot to me.

    The other problem that Libyans will have to suffer is that the British use dirty bombs. One of the nasty things they use is depleted uranium(D.U.), which has a half life of several million years. Some authorities say that it is quite safe, but I am glad I do not have any of it in my backyard. I am also glad I was not a Gaddafi loyalist, and from a safety point-of-view would have much preferred to be on the rebels side, but with D.U. nobody in Libya is safe in the long term.

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  • Sep 10, 2011 - 8:41AM

    Gaddhafi Achievements:
    – Free electricity and water for Libyans, man made river of Libya
    – Education free from KG to Uni, Uni student only pay 9$
    – Petrol costs 75 cents
    – Toward Pan African economic, financial and political independence
    – Rascom project to have African satellite and communication independence from Europe
    – Planning for African Monetary Fund and African Reserve Bank
    – Houses are mostly owned by Libyans without any usurious mortgages
    – Ranks 53 on the UN Human Development Index, Libya ranks ahead of Russia Brazil Malaysia
    – Life expectancy has increased by 20 years

    I bet there is no leader in Muslim world like him and Pakistanis speaking against him just shows the bandwagon is filled to the brim.

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  • Sep 10, 2011 - 8:45AM

    Here is US Ex-Congresswoman.

    As NATO attacks continue in Libya, ex US Congresswoman and former presidential candidate Cynthia McKinney went to the country on a non-governmental fact-finding mission to see what exactly is going on in the war-torn country.
    Cynthia McKinney believes the bombardments of Libyan cities and other measures taken by NATO, causing civilian casualties, represent the idea of “collective punishment”. McKinney said,
    “NATO is preventing shipments of fuel, food and medicine to come in. There have been efforts to get medicine into the country that have been denied by NATO. It is impossible to go on any street and miss the huge queues – sometimes three or four deep – that go on and on, as they queue up to get gasoline from the service station.”
    McKinney also told RT how universities and other civilian facilities are being bombed by NATO troops. She added,
    “I don’t know why NATO is choosing these targets, but these are civilian targets. Whenever you target a civilian population, you’re committing a crime.”*
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  • Tony C.
    Sep 10, 2011 - 8:36PM

    @Moise:
    Thank you Moise for so succinctly explaining Colonel Gaddafi’s achievements. No undue criticism or praise. Just saying it as it is. If only a few other leaders could do the same as the Colonel. Unfortunately, we know from experience that it will not happen? However, good work on your part.

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