Libya: Bye-Bye Brother Leader

25 May 2010 - // Features
Boštjan Videmšek
Journalist, ultra-marathoner, Ambassador of the European Climate Pact, and author of Plan B.

Bombed a convoy of vehicles containing Qaddafi loyalists fleeing the imminent fall of the city. A few loyalists managed to escape from the vehicles, but the NATO aerial sorties had paid off.

The militants showed no mercy: they shot the dictator, who allegedly died in transit to a hospital. Qaddafi’s bloody body was displayed for five days in Misrata as a war trophy. After eight months of war, Libyans made pilgrimages to Misrata, where Qaddafi’s and his son Mutassim’s remains were exposed, in order to see with their own eyes the end of the man who embodied so many of Libya’s ills.

Mersal’s satisfaction upon seeing Qaddafi dead was discrete in comparison to the exhilaration of most Libyans. “They should have hung him in Green Square so that everyone could spit on him,” says Mohammed Bakhbakhi, owner of the Library of Tripoli and Sebha. “It does not matter to us that he was not judged. He killed thousands of our children. Any judge would have been unjust,” declares Abdullah Banun, lawyer in Tripoli. Intellectuals and parishioners, all agree that Qaddafi deserved the end he received. Few would have preferred to see him behind bars and prosecuted for his crimes. Those who defend his death argue that this was easier for Libya. Many believe that Qaddafi was “not a good Muslim” and therefore deserved such treatment. Popular rejection has a psychological explanation: Libyans are trying to declare that the one who served as leader for four decades was not one of them.

Libyan rebel soldiers parading through the streets of Benghazi, April 2011.

Qaddafi was buried five days after his death in an undisclosed location. The new authorities did not want his grave to become a place of pilgrimage for any remaining loyalists. They wanted to prevent and negate any season of glory. The National Transitional Council rejected the requests of some international organizations to initiate an investigation regarding whether or not Qaddafi’s death was an extrajudicial execution. The autopsy conducted on his corpse confirmed the presence of a gunshot wound to the head and another to the stomach. A rebel commander admitted that his militiamen killed Qaddafi in the heat of the moment. But nothing is known of the NTC’s pending investigation.

Qaddafi had called the opposition “rats” and threatened to hunt them “room by room, house by house, street by street” – a refrain that became famous in pro-Qaddafi songs since he pronounced it last March. Qaddafi fulfilled his will to fight to the end. The tyrant had rejected the idea of exile, and he made certain he would die on his land. Perhaps this was the only promise Qaddafi made to the Libyans that he upheld. And with Qaddafi, not only did the man die, but the system as well. This system (for 42 years) oppressed those who thought differently, uprooted the values of a tribal and traditional society, created a state destitute of institutions, installed corruption in hearts and minds, and devalorized the intellectual capacity of an entire nation. Libya now faces the abyss of its own future.

Doctor Feisal Krekshi, the new provost of the University of Tripoli, recognizes that Libya is at ‘year zero.’ A state must be created from nothing. “The most important element is to establish law and order. Basing ourselves on the law, we can build a state, but the process is enormous. Democracy is good as long as it is implemented in the correct manner. Otherwise we will be doomed in a new dictatorial system or in total anarchy,” affirms Krekshi. Part of the work to be done in Libya should be “post-war reconstruction,” he continues and admits that “we do not have a government on the ground nor structures of control.”

The transformation of the university constitutes an example of how Qaddafi co-opted the national institutions. The new provost explains that “the university under Qaddafi’s regime was not a place of learning; it was a lieu of repression and propaganda.” In the 1970s and 1980s, students and professors calling for freedom were detained and publicly executed in the university. “On that campus, students were executed in public and others were tortured. During the regime, an annual anniversary celebrated the hanging of a group of students,” confirms Provost Kreshki in reference to April 7, 1977, the day on which two university professors from Benghazi were executed on campus – Omar al-Dabub and Mohammed bin Saud – for having participated in student demonstrations the previous year. Colonel Qaddafi presided himself over the hangings. The lunacy of the eccentric leader culminated in reserving the month of April for the persecution of students, professors, and other suspicious opponents of the regime.

The macabre anniversary – commemorated with scaffolding – has its origins on April 7, 1976, when Qaddafi ordered the Revolutionary Committees to persecute students of the opposition. Ever since, April 7 – indeed the entire month – was feared in classrooms. “Student executions occurred in 1976, 1977, and 1984. The only crime of those youth was to express their desire to be free,” adds Krekshi. “It was a way to intimidate the youth”.

(LEFT) Cheering crowds greet Libyan rebel soldiers as they march through Benghazi, April 2011. (RIGHT) Posters of hundreds of Qaddafi’s victims on the city walls of Benghazi, May 2011.

In many cases, the gallows arrived years after detention without trial. Thus, Rashid Kabar was executed on April 16, 1984, in the Faculty of Pharmacy. Fellow students were forced to witness his execution. Kabar was detained in 1980, accused of following the mufti Beshti – himself detained and assassinated by the regime. Today, the university auditorium nominated by Qaddafi as the Green Room has been re-baptized with Kabar’s name.

The University of Tripoli is reinventing itself. While the youth put down their Kalashnikovs and return to campus, Kreshki’s priority (and that of his team) is to renew the curriculum of the university, which was “90 percent contaminated by” the message of the Green Book.

On that campus, students were executed in public and others were tortured. During the regime, an annual anniversary in April celebrated the hanging of a group of students.

This tract – Qaddafi’s political bible – no longer occupies a place of privilege in centers of teaching as it did during the dictatorship, when students took dedicated courses repeating the extravagnt theories of the Brother Leader. The students of the University of Tripoli organized a symbolic bonfire where they burned hundreds of copies of the Green Book. However, Kreshki prevented the students from destroying all copies: some will be recycled and others will be used as a reference in history studies.

Kreshki, a professor of medicine who has worked for years on this campus, maintains that: investigating the crimes of the dictatorship is not a priority. The most important is to establish law and order. Then demolish the system that Qaddafi constructed and form an intellectual elite. We do not have a government yet…

The university purge – with a high percentage of acolytes of the former regime – is also an example of how difficult reconciliation will prove in Libya. The former provost is under house arrest, while the extent of his adherence to the regime remains under investigation. The 5,000 university professors will also undergo such investigation.

“There is a high concentration of Qaddafi loyalists at the university because it was a place where people were selected based on the degree of their loyalty,” admits Kreshki, who estimates that less than 5 percent of the Libyan population is still in favor of the former regime. In addition to the ‘un-Qaddafication,’ the new Libya will have to remedy the growing tensions between the East and West, between Arabs and Amazighs, between civilians and the military.

Another symbol of Qaddafi’s fallen dictatorship is the broken center of Bab al-Aziziya and its grayed and busted walls that attest to the remains of a regime that has already passed into history. Situated in the heart of Tripoli, this compound was the center of power for decades. From this enclosure Qaddafi and his acolytes governed. During the popular uprising, the regime organized huge, nightly demonstrations complete with people waving green flags – the official symbol imposed by the Colonel – chanting slogans in favor of the Brother Leader. For months, the system led dozens of journalists to this site to bear witness to Libya’s support for Qaddafi. Today, the place bears no trace of those forces.

(LEFT) LIBYAN REBEL ON THE MAIN ROAD TO BREGA, APRIL 2011. (RIGHT) After evening prayers in Benghazi downtown, May 2011.

On August 23, the fighting reached Bab al-Aziziya, which was conquered a few days later. The compound was converted into a place of pilgrimage for hundreds of Libyans who roamed the courtyard and entered the old mansion hidden by a wall. They wanted to see how the dictator had lived as they entered the kitchen, perused the books on the bookshelves of the ample salon or looked into bedrooms. The house was soon empty, as people took whatever goods and chattels they could: sofas, polychrome wood tables, luxuriously bounded books…

The rebel youth traveled the subterranean tunnels, which connected the various edifices of Bab al-Aziziya. They took photographs of each other and inscribed the names of their towns of origin. The Museum of the American Bombing of 1986 – an edifice that stood opposite the infamous statue of a fist crushing a plane – has been converted into a museum of the revolution. The effigy was transferred to Misrata where it is exhibited as a war trophy.

Bab al-Aziziya is now a popular market, full of chickens where vendors sell clothes and spare parts. Libyans have converted a place that symbolizes decades of oppression. It is surprising how quickly Libyans want to shed the symbols of their own history. No one thinks to conserve those symbols or to maintain the thousands of files and records that have been left unprotected in facilities such as Bab al-Aziziya – which also housed the Secret Services (mukhabarat) – or the sinister Abu Slim prison. Those documents tell the story of thousands of repressed, blackmailed, and spied-upon Libyans. There are thousands of photographs, records, telephone call transcripts, voice recordings…

No one is protecting and addressing these dossiers about the crimes committed by Qaddafi’s system.

The mukhabarat building in Zawiya Street could in itself serve as a monument to the dictatorship. The rebels who guard it grant access to foreign journalists on the condition that they do not photograph anything. The information in this edifice cannot be grasped. It would take years to carry out an investigation, let alone arrive at conclusions regarding the disappeared, detained, and assassinated. Every single Libyan has a record in there. And yet, of the thousands of papers and files, no one is protecting and addressing these dossiers about all the crimes committed by Qaddafi’s system.

On the contrary, the rebels guarding the building open envelopes containing hundreds of black-and-white photographs and spill them on the floor. It serves no purpose to recall that these documents are part of a shared history. “How many years will we need to decipher all this?” asks one of the rebel guards. The building was partially damaged by a NATO bombing, but it is still here that all those documents are kept in rooms full of shelves. “Do you understand now why Qaddafi stayed in power for 42 years?” the rebel guard asks.

Human Rights Watch advised of the importance of securing all these archives, “which can reveal what has occurred in Libya in the last 42 years,” says Peter Bouckaert, an investigator for the international non-governmental organization. “The National Transitional Council has the obligation to protect them [the archives]. They are the key to answering many questions,” he adds. Questions, such as what happened to the imam Musa Sadr, who disappeared in 1978 in Libya.

Do you understand now why Qaddafi stayed in power for 42 years?

Sadr, religious leader of the Shia community in Lebanon, founded in the 1970s ‘the Movement of the Disinherited,’ the backbone of the Lebanese Amal party. In 1978, invited by Qaddafi himself, Sadr visited Libya with two assistants. On a flight home via Italy, he vanished. An Italian investigation revealed that Sadr never arrived in Italy. Lebanon continues to demand the clarification of Sadr’s fate and has launched a petition addressed to the National Transitional Council.

“It is quite possible that he [Sadr] was executed quite some time ago, but now what truly and actually happened to him can be traced,” Bouckaert claims. If the National Transitional Council does not protect the millions of documents exposed in the administrative buildings across the country, cases like Sadr, and many others who disappeared, will never be resolved.

Boštjan Videmšek
Journalist, ultra-marathoner, Ambassador of the European Climate Pact, and author of Plan B.

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