Return to Libya

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About a fortnight ago, the country celebrated the first anniversary of its revolution. An Indian professor, now back at his university there after a gap of ten months, is pleased to see his students who had turned into armed revolutionaries get back to their books again. His report

I lived in Libya for two-and-a-half years as a teacher. When the revolution started on 17 February 2011, I saw my students suddenly turn into armed revolutionaries (see ‘The Red Hibiscus Revolution’, Open, 9 April 2011). When I left, the country was in the first flush of full-blown revolution, with the entire East in rebel hands, and Gaddafi just beginning his large-scale military deployment against his own people. For months together, the struggle remained a stalemate. Eventually, aided by Nato bombing, the dictator was ousted and killed.

Benghazi University (Garyounis University before the revolution), at whose branch I worked, had let me go on leave along with other Indian evacuees until the situation stabilised. On 6 January this year, I returned along with a colleague. During the war, this town of 126,000 was attacked from air, land and sea relentlessly for a month—the only place in Libya to be so attacked—and I had felt all kinds of forebodings on the fate of my students. This return offered me a sense of closure, for it would have been difficult for me to live on in India without going back to check.

Outside Benghazi’s Benina Airport, the weather was chilly and windy. A true Mediterranean winter. The late afternoon sun played around the rain clouds that delivered an occasional spray. It was a 160-km drive to Ajdabiya, and about 20 km south along this road was Tikka, where French President Nicholas Sarkozy ordered the scorching of an armoured division of Gaddafi’s elite forces tasked with razing Benghazi to the ground. The remnants and hulks of tanks and armoured vehicles littered a 2-sq-km area on either side of the highway at Tikka. Further down the road towards Ajdabiya, the city I lived and worked, burnt skeletons of tanks, armoured vehicles and heavy cannons visited upon by Nato’s Brimstone and Hellfire missiles could be seen along the kerbs. This road had thick patches of green on either side, suggestive of hope for the future; the farthest limits of the plains were a dull turmeric yellow of desert sand.

The check points were all manned by Thuwars (ex-freedom fighters) in battle fatigues, wielding Kalashnikovs. Many of them were obviously in their teens, with no evidence of darkening hair on their faces. Nearing Ajdabiya, the Eastern Gate came into view, surrounded by tanks and anti-aircraft guns. There were many tanks disabled during the fighting. This gate was the scene of pitched battles during three separate attacks by Gaddafi’s forces between 15 March and 15 April 2011. Security bunkers were pockmarked by machine-gun fire and mutilated beyond recognition by artillery and mortar shells. The Thuwars checked our vehicle and let us pass. I was entering Ajdabiya after nine months. At one time, the media had termed it a ‘ghost city’. How many of my students and colleagues and their local friends would be left? I was gripped by apprehension.

At the University Branch, the staff greeted me with tight hugs, kisses on the cheeks and salaams. Walking along the corridors, students, both boys and girls, greeted me with exclamations of joy. Most of them had signed up for the semester that was to begin after nine months upon being assured that we would be brought back. Boys embraced me; girls came and shook hands—a gesture they reserve for only one occasion in their college years, when they make presentations of their research papers, effectively ending their course of study.

They all seemed to take my return as a sign of things returning to normalcy. Many male students proudly said they were Thuwars and had fought Gaddafi ‘s forces. There were many boys now with crutches and plaster casts. Many of the pick-up vehicles parked in front of the university, belonging to students and staff, were dabbed in camouflage paint and nettings and had telltale metal tripods for the mounting of heavy guns.

The carefree, chattering schoolgirls and swashbuckling boys passing along the road were a refreshing sight, in complete contrast to last year’s gloom. My students’ mood had been transformed. They were filled with laughter and joviality, a far cry from the fear that seemed to envelop them under the Gaddafi regime, when they seemed so hesitant to express themselves to me.

The rejoining done, it was time for me to look for my old house. It was gone, taken over by refugees from another city. Muman Alkhaldly, my benign Head of the Department, a young and sprightly man in his early thirties  who had been a freedom-fighter along with his brothers (and fought the Battle of Sirte that ended in Gaddafi’s death), had solicitously taken all my household belongings to places of safety. I could get them back once I found a house, he told me, as he drove me to his house to welcome me back with a lunch with him—again, a rare gesture. Housing was a difficult problem in post-war Ajdabiya, he said. However, with the help of Sayed Mujahid, an Indian colleague, I found a house on the third day.

My exploration of Ajdabiya began. Muman had told me that his brother Hamad, a computer engineer turned Thuwar who had visited the city during the month-long attacks by regime troops, had seen a number of sheep, dogs, camels and jackals all running in the same direction, as the constant boom of explosions from shells, rockets and bombs told them that doomsday was near. But the ‘ghost city’ had once again become a bustling business centre, with shops packed with goods, and streets, with people. However, all 14 government offices that were set on fire during the revolution remained the same way, their walls blackened by flames that had leapt from the windows, though reconstruction has just begun at one or two sites. Government banks, in contrast, were thronged by hundreds—currency was in short supply, and each account holder was assured of only 300 Libyan dinars at a time for a month. Still, the crowds continued to swell.

Every wall and lamp-post, dustbin and culvert—any surface that could be painted—was covered with the Libyan tricolour. Where Gaddafi’s portraits had once stared down from hoardings, with his thrust-out chin and dark glasses at a rakish angle, there were now portraits of martyrs—some with RPGs fixed to their launchers, some wielding machine guns with garlands of cartridges crisscrossing their torso.


Since the day of my arrival, there has been sustained automatic fire from rifles of varying calibres (as can be discerned from variations in the crack and boom of the reports) every night, and sometimes during the day too. There was also an occasion of much firing in the air by a procession of hundreds of cars and pick-ups with anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns. That turned out to be the funeral procession of a Thuwar who had been airlifted to the UK after being injured in the Battle of Sirte in October, and who had succumbed to his injuries. I also saw some of their new-born ‘political’ rallies. Instead of slogan-shouting, it’s firing in the air for them. Their jathas are all in cars and pick-ups, horns blaring deafeningly in a continuous stream, peppered with celebratory fire….

But what explained the firing at night? It would begin as midnight approached and last for at least a couple of hours. The usual explanation I got was that it was celebratory gunfire at wedding processions. But so many weddings? I reasoned that different armed groups would be advertising their strength, or night-guards would be shooting in the air to signal their presence and everyone else’s safety. No incident of armed clashes between rival groups had been reported here either. However, as I later realised, a huge portion of the truth was that the gun, wielded by practically every Libyan during the revolution, is now a plaything in many hands and the most tangible symbol of the ‘freedom’—whatever that means—they had won. My suspicions proved true when a lady colleague confided in me that some girl students had shown her (and not me, since they were in their informal clothes in the privacy of their homes) videos of their brothers teaching them how to use rifles late at night on their terraces.


On 17 February, Libyans celebrated the first anniversary of the beginning of the Revolution. Thousands of people flying the tricolour on cars, pick-ups and trucks mounted with all kinds of captured weapons—ranging from six-barrelled anti-aircraft guns, multiple rocket launchers and RPGs to heavy machine guns, bazookas and howitzers and light-cannons—moved in processions along all the main roads of Ajdabiya. Deafening music, drumbeats and cymbal clashes, shouts and chants rent the air.

A day earlier, I had gone to Benghazi, and visited the spot where the momentum turned in favour of the revolutionaries for the first time—the army barracks or ‘Khatiba’ overrun on 20 February 2011. As mass killings of unarmed protestors went on unabated in Benghazi for four days starting 17 February, Professor Mahdi of our university had mounted a suicide attack, ramming into its gate a car laden with gas cylinders to serve as explosives. That is how tens of thousands, armed with just sticks and stones, swarmed in through the opening and captured weapons. It was at this moment that the struggle turned into an armed revolution. Cities throughout the east of the country followed this example overnight. They overran army and police barracks, and on 21 February 2011, all of eastern Libya was declared liberated.

On the same trip, I also visited Sulooq, off the Benghazi-Ajdabiya road, where the legendary Omar Mukthar, the Father of the Libyan Nation, was hanged by Italian colonialists under Mussolini in 1931. The execution spot is marked by a giant plaque with an inscription of the incident. This was my second visit here. The last time, in 2010, I had observed that the plaque had Gaddafi’s name too. This time round, that portion was disfigured with paint. Thuwars had repossessed Omar Mukthar as the symbol of their freedom struggle and national unity.


As I got back to teaching, I was to be regaled with first-hand accounts of events by students and colleagues. Once, while teaching Literary Criticism, explaining the term ‘historical criticism’ and citing the case of fellow Ajdabiyan Hisham Matar’s acclaimed novel about Gaddafi’s institutionalised kidnappings and killings of opposition figures living in any part of the world, Anatomy of a Disappearance, a girl student, whom I shall call ‘A’, blurted out: “My Father and uncle had disappeared too, 20 years ago.” I was surprised because this was the same girl who had written an essay on the Great Man-made River, praising Gaddafi as a ‘great man’, just last year. When I asked her why she wrote that way earlier, she said, “The Great Fear!” She could never be sure that if she wrote her true feelings of Gaddafi, she wouldn’t be betrayed. She recounted her early years when she would persistently ask for her “baba” and be told he would “return soon”, an expectation she grew up with. But her hopes were dashed when Mustafa Abdul Jaleel, the interim President, released last month photos of prisoners held incognito in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison who were eventually put to death—her father and uncle were among them.

Just then, as this girl was telling me her story, a girl sitting next to her, let’s call her ‘J’, broke into tears at the mention of the word ‘father’. Her own father—a highly decorated opposition fighter, who had returned just a few months ago to his duty station guarding oil installations after carrying home for burial his only son, a Thuwar who had died on duty in a vehicle accident—had just met with a terrible road accident, and was in coma in Germany, where he’d been taken for treatment. This brave girl’s fiancé had also been killed along with her brother in the accident a few months ago.

Another such revelation was made by ‘S’, a girl who had written a story, as part of a classroom exercise on Narrative Essay last year, about an Amazonian woman in Gaddafi’s personal security squad who had eventually hanged herself. In her fictional account, this woman was portrayed as her sister. But now, when I enquired, she told me that it was not fiction but fact. She couldn’t tell me earlier because of the all-pervasive fear.

‘H’ is an engineering college teacher whose house was by the main Benghazi-Tripoli road. He said seven Grad rockets had crashed into his house during the siege—no one was hurt, as the house was big and they moved into the interior rooms dodging rockets that came crashing one after another.


Muman is your quintessential idealist in a New Libya faced with the complexities of nascent democracy. He asserts his need to retain impartiality and objectivity in a society ridden with tribal and regional rifts and tensions. But his is a lone voice, or one of rather few.

Once united in opposition to Gaddafi, the majority of Libya’s people seem to have returned now to their tribal identities and affinities, a phenomenon that makes a mockery of the notion of nationhood. (When I say ‘tribal’, it is not to be confused with our word ‘adivasi’, as the anchor of a Malayalam channel did last October while I was on air the day Gaddafi was killed; these are not stereotypical ‘African’ tribes, but Bedouin tribes, much like the Jewish tribes described in the Old Testament or the ‘gotras’ of India’s Brahmin communities.)

Even individuals who once sided with Gaddafi and are implicated in heinous acts are treated leniently and given positions of power by particular groups if they belong to the ‘right’ tribe. And there are many opportunists who have switched loyalties, just as India’s own fifth-columnists did in 1947, donning Gandhi caps overnight. As anywhere in the world, the patriotic freedom fighter is selfless by definition and does not hanker after positions, while the unscrupulous grab all opportunities.

Ajdabiya at the moment is wracked by tension created by the rivalry of two such powerful tribal groupings. Tribal tensions elsewhere in the country are viewed differently by different groups. The current conflict between Tubus and Izwaiyyas in Kufra, the south-eastern extremity of the country, is a case in point. According to 15 February international news reports on this, the Libyan military had put down pro-Gaddafi insurgents. However, I was surprised to be accosted by a young medical student in front of Benghazi’s iconic Tibesti Hotel on 16 February—he was one of the protestors demonstrating against the killing of Black Tubus by light-skinned Izwaiyyas—who took me for an international journalist and wanted me to reveal the truth to the world. A top-level emergency meeting of the National Transition Council on the issue was in progress inside the hotel, he said. In spite of the grimness of the situation, I noticed something positive: democracy was plainly in operation, as the 50 odd protestors were left unharassed by the armed soldiers guarding the street and hotel. This would have been unthinkable a year ago. The revolution itself had begun on account of a similar protest a few hundred metres away from this very spot. Back in Ajdabiya, a colleague said that many Tubus were tribal infiltrators from neighbouring Chad who hoped to blend in with Libya’s own border-area Tubus. The third viewpoint I came across—the most astute and objective one—was that these Tubus and Izwaiyyas settled in Kufra were as Libyan as any, and their killing each other was meaningless.

Tawergha is about 30 km southwest of Misrata, the city that Gaddafi brutally tried to destroy. A majority of Tawerghans had sided with Gaddafi then, and had reportedly led an orgy of murder and rape. Now, with the tables turned, Misratans are bent on making life hell for Tawerghans. Tawergha is a deserted town now. Many Tawerghans are resettled in Ajdabiya; so are people from Sirte, the fallen hometown of Gaddafi, and members of his tribe, Gaddadfa. Some Ajdabiyans do not take kindly to them; there is growing tension on account of this as well. Sane voices like Muman’s plead for equal treatment for all and forgiveness and reconciliation. But large numbers of Libyans are not convinced. Regional and sectarian tensions prevail, though there is absolutely no Shia-Sunni divide here (the country is entirely Sunni).

However, international apprehensions of Libya’s radicalisation along Islamic lines, or at least early stirrings of it, are not easily dismissed. Some of the country’s youth, many of them model students earlier, have taken to growing long beards and an increasing number of girl students are adopting face veils (whereas in the past, there would have been just one or two in a classroom of a hundred). I asked a few boys and girls about this, and they said Gaddafi had imposed restrictions on wearing beards and veils, which are normal practices for Muslims, and now that he was gone, they were exercising their ‘freedom’ to do as they liked.

As of now, what these signs presage is not easy to tell. However, what I know of people here prompts me to stand by my earlier conviction—that religion is a way of life for them and not a mode of political expression.


An extraordinary opportunity came by the other day. With the help of Muman, acting as interpreter, I held a long interview with three women military officers—a fast diminishing minority, on the verge of extinction as I am told, in Libya.

Colonel Hanea, Lieutenant Colonel Marzooka and Lieutenant Aisha are all members of the official Libyan Army that switched loyalties as the opposition took to the streets in February last year. They form a special cell of the Military Council of Ajdabiya, thanks to the efforts of an upright male officer, Colonel Khaleefa, and are able to work here without trouble along with other women personnel. Marzooka says she began supporting the revolution rightaway as she was disgusted with the regime when four schoolboys were shot dead in Ajdabiya by soldiers on the first day of the revolution. During the fiercest of battles, she was among those who ensured uninterrupted food supply to fighters entrenched at the frontlines. Asked about the prospects of women in the army, the difference between Gaddafi’s time and now, Hanea and Marzooka are unambiguous in giving the devil his due. Then, they were treated as professional soldiers, but the emerging authorities now want all women sent back in their kitchens. Yet, the three are determined to stick to their roles. The role of women in nation-building and establishing a democratic society is being overlooked, they feel.

Look around the place, and you notice that Thuwars are everywhere—in the markets, main streets, near educational institutions, hospitals, etcetera, armed typically with Kalashnikovs, though sometimes with RPG launchers slung across their shoulders. Most of them are on guard duty. So, even though there are no police or security forces around to maintain law and order, there is no crime reported, nor any insecurity felt in the streets. This sense of order can partly be attributed to a few positive aspects of tribal traditions—by which youngsters listen to their elders, for example.

Libya’s broader social setup, of which the political is just an offshoot, is mono-cultural and based squarely on religion. More or less all activities—be it education, business, commerce, political discourse, activism or even the daily routine—are conducted in accordance with Islamic codes. This is not to imply that Libyans are extremists. Far from it. They are just like orthodox people everywhere—Catholics, Jews, Brahmin sects and even some Marxists and atheists back in India. But the real test begins when a modern democracy is sought to be fashioned from this. The challenge of reconciling mono-cultural norms with multi-cultural ideals, as well-wishers across the world expect of Libya, can bog even well-meaning leaders down. The conflicting voices being heard, as the country gears up for its first ever election in May this year, are no surprise.

Will the aspirations of young Libyans see fulfilment? It was their revolution to begin with, and they were inspired by social networks, internet information and global ideas. So, will a Libya emerge where citizens are treated equally and justly as citizens? It may seem like a stiff challenge, but that’s the least Libya’s revolutionaries owe themselves and those they fought for.