(First of my three part series on the Libyan revolution of Feb 2011.)
Browsing through the newspaper on a balmy Goan evening I read the latest war update from a continent far away .I rewind to three months ago when I was in the midst of it all , in downtown Benghazi – ground zero of the Libyan revolution of feb 2011
It all started suddenly at around midnight ,15th of February. I had just turned in for the night, when all of a sudden I heard wailing police sirens outside my first floor Benghazi flat .Rushing to the window I saw a dozen police cars piled up on the road below .They were trying to outflank people marching down the road shouting slogans and displaying banners .A police truck raced towards them spraying water in an attempt to scatter them .Within a matter of minutes the crowd grew and hordes of people on foot and in cars emerged and moved towards the Mediterranean waterfront .The unthinkable had happened .After 42 years of somnolence Libyans had risen against Muammar Gaddafi .I called up my Indian friend and tersely told him “kranti shuru hua” .Was this indeed the start of the Libyan chapter of the Arab spring?
I had been in Libya for 15 months, teaching along with other Indian doctors at a dental college in Benghazi .A graceful laid back city with a lovely Mediterranean waterfront and friendly populace ,Benghazi is the second largest Libyan city .On the surface life was pleasant enough with fast cars ,football ,cigarettes and qawa (dark coffee)keeping the youngsters occupied .However the leader is omnipresent looking down benevolently from huge hoardings and billboards on streets and from pictures in shops ,offices and homes .Spies were said to be everywhere and dissidence was not tolerated .Opponents of the regime simply disappeared without a trace .Chacha 420 or Bade bhai as some of us used to call him had an iron grip on the country .Unemployment was high with very little economic activity .People especially the youth though frustrated had resigned themselves to their fate, waiting for the crazy old man to die.
Then Tunisia and Egypt happened . There was palpable excitement in streets and cafes as Libyans avidly followed the Egyptian revolution on Al Jazeera tv .Egypt exerts a huge influence on the Arab psyche and being the next door neighbor Hosni Mubarak’s exit was a singular turning point in the Libyan resolve to take on Gaddafi .However nothing much was expected to happen here .Thanks to Libya’s huge oil wealth and state subsidy in all sectors Libyans were much better off than their Tunisian or Egyptian neighbors .A lady colleague dismissed all talk of a revolution here saying that Libyans fear Gaddafi too much .In 42 years there had never been any mass demonstrations against him .So what I was seeing below my window was something pretty extraordinary.
benghazi 17th feb
The following day was pretty calm .Over coffee and taamiya (falafel) in the college canteen there was whispered discussion on the previous night’s incidents which had killed two people .The next day 17th Feb ,had been designated as a ‘day of rage’ .It started quietly enough with but action started in the afternoon .Our landlord’s son who took part in the demonstrations kept us Indians updated on the developments .A huge crowd in thousands had gathered at the corniche at the seafront in front of the court house .The security forces fired among them killing about six people .I kept indoors but from my roof top we could see police men firing tear gas at groups of youth and chasing them away .All through the day there was intermittent firing and wailing sirens of police and ambulances .Smoke from burning tyres coupled with a gibli (dust storm)completed the picture of a city in turmoil.
demonstrators wind past my window
On Friday it was quiet in the morning and we did a bit of shopping of essentials from the few shops that were open .Three of us Indian doctors were staying with a wonderful Libyan family and were very safe throughout the period .By afternoon two funeral processions of persons killed the previous day filed past my window .The mood among the mourners was clearly one of great anger .I later learnt that as one such procession was winding its way past the security headquarters chanting slogans, it was fired upon from the rooftop killing many more .Also by evening news filtered in that Gaddafi had sent armed thugs from Tripoli by Afriquiah airlines flight to quell the uprising .These thugs said to be mercenaries from sub Saharan Africa indulged in random shootings and entered people’s homes threatening and intimidating them .That night my colleagues and our landlord’s sons kept guard at night .The knives used to sacrifice sheep during Id sure came in handy! Vigilante groups were formed across our neighborhood keeping a sharp eye for mercenaries .Irked over the arrival of mercenaries and facing mounting people‘s anger the police simply disappeared .The ‘yellow hat’ mercenaries were chased and cornered by the people over the next two days .Intermittent firing could be heard as youth battled the armed mercenaries at street corners with stones and knives . Two days and a steep death toll later the mercenaries were either killed ,captured or simply fled.
With internet down and international calls not coming through easily it was difficult to communicate with relatives back home .Feb 19th was my wife’s birthday and I could not wish her .However local calls were going through and the service provider provided unlimited talk time as recharge vouchers were not available .The perks of a revolution !Also sms messages from the regime promising money and threatening retribution kept popping in the inbox .I was tuned in to Al Jazeera tv which provided extensive coverage and watched movies .Watching romantic hindi films on my computer with gunfire reverberating outside was quite an experience !There were sketchy reports of horrific stories of massacres of unarmed protesters far away in Tripoli .The whole story of that will only be out once Gaddaffi goes.
By Sunday with the police and the mercenaries neutralized most of Benghazi was out of Gaddafi control .What remained was the military garrison ‘the katiba”, Gaddafi ‘s home when he came to Benghazi .I used to pass by it every day on my visits to the gymnasium and the compound is armed to the teeth .The previous evening dozens of stone throwing protesters were killed there using anti aircraft guns .On Sunday evening the protesters returned with arms by raiding a small garrison .By then a number of army units had turned against Gaddafi and joined them .Ordinary people used bulldozers to ram into the compound getting shot in the process .One of the most heroic acts as narrated by our landlord’s son was of Mahdi Ziu , a middle aged balding oil executive .He drove his explosive filled car into the main gates of the katiba and blew himself up .The soldiers scurried inside opening the way for the people to overrun the katiba. For all Gaddafi efforts to label the protesters as Al Qaida they were just ordinary men .Many of them were educated in the west ,engineers ,doctors ,lawyers and shopkeepers .Many of our students were involved .The heroism and courage shown by them in face of brutality and live bullets will mark this as one of the great revolutions .They most surely were ‘men enough’.
crowds at the corniche hours after liberation
With the fall of the Katiba on the night of 20th Feb ,Benghazi was free and the city erupted in celebration .A tank rolled rolled by our window followed by honking cars .Everybody went crazy riding along in their cars honking ,shouting and flashing the victory sign .We Indians were also caught up in the euphoria and went out for a spin shepherded by our landlord’s son .We went to the corniche Libya’s ‘Tahrir square’ .The whole city had descended there .Young and old, men , women and children shouting and screaming in pure joy ;the exhilaration of being finally free .Everybody was laughing ,hugging and wishing each other .Everyone was carrying a weapon of some kind .From sticks ,knives,choppers,pistols,ak-47s,rocket propelled grenades ,rocket launchers everything was on display .Celebratory gunfire rocked the night .I too posed for photos in front of a Gaddafi tank even as youngsters danced on it .We drove by the katiba which was set on fire .At all intersections there were armed young men celebrating and guiding the traffic .One youngster directed us to take a diversion as there was some fighting down the road .Burning tyres and dustbins were lit up the night sky .After an hour of driving around yelling and waving we went home .The veil of fear had lifted and the countdown to Gaddafi’s end in Libya had begun.