In Gaddafi's Heart of Darkness: Fear and Trembling in Tripoli

  • Share
  • Read Later
Ben Curtis / AP

Anti-Gaddafi protesters run from tear gas fired by police in Tripoli on Friday, March 4, 2011

"Were you followed?" the voice asked. "This area is not safe for you."

Hastily moving to a side street, the voice reveals himself as Mustafa, an airplane engineer. The tension in the Libyan capital is already high as rumors of massive demonstrations after Friday prayers circulate. Fear also spreads among the people, but with it comes a quiet resolve. "It is dangerous for me until you leave," Mustafa says, a reminder of the risk of being arrested if he were caught talking to foreign media.

He starts with background, talking about the demonstrations after Friday prayers on Feb. 25, exactly a week before. "We decided to go out into the streets and demonstrate peacefully," he says. "they started shooting at us. Bullets flew by my face. I could hear them."

While escaping the hail of gunfire, three other men were hit by the barrage on that day, including his brother. They were rushed to a nearby home, a doctor called to treat their wounds. Their cries of pain, however, rose above the garden walls surrounding the house, eventually attracting security forces. "The ones who were badly injured, they came in at night and picked them up," Mustafa says, recalling the trauma. His brother, not critically injured, escaped the round-up. The other men would not be seen again.

Though he paints a picture of fear, Mustafa remains defiant. "I will go out and protest today," he says, defying his family's wishes. They fear for his life. "We will gather at the mosque and demonstrate inside."

Fear of dying is not an abstraction for these men. They have seen family, friends and neighbors gunned down during demonstrations. But while the government may hope the use of violence will quell the uprising, Mustafa says it has the adverse effect. "Everyone wants to be armed," he says, describing the protesters' desire for guns instead of rocks when confronting security forces. "I know it's not easy to give us arms, but we have a national council in the eastern part [a reference to the rebel regime centered in eastern city of Benghazi], they can take care of that issue for us."

While Mustafa describes the uprising as an internal Libyan affair, he does want help from the international community. "What we want is protection from the outside world," says Mustafa. But he expands on the kind of help, saying, "it shouldn't come in the form of foreign troops on Libyan soil, but rather the international community pressuring other countries to stop allowing mercenaries across their borders to fight for the regime."

On Friday, Gaddafi supporters occupied Green Square, Tripoli's main plaza, professing their unwavering loyalty to the Colonel who has ruled the nation since 1969. Starting in the hundreds, the crowd grew into the thousands as the evening progressed. While Mustafa is certain when he says 99.5% of Libyans are against Gaddafi, protesters in the square give the same percentage for Libyans supporting Gaddafi. The number is hard to verify as government forces quash opposition gatherings and arrest those who talk to the foreign press. One man was arrested and another pursued after talking to TIME. But despite the fear and intimidation, Mustafa sees only one outcome: "Definitely, there will be no more Gaddafi," he says. "We are ready to sacrifice as much as needed to make the change."

The day before, the government's attempts to show that the general situation was stable and manageable were sabotaged by reality. The regime took reporters to the border on guided tours to show that the atmosphere wasn't as dire as others in the overseas press had reported. But the discontent was as chilling as the cold wind that blew sand across the barren border separating Libya and Tunisia. Hundreds of refugees were streaming across into Tunisia carrying bags containing their few possessions. They were not shy about the horror stories they bore, the fruit of their attempts to reach safety.

"At night, I am sleeping and a Libyan man comes with a knife saying 'give money, give money passport, passport,'" says Hiroshek Hamdashi a Bangladeshi carpenter. He was just one of many migrant workers from Bangladesh, Sudan and Vietnam facing robbery and physical assault while walking for days to flee the turmoil that has gripped Libya since Feb. 17. While their problems may have intensified in the past couple of weeks, they say the difficulties began well before the current uprising. "We worked for seven months, no money," says Hamdashi. "They took passports and never gave money."

Many migrant workers forfeit their passports to their employers upon entering Libya. However, when the crisis broke, they asked for documents back so they could flee but, they say, their companies refused. Hamdashi displayed a piece of paper with his picture and passport information issued by the Bangladeshi Embassy, which will now allow him to leave.

These workers hoped coming to Libya would help them earn more money and to send remittances to provide for their families back home.This was supposed to be an opportunity to change their lives but all they earned were empty wallets and stomachs. "I send no money to Bangladesh," says Amin, who says he doesn't have a last name. "I'm very hungry." He also claims to be a victim of highway robbery, blaming both the police and local militias for taking his money and mobile phone. "Thank God I going to Bangladesh," he says raising his eyes and hands to the sky offering thanks to God for delivering him.

Stories of violence by pro-government forces against evacuees were rife on Libya's eastern and western borders. Egyptians traveling through opposition-controlled territory on their way to Egypt made a point to talk about the kindness and generosity of Libyans, a sharp contrast to the stories coming from government-controlled territory in the west. "Libya people bad people," says Hamdashi of his experience here on the western end of the country.

After concluding the interview a nearby militiaman approached us, asking for someone to translate what the Bangladeshis said, concerned about the tone of their conversation and the expressions on their faces. He attempted some damage control, aware of the effect these stories will have on the country's image but it is too little too late by the reaction he received. "I will tell everyone in Bangladesh what happen," says Amin.