Post-Gaddafi Tripoli: How Libya's Civil Servants Are Holding It Together

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Mohamed Messara / EPA

Libyan policemen are seen patrolling in Tripoli, Libya, 03 September 2011.

When a pick-up truck laden with C-5 explosives accidently blew up after hitting a pothole last week in the ritzy Tripoli neighborhood of Gargaresh, residents witnessed something unexpected. Within minutes of the explosion, three fire trucks arrived on the scene to extinguish the blaze. "In my entire life I never saw anything like it," says Kamal Mansur. "The fire squad responded and put the fire out quickly. Before the revolution, no one ever wanted to work for [former Libyan leader Muammar] Gaddafi. Now everyone wants to work to build a new Libya."

On Thursday, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said Libya faces an "immediate humanitarian crisis" and many foreign observers have decried the lack of basic services. But in the capital of Tripoli, civil servants are still on the job, weathering the hardships and shortages left in the wake of Gaddafi's fall. Everyone seems to be working hard to avert the human catastrophe predicted for the country.

Just off the Mediterranean coast, under the shade of two unfinished skyscrapers, three men are raking refuse into a large blue plastic tub. A fourth dumps it into a small garbage truck. "We work in a few neighborhoods from 9 in the morning until 10 at night," says Abu Bakr Mayga, a guest worker from Mali. Even though they have not been paid their $300-a-month salary since the revolution broke out in February, Mayga and his fellow Africans from Mali, Burkino Faso, and the Ivory Coast are still collecting empty bean cans and plastic mineral water bottles. "Just because there was a revolution does not mean there won't be any more garbage," explains the group's leader, Juma'a Ibrahim, 22, a native Libyan. "We all have to do our part."

Earlier in the week, the country's new leaders blitzed cell phones with text messages imploring Libyan civil servants to go back to work. Oil workers, power plant employees, healthcare specialists, and even gas station attendants were urged "to return to work quickly in view of... your responsibility to the nation."

The message was heard in the Ben Gashir police station. Many officers failed to show up for work in the days after rebels captured the capital on August 20. But as the security situation stabilized following the evaporation of Gaddafi forces, they slowly returned to their headquarters. "We want the capital to be safe," says Umar Farhan. "We are here to do that." Though he admits that the city could use a boost in the number of street patrols, the police officer says that just being out helps to ease people's fears. "They just want to see our uniforms. If we can get out more, it will go a long way."

In the Mtiga hospital, Dr. Munir Aqil, 31, is looking over x-rays. The emergency room specialist has not slept more than 15 hours during the past week, but he is still busy trying to administer anesthesia. "There are so many people coming in," he notes, as a man with a Kalashnikov grabs his forearm, urging him to examine a wounded friend. "We need to be here to take care of the patients, not at home enjoying our lives." Dr. Aqil explains that the hospital is short on painkillers such as Tramadol, and needs more laryngoscopes that are used to open the airway to administer drugs via the throat. Nevertheless, Dr. Aqil claims that the hospital is not facing a crisis. "The situation is manageable but difficult," he says as he heads into a room full of Gaddafi loyalists injured in battle. Dr. Mark Bowman, an emergency room specialist from Oregon volunteering in Libya, concurs. "It's far from dire here. Supplies are not as good as we would like, but there is no crisis right now."

The one problem that could spiral into a crisis is the water shortage the city faces. The rebels' political leaders claim Gaddafi loyalists sabotaged pipes deep in the southern part of the country where the deposed leader still commands respect. Tripoli's water pipes are dry and many are forced to use bottled water for their basic needs. "We are working hard to get the country up and running," says the new Information Minster Mahmud Shammam. "Civil workers are a part of this task and they are making great efforts."

In downtown Tripoli, Hussam al-Rabi'a, 26, and his fellow fire fighters are donning their faded red uniforms at the Civil Defense center. "Every day we are going out. Cars, houses, buildings. We are still working to fight fires." Rabi'a does not worry about the shortages others have warned about. "We have the diesel we need to run our fire trucks. We just don't have enough gasoline for the auxiliary vehicles." And though the station ran out of water last week when the city faced a water shortage, Rabi'a's superiors scrambled to find a new source. Conditions are far from ideal, but the unit is functioning.

And that is all Tripoli residents are asking for. "We know the situation is very difficult," says Mansur, pointing to where the pickup truck exploded in Gargaresh. "But the workers are doing everything they can to make sure we don't have a disaster. And that is good enough for me."