TRIPOLI — As fighting continues in the Libyan capital between rebels and fighters loyal to deposed leader Muammar Qaddafi, a sense of calm has finally settled over most of the city, putting something of an end to what has been the most intense conflict to emerge in the “Arab Spring.”
Explosions and gunfire were still audible late in the afternoon on August 26, nearly a week after rebel forces entered Tripoli and four days after they made their initial assault on Qaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound.
But leaders of the rebels’ National Transitional Council have assured journalists here that they control 90 percent of the city, with the remaining Qaddafi strongholds slowly succumbing to armed attack. More cars are coming onto the streets, though it is far too early to say that any normal sense of life has returned to the war-torn city on the Mediterranean coast.
A drive through downtown Tripoli early on August 26 revealed a ghost town. Martyrs’ Square — formerly Green Square, the plaza in central Tripoli where Qaddafi would regularly rally his supporters — lies empty. The large scaffolding that used to support a platform and lights is still standing. Graffiti covers concrete barricades surrounding the square with expressions like “Finito” and “GAME OVER.” Trash is collecting on the streets, and residents this morning woke up to discover that there was no running water.
‘A Qaddafi Hospital’
The Zawiya Street hospital houses the victims of the running street battles that have gripped the city over the past week. Doctors say that they have treated both rebels and Qaddafi supporters alike, with favor toward none. Walking down the hallway, I am assaulted by a horrible stench. After tying a cloth mask over my face, I enter a small room where five decomposing corpses lie under blankets. Flies buzz around the room. I have never smelled anything worse in my life.
As the airport is long closed and major aid organizations have still not established a significant presence here due to the recently ended fighting, Tripoli’s hospitals are running short on supplies. When I visit the Zawiya Street hospital around 11 a.m., it is being staffed mostly by nurses and medical students. The doctors, who have been working nonstop shifts, are sleeping.
“I came here yesterday because my neighborhood was surrounded by snipers,” says Mohammed el-Bosefi, a 24-year-old medical student who lives on the road connecting the airport to Qaddafi’s compound, the two sites in Tripoli that have been the scene of the most intense fighting, and which remain contested. He would have rushed to the hospital earlier had the route there not been so perilous. “I couldn’t come here. I stayed in my neighborhood just to help my friends, my relatives, my neighbors,” he says.
On August 25, he tells me, more than 100 people were brought to the hospital and 10 died, mainly from gunshot wounds. While Tripoli residents have largely stayed off the streets this past week to avoid the violence, many of the casualties were injured inside their homes, Bosefi says.
“This is a Qaddafi hospital,” says Ala Salem, a 22-year-old Tripoli resident, as he surveys the blood-stained floors and decaying walls. “This is what we want to [show] the world.”
A Plan Long In Waiting
While Tripoli lies in an obvious state of physical disarray, a strange sense of order pervades its streets. The rag-tag group of rebels — mostly young men in their early 20s and late teens — has devised a block-by-block system of checkpoints to ensure that pro-Qaddafi forces cannot advance to secure parts of the city.
Though the capital was late to fall in the civil war — which began six months ago when protests broke out in the eastern city of Benghazi — its citizens were well prepared to mount their own resistance when rebel forces finally made their assault. Interviews with rebels and anti-Qaddafi activists reveal an elaborate system of secret cells that were formed three months prior to the liberation of Tripoli.
Mohammed Abou Gahba mans a checkpoint right outside his apartment building with a group of his friends. Standing over six feet tall and with thick arms, he learned English while living in England and is training to become a pilot. But for the past week he has been patrolling his neighborhood with an assault rifle. He says that three months ago, citizens in his neighborhood — as they have across the city — began organizing “councils” to prepare just for the moment when rebels would advance on the city. “We do it in secret,” he says. “We don’t need to be in public because if the government knows, if Qaddafi government knows we have a council here, they will kill us, capture us, and put us in prison.”
Abdullah Ahmed Bilal is a commodore in the Libyan Navy and lives not far from the checkpoint manned by Mohammed. He speaks of the Tripoli underground that naturally formed when it became clear that the challenge to Qaddafi’s regime, which began in the east, became serious and might actually make its way to the capital. “Before the rebellion came to Tripoli,” he says, “for three months we organized…we organized them, everyone was responsible for his area, must do this, this, this, this. Because we have seen during the Iraq war so many people kill, steal so many things, that’s why. We organize this thing three months before.”
‘He Can’t Be A Muslim’
August 26 marked the first day that Friday Prayers were held in Libya without the Qaddafi regime in power. Though the Libyan leader liked to paint himself as a hero fighting on behalf of the Islamic faith, like all dictators, he controlled the practice of religion so that it would not present a threat to his god-like status. There was only one hero who would be worshipped in Qaddafi’s Libya, and it was not Allah.
Faiq Shineb is the caretaker of the Mulai Muhammed Mosque. Libya’s most famous house of worship, it appears on the dinar, the national currency. Growing a beard, as religious Muslim men tend to do, was discouraged under Qaddafi, and would make one an easy target for the intelligence services. The hirsute Shineb tells me with a broad smile that he began growing his current beard a month ago, his own expression of optimistic defiance against a regime that controlled nearly every aspect of the individual’s life.
Bilal, the naval officer, says that Qaddafi’s forces tried to bomb the Mulai Muhammed Mosque where he prays because some rebel fighters had holed up inside. They missed the house of worship, hitting an adjacent apartment building instead. “How can he be a Muslim like this?” Bilal asks. “He can’t be a Muslim.”
During the Qaddafi era, imams were selected and monitored by the regime. Some of the men at the mosque tell me that they think there are secret cameras hidden in the mosque’s walls. “Last Friday, as before Friday, as before Friday,” Shineb says, the imam of this mosque would deliver the same chutba, or sermon, in which Qaddafi, or “Brother Leader,” would doubtlessly be praised. Shineb says he hasn’t seen the imam since the battle for Tripoli began. “I don’t know if he will come back or not,” he tells me. “I don’t know because maybe the people, when they see him, I don’t know what they will do.”