x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Qaddafi ran as Tripoli fell, and the rest of us just walked

Life in a falling city: not enough petrol, not enough water and too many checkpoints.

I've been walking a lot through the new Libya, out of necessity as much as curiosity. There's much to take in.

When I headed for the Rixos hotel in Tripoli one recent evening, I passed through a check-point controlled by pro-government volunteers.

But on my way home two hours later the checkpoint had been moved closer to the hotel. The same guards told me to take another route home as their old checkpoint had come under attack from rebel fighters. Gunfire echoed in the distance and the air was thick with the smell of ammunition.

That was on August 20, as Tripoli was beginning to implode.

I got home and heard nonstop calls for prayer from two nearby mosques, and I knew my city was imploding. Calls for prayer outside prayer time during Ramadan means something major is going on. The loudspeakers never stopped, the streets were deserted and then people started to appear near my house in the dark street.

A few hours later, I ventured outside to see what was going on. But I wasn't alone.

A dark figure from a distance called out: "Please stay inside," he said. "It'll be over soon ... he is finished." I understood that to mean the end was near for Col Muammar Qaddafi.

By the following morning my neighbourhood and a couple of other villages southeast of the city were already under rebel control, with over three dozen checkpoints manned by kids as young as 15 years old, most of them locals.

Tripoli was falling fast to rebel forces already inside the city.

August 21 and 22 passed without power so we had to spend the night with no news, no air conditioning, and no cold water despite the day's hot temperatures.

Tripoli was by now a deserted city. Shops where closed, people were indoors, and the sound of machine guns was constant. The same loudspeaker from the mosque announced that water had been cut off to protect people "as the dictator poisoned the reservoir while he is fleeing". This would eventually prove to be a false claim, but the damage had been done. I would spend the next week looking for fresh water for my family, scavenging with neighbours and at the nearby mosque.

A lack of fuel made moving around a great challenge; like many of my neighbours I would spend days navigating a maze of checkpoints as I searched for provisions under the August heat.

Along the way I saw young people with guns looting the Al Madar telecom company, the national documentation centre, and a building belonging to the minister of education.

The following day, when I reached Qaddafi's Ban Ashour house, I found it had already been broken into. There were a couple of young rebels manning a checkpoint just outside the compound.

The story was similar elsewhere. In one two-kilometre stretch I passed through 15 checkpoints; none of them stopped me.

I turned left to pass by the house of Aisha, the colonel's daughter. The door was closed and the checkpoint outside was gone. No rebels were on site and the house appeared not to have been looted.

On my way back I saw a shop open with one of its staff sitting outside with a rifle. I was lucky; he had water for sale. I purchased everything he had. That sustained us for a time, but as the situation started to improve by August 27 I again needed to stock up. I finally decided to take the risk and visit Bab Al Azizya, the Qaddafi compound.

I arrived late in the afternoon and the first thing I saw was a couple of bodies decomposing on the sidewalk. The smell of death was thick.

It is surprising how fast Tripoli fell. It is equally surprising how easy it was for the rebels to reach the Bab Al Azizya compound. The major battles in Tripoli took place just south of the compound in Abu Salim and Al Hadba neighbourhoods. It took the rebels nearly one week, with the aid of Nato bombings, to overrun both neighbourhoods.

September 1 has passed already. It would have been the 42nd anniversary of Qaddafi's rule for which lavish celebrations were planned. The colonel is now on the run. He might have celebrated his rise to power, but it must have been rather mute with no guests at all.

 

Mustafa Fetouri is an academic and political analyst based in Tripoli. He won the Samir Kassir Award for best opinion article in 2010