Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Spectacle of Qaddafi's Libya

Tripoli Eyewitness: Afraid to Watch TV

As Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's forces take on rebel strongholds in the east of Libya, suspicion and misinformation pervades life in the capital. One Tripoli resident - who did not want to be identified for his own safety - describes the latest scenes in the capital.

BBC News
17 March 2011

Every day at 1400 (1200 GMT) on the dot, our neighbour's 15-year-old son, Mohamed, delivers a bag full of bread to us: a ritual of "help thy neighbour" that seems to give comfort in these confusing and scary times in the capital.

He tells us he gets the bread for free because he has been volunteering at the bakery every day for the past three weeks.

Egyptians and sub-Saharan Africans once sweated in these local bakeries as they churned out loaf after load, but they have long since fled the country's unrest in fear for their lives - or are stranded at the airport seeking a way out. Now local residents have had to step into the breach.

Those of us who have stayed in the capital have quite a task ahead of us - not least of which is finding out what is happening in the city itself.

'Celebratory' gunfire?

There was heavy and sustained gunfire in Tripoli on Tuesday; it began just before 1500 and lasted a few hours. It's unclear where it was coming from; residents in the Gergaresh and Gurji districts said it was particularly loud there and they took cover behind closed doors.

The standard government explanation is "it is celebratory gunfire and fireworks" - but we can't understand why what sounds like anti-aircraft artillery is being used rather than the usual festive fire from Kalashnikovs.

Life goes on, but under the surface there is tension
Information is coming through at a snail's pace due to heavy surveillance of modern communications.

Many local businesses have even reverted to fax machines to communicate with the outside world. The internet has been shut down for almost two weeks now.

On the ground, people and families only exchange tales when they meet in person.

It was not until Wednesday night that I learned from a relative, and later several friends, that there had been an anti-government protest in Gergaresh on Tuesday afternoon - explaining the gunfire.

As for the claims made by the Libyan opposition abroad of a fighter jet suicide attack on Col Gaddafi's Bab al-Azizia compound that evening - it's unlikely, but who knows? The rumour around town is that some even saw smoke rising from the compound.

Fake smiles

I visited an old friend earlier this week.

His son arrived home from university shortly after we sat down for an afternoon coffee.

When I asked him how his studies were going, he replied: "I was standing talking with a friend on campus just before I left the university and this girl we know came up to us and loudly announced that al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya news channels had been erased from their channel list because she and her family only watch one 'true' channel, al-Libiyah [the state-owned one].

"We just silently nodded with a fake smile and said our goodbyes."

There is disappointment in his voice as he carries on: "I can't believe she is so blind - you think maybe she was pretending because there were people watching us there?" he asks.

His father and I knowingly shook our heads like ageing wise men but could offer nothing in response.

It's not only university students that are feeling the stranglehold.

Several primary school teachers recount similar stories of young pupils being questioned by school employees aligned to the regime's Revolutionary Committee Movement, which is being used to suppress dissent.

The conversations they have with these children, as young as eight years old, are along the lines of: "How are your parents? Are they sad about what's happening in the country? What have they been saying? What news channels are you watching at home?"

All, it seems, in an effort to establish whether the students have parents or relatives that are potentially opponents of the regime.

Back at my friend's home we briefly switch channels to watch the state-run al-Libiyah. There's a man on the screen "confessing" the error of his ways to the Libyan leader in what appears to be a tent.

My friend tells me of a report he saw on the channel, warning the public of "cars being rigged with bombs in crowded areas" - by the ever elusive al-Qaeda elements in the country, that is.

"This means the regime is going to start doing that," my old friend concludes.

As I sit back and write this, the neighbourhood children are playing along the dirt road in our area - one of hundreds of streets in the capital that have been left unpaved over the past four decades.

I can hear one of them chanting "Al-Fateh! The people's revolution! Al-Fateh!" in reference to Col Gaddafi's 1969 revolution.

Children are being taught to chant these words in public, and for good reason.

Words not only play an integral role in the regime's fight against the international community and its own people - they can also determine the fate of entire families.

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