Return to Benghazi

After four long months, I have returned. And getting here was a hell of an experience. 3 hours to Dallas, 9 to London, 5 to Cairo, and 23 to Benghazi…and all in a span of two days. Not surprisingly, it has taken me half a week to recover; my internal clock is still just shy of five minutes to midnight. But now my system feels a sense of balance, and I can now process the events of the last few days.

On the day I returned, we received some very somber news. My friend Hammuda’s nephew was killed on the 23rd, but not in the fighting. While driving to Sirte to battle Gaddafi loyalists, a tire blew, and his car rolled. He was killed instantly in the accident, leaving behind a wife and two teenage sons.

Yet the tragedy doesn’t stop there. Back in 2005, he was arrested for smuggling weapons into Libya, and thrown into notorious Abu Salim prison. Having dedicated his life to fighting Gaddafi, he instead found himself languishing in hell for over six years…that is until the fall of Tripoli. Upon release, he found a Kalshnikov and rushed toward Bab al-Azizia compound to find Gaddafi, and achieve his life’s mission. When he arrived, he was greeted with cameras and CNN reporters, but no sign of the man responsible for the 42 years of hell wrought upon the Libyan people. Crestfallen, he returned home to Benghazi to see his estranged family.

For one month, he became reacquainted with his sons and his relatives. Yet despite the joyful reunion, he was clearly struggling with his newfound freedom. Just days before his death, Hammuda joked to him that it must have been a lot easier in Abu Salim, because he didn’t have to buy groceries for the family. His mouth laughed, but Hammuda clearly see sadness and apprehension in his eyes.

And so it was no surprise when, less than a week ago, he decided to join the fight against the remnants of Gaddafi’s forces in Sirte, beaten but not defeated. Yet fate waved its cruel hand, and he didn’t even see the battle.

I never saw the man alive, but I did see his death mask at the funeral. And I saw the pain etched in faces of his two sons. Following the funeral procession to the brand new cemetery (the revolution filled the last one) a wave swept over me, a tidal force of darkness. I found myself staring into the abyss at the shear senselessness of it all. For him to finally taste the air of freedom, but to have it cruelly taken away, and by an arbitrary hand. It reminds me how fragile our lives are, how the armor of our skin cannot protect us from the hostile environments that comprise our world.

And yet the pain of loss will pass with time. Although his sons wish that he was still locked up in Abu Salim, this horrible event will not end their lives, nor those of future generations. For the one solace we have is that life will move on…even in our absence.

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