Yesterday started like any other day in Benghazi. The rumor mill was turning at pace. Sirte was on the verge of falling. The NTC was about to declare an end to hostilities. For days and days, however, we had heard the same, so most of us didn’t expect October 20th to unfold the way it did.
The morning was spent trying to arrange screenings of my film to various English-speaking schools in town. While at the European School, my friend Dado received a call from another friend. Halas. Sirte, the last bastion of Gaddafi, had fallen. Once again, I was a bit skeptical, because I had heard the same before. I went to speak to the Headmaster and didn’t think any more of it.
After the interview, Dado and I headed to the Libya Alhurra tv station to collect footage for the music festival. Something definitely was amiss. Horns honking and Kalashnikov fire at a greater frequency. And even the distant boom of gelatina. Hmm. Perhaps.
We pulled into the station, and joined a crowd gathered by a tv. Sirte has fallen, and some big names have been captured. Yet what of Gaddafi? We waited. Nothing. An interminable period of time passed…and then the cheers erupted. Local news claimed Gaddafi was captured, but once again I was skeptical. After all, Motassim was “captured” 10 days ago. And Saif was “detained” after the fall of Tripoli.
But then the pictures filtered through. Images of what appeared to be a lifeless Gaddafi. And soon Al Jazeera confirmed that it was indeed true. After 42 years of iron fisted rule, the self-styled god king was dead. A man who hovered over his people ominously, even within their dreams, reduced to pleading for his life in a sewage pipe. From whence he came, as some would argue.
We rushed out of the station and headed straight for the courthouse, Dado blasting Dire Straits the whole way. The road was packed. Horns honking. People chanting. Guns firing. There was a palpable energy in the air, one that I had not felt since I was here in April and May. The courthouse area was beginning to fill with people…and the noise was deafening. Walking through the crowd, it was easy to be swept away in the euphoria. For even though the war had been winding down over the last couple of months, the death toll in Sirte was rising steadily, and the specter of Gaddafi still hovered over their lives. Yet now it was over. The head separated from the shaven body.
We spent rest of the afternoon at the courthouse interviewing people, and enjoying the jubilant scenes before taking a siesta. When we returned in the evening, the downtown was absolutely packed. Gridlock everywhere, but nobody cared. We walked by a car accident, but those involved were too excited to pay much notice. Benghazinos and Benghazinas were out in full force, and enjoying a night that they will remember for the rest of their lives. VL Day.
As I walked through the downtown area, I wondered what it would be like in six months. Would the vacuum left by Gaddafi lead to a mass scramble for power? Would one tyrant be replaced by another? Or would Libya become a beacon of light to the rest of the world? Many questions are left unanswered. Yet I can still hear the faint voices of the wives and mothers of the Abu Salim victims on that fateful night in February. “Wake up, Benghazi. Wake up, Benghazi.” On this day, the 20th of October, 2011, I can assure you that Benghazi, and the whole of Libya, has its eyes wide open.
Driving through the hinterland east of Benghazi, I feel as if I am viewing the remnants of a long-abandoned civilization, as if I was staring from a distance in time of 1,000 years. Yet as we stop along the road that meanders through the Green Mountains, I notice clear signs of habitation. A clothesline. A satellite dish. A few sheep here and there. Half-erected buildings, projects abandoned for 40 years, and yet the well-spring of life still flows.
As we approach the provincial town of Bayda, I now see Libya with different eyes. Not an abandoned civilization, but one left neglected by a self-styled god-king for 40 years. From the purposely forgotten Greek ruins of Shahat to the crumbling waste of Benghazi, the east of Libya is in a state of ruin that stands utterly misplaced in the 21st century. In fact, put the pictures side by side with Cologne or Dresden during the Second World War, and one would struggle to tell the difference.
Yet in the dust and amidst ashes, a fiery Phoenix is emerging, and its flame burns ever brighter. 42 years of oppression, of fear, and of imprisonment – not just of the body but of the mind – and Gaddafi could still not completely destroy the human spirit. Throughout the east, in forgotten towns just like Bayda, a torrent of expression is gushing forth. Once a wasteland of the soul, but now a highly advanced artistic community emerges. And not over the span of years, but within a few short months. Young and old alike are now itching to exercise their new freedoms. Through art, poetry and music, the people are speaking, and filling the 42 years of void…and all within the blink of an eye.
I walk through the media center amazed at the subtlety in the paintings. And later, though I don’t speak Arabic, I am swayed by the rhythm of the poems, and the chanting of the excited crowd. And what a crowd it is! When they see the camera and the blond man behind it, they want nothing more than to express their frustration, their fears and their hopes for a better future, for a Libya that they all deserve.
They give me a jacket because I am cold. They cook pastries for me because I am hungry. And they make me a wreath to thank me for telling their story. One man innocently pleads with me to tell NATO that Gaddafi is violating the No-Fly Zone. And another tells me about his love of bodybuilding.
And though these memories will be stored with great fondness, the enduring picture etched in my brain is an impressionistic painting of a figure molding plastic faces. Once we in the West only knew the plastic face of Libya, etched in the lines of a maniacal tyrant. But within each stroke of that painting, we see its real face, in the emerging culture…one that was dimmed for 42 years, but will now burn brighter than ever.
Reporting from Bayda, Libya