03/18/2011

At the heart of revolt: Paul Conroy reports from Libya where he is recording the country’s civil unrest

As foreign nationals raced to leave Libya due to the uprising, I was furtively looking for unusual and illegal ways into one of the Arab world’s most brutal and oppressive regimes.
Three days later I found myself in Cairo attempting to convince confused- looking Egyptian bus drivers that I was indeed looking for a bus to the Egyptian-Libyan border. As we crossed the desert and neared the border the number of passengers on the bus decreased and by the time we reached the Libyan border there were two passengers. Myself and a rather nervous-looking Dutch journalist.

You take photographs in these situations at your peril. Borders are sensitive areas and this was, after all, Libya. Except, Libya was different. Initially, my heart sank when a heavily armed, bearded militia asked me if I was carrying a camera. I smiled weakly at him and nodded. He paused, looked thoughtful and said: ‘Then please, you are most welcome to take photographs. This is free Libya’.

This, believe me, was a first.

My first port of call was Benghazi in Eastern Libya – and heart of the revolution. It’s a seven- hour drive from the Egyptian border to Benghazi and by the time I arrived darkness was falling and the familiar echoes of Kalashnikov rifles filled the night air.

The streets were crammed with flag-waving civilians who streamed to the old courthouse, now the rallying point of the revolution, and from all directions I heard the cries of ‘Welcome to free Libya’ .

Benghazi has been a thorn in Gaddafi’s side and when his retribution came it was brutal and unyielding. Foreign mercenaries, identified by their construction workers’ hardhats, had entered the city and engaged on an unconstrained shooting spree. The result was carnage.

I was taken by a senior doctor from the Jalal hospital in Benghazi and shown a series of photographs and films taken by medical staff from his trauma unit. The most disturbing, that of a nine-month-old baby who had been shot in the head and was being washed by a crying nurse in the mortuary, conveyed the true brutality of what had taken place in this city.

Yet tales of pure heroism abound. Mr Idrice Laga, a member of the provisional ruling council, told me of a 10-year-old boy who had charged an army barracks single-handed, armed with just an axe. His fate remains unknown. Of a 70-year-old man who filled his pickup truck with home-made dynamite and gas cylinders, drove it into the gates of the barracks and detonated it whilst still at the wheel – thus allowing unarmed protesters to take the camp.

It’s difficult not to be impressed with what has been achieved here.

In most of my experiences in conflict zones – Iraq and the fall of Baghdad in particular – the result of open, armed conflict often results in scenes of looting and an increase in violent crime. Again, the Libyan revolution has achieved special things here. I walk the streets at night with no fear. There is no looting, no out-of-control armed militia roaming the streets and no sense of a crisis in the making. On the contrary, the ruling revolutionary council, with the full backing of the general population, has found a working way of pulling Benghazi from carnage and chaos back to a functioning city within the space of a week.

However, underlying the advances in personal freedoms and gains from the revolution there is a definite sense of unfinished business. People are acutely aware Gaddafi is capable of a counter-attack at any time. As I walk the streets loud explosions in the distance cause all to look to the skies. People talk of chemical weapons, the return of the mercenaries and the possibility of an all-out assault on Benghazi.

I was taken to a meeting in the court building where security is tight and high-ranking officers who have defected from the regime informed me of plans to start recruiting a new army. The plan is an assault on Tripoli, a direct head-to-head conflict with Gaddafi’s remaining forces. They say the need to keep the momentum of the revolution is critical and all, to a man, vow Gaddafi will never again rule them.

They will die defending their revolution.

I have been offered the opportunity to accompany them on their final push to Tripoli. In the face of all the bravery I have seen, the stories I have heard and the evidence of atrocity I have witnessed it would somehow seem wrong to not witness the final battle of this revolution. The Libyan people seek nothing more than basic human rights, the basic democratic systems we take for granted and the right to live free from oppression and terror. They are not asking for help, they don’t want an invasion. What they do want are witnesses.

I will join them on their assault on Tripoli.

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