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Looking Back On Libya: 'We Were Naive' About The Challenges

A child from the town of Tawargha holds a toy gun at a refugee camp in Benghazi on Jan. 12. His town was cleared by militiamen who accused residents of allying with Moammar Gadhafi.
AFP/Getty Images
A child from the town of Tawargha holds a toy gun at a refugee camp in Benghazi on Jan. 12. His town was cleared by militiamen who accused residents of allying with Moammar Gadhafi.

In 2011, I crossed the border with other journalists into a country that had been cut off from the world for 42 years. We had no idea what to expect as we entered what the rebels were calling "Free Libya."

Where before there had been oppressive security, instead what greeted us was a motley group of ecstatic young men with guns who welcomed journalists to the land they'd liberated. There was no passport control, no rules and a sense of relief that the world would finally hear their stories.

They showed videos of atrocities committed by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's men. They told stories of rape, pillaging and burned bodies at the hands of Gadhafi's forces. They begged journalists to get the word out about their struggle and their need for help from the international community.

It was a country in tumult, and few of us reporters had any idea who the players were, what they really wanted or where the struggle here was going. Two young men with AK-47s offered to drive us from the border with Egypt to Tobruk, nearly 800 miles east of the capital.

At the time, we were under the impression that everyone in eastern Libya was against Gadhafi. But not long into the drive, the two men showed us their phone screen savers, pictures of Gadhafi. They explained they supported the dictator and they wanted him to stay in power.

It was a reminder of the dangers that still lurked, a glimpse into the deep divisions that remained in Libya, and a preview of the civil war that would come.

On a piece of notebook paper, I wrote three words down and showed it to my colleague: "I am scared." We feared we would be killed for crossing into Libya against the Gadhafi regime's wishes, but the men took us to the hotel in Tobruk and left.

Libya's Messy War

The battle to come was indeed bloody. An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people were killed in the civil war.

Dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his main military barracks were once situated in the Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, Libya.
Manu Brabo / AP
Dictator Moammar Gadhafi and his main military barracks were once situated in the Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli, Libya.

Reporting during that time was a treasure trove for journalists. Libyans were excited to see us after years of isolation from the outside world. They told us their stories: the doctor who lost all his children during the siege of the port city of Misrata; the young medical student who put his engagement and education on hold to treat wounded fighters; the accountant who blew himself up in eastern Libya to breach the base of Gadhafi forces in Benghazi. They were stories of hope and sacrifice for a better future.

On the front lines, secular fighters united with hardcore Islamists. During the very first airstrike by Gadhafi forces in 2011, I fled the scene with one fighter. He drove me back from the oil-refinery town of Brega, toward Benghazi.

As we chatted, he revealed that he'd fought in Iraq against the American army. "They were occupiers, they were killing Muslims," he told me. He claimed his brother had been a suicide bomber in Fallujah.

These were also the first glimpses of the number of jihadists that had returned to Libya from Iraq and Afghanistan to participate in the battle, many driven by a thirst for justice and ultimately a want for Islamic law.

In Misrata, a western port city, the battles were among the bloodiest. Under siege, doctors, economists, accountants and merchants took up arms for the first time. They launched rocket-propelled grenades at tanks and picked off Gadhafi snipers on Misrata's main drag, Tripoli Street. They were fighting for survival with no where to run, locked between the sea and land controlled by Gadhafi.

I was struck by their bravery, their willingness to give up their lives for this cause. Everyone here was in danger; women and children were not spared.

But how quickly many of them turned from hero to villain. When Misrata was liberated, the militiamen cleared the neighboring town of Tawargha. They accused them of allying with Gadhafi and participating in atrocities. The city is still empty. Many from the town have been killed, and the others fled. The Misratans vow they will never allow them to return.

A Wild New Libya

Today, those first fissures we witnessed in 2011 have blown wide open; battles are tribal, regional, ethnic and at times just personal feuds. The stockpiles of weapons — surface-to-air missiles, rocket-propelled grenades, land mines and other heavy artillery abandoned during the war — were never secured and now they have spread all over Libya and the region.

The country has now morphed into the Wild West. The NATO bombing campaign — billed as an urgent human rights intervention — quickly revealed itself to be a campaign aimed at regime change that has had far-reaching consequences.

Militias — many former fighters against Gadhafi — act with impunity. The borders are open, and the weapons have made it into the hands of militants in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula and into Mali.

It is, in the words of many analysts, Libyans and Western observers, "a colossal mess." A state still hasn't emerged, and the only true power is with men with guns.

One militia leader is holding hostage much of Libya's lifeblood, its oil, in the East. And the government is unable to wrest back control. And there is still no law and no state institutions. The unity among Libyans, created by the abuse of a dictator, is gone.

As one young musician in the capital recently told me, "We had no freedom, and now we have too much freedom." Kidnappings, assassinations, gun battles and bombings are a near daily occurrence.

'We Underestimated The Challenges'

Huda Abuzeid returned to Libya in 2011. I first met her in a Tripoli hotel when she was volunteering with the interim leadership. She'd come back for the first time in decades at the start of the uprising. Her father, a Libyan dissident, was murdered in his London grocery store in 1995; it is believed he was stabbed to death by Gadhafi's men.

At that time she was filled with hope. Finally, the Libya her father died for would come to fruition. She relocated to Tripoli as a journalist and activist.

But the hope she had then is almost gone as Libyans prepare to vote for a constituent assembly this week.

She voted for the General National Congress in 2012 in a festive atmosphere. An atmosphere of excitement, that democracy was coming to Libya. "We were naive," she said last week in the same Tripoli hotel where we first met. "We underestimated the challenges."

She is nostalgic for that time of unity. Worried that the sacrifices so many people made will go unrewarded.

"The people we saw in that period were so inspiring," she said. "And the people who sacrificed themselves, genuinely for nothing more than to bring
something back to Libya and get rid of Gadhafi — they were desperately looking for freedom, dignity, all those words we talked about."

Abuzeid said those people died for a specific reason, which she thinks may get lost in the current climate. "People get so caught up in the politics and the ideologies that they've forgotten the original reasons," she said.

The pictures of those martyrs are on billboards across the country, all the people who died for a new Libya.

As the danger grows, Abuzeid said, she often thinks about leaving. She has a British passport, too, and can easily return to the United Kingdom.

"But that feels like a betrayal, really, to the original ..." she trailed off and held back tears, "... to the original purpose of what these people did. We can't leave it to those groups who want to destroy it. We all have a dream of a Libya that we talked about ad nauseam during the revolution."

That's why she'll stay put, for now.

"We dreamt about a new Libya, we want to see that happen, and I think the more people who give up on that idea, the less likely it is to happen," she said. "It means that sacrifice would have been a waste."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 17, 2014 at 11:00 PM CST
The original version of this story said an estimated 30,000 people were killed in the Libyan civil war. The best estimates put the figure at 5,000 to 8,000.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.