Jeremy Relph: Bengazi revels in post-Gaddafi freedom
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National Post May 29, 2011 – 3:41 PM ET
There is plenty of good news for Libyans these days. The nightly pounding of Gaddafi compounds in Tripoli, the announcement of NATO sending helicopters to carry out more precise attacks, the secret talks between the UK and Gaddafi governments all lift spirits. Misurata residents welcome the sound of planes knowing they back Gaddafi loyalists further from the port town. And lovely though these reports are, it’s obvious they’re now becoming little more than details. Just over 100 days since the beginning of the revolution, Free Libya has already moved on.
When I arrived in Libya two months ago it was a different place. The border was haphazard. A fake press card trumped a real letter from an editor. A border guard wore the Libyan flag as a cape and our names were scribbled in a notebook along with passport numbers.
Benghazi was charming with frequent demonstrations and sporadic gunshots. Loud booms were heard throughout the day. Rumours of Gaddafi loyalists in the streets after dark brought random citizen-manned checkpoints. There were fluid frontlines west you could commute to and run from, back to the journalist packed hotels and restaurants. The good restaurants were closed. There was a drunken feeling of optimism that the whole thing could come to a close any day. The grass grew long and families stayed in.
The Libyan border today is an organized affair. Computers have replaced notebooks. Arrivals fill out customs cards. Our bags are politely searched. Passports are inspected and stamped. Welcome to free Libya.
Todays’ Benghazi is boring in contrast. The parade has passed. People are moving on. Men repaint the curbs and parking spaces in the Uzu Hotel’s parking lot. Families have returned to the parks while their children play. Elsewhere children clean up trash on the side of the road in the city. And the burned out Katiba still sits in ruins in the middle of the city. Young men in cars drift by it sideways on Thursday nights. They fill the streets causing traffic jams late Friday, post-prayers. Cadillac Escalades, Pontiacs and BMWs fill the streets and the restaurants operate at full capacity, the options varied and multiple. The theatre is open again, a passenger boat sales for the once-besieged Misurata 3 times a week. The nights are quiet. There is next to no random gunfire. Journalists have split for Misurata. Tellingly, sprinklers blast water on an isolated grassy traffic island. Some form of municipal governance is back in action.
Benghazi residents have moved on to life post-Gaddafi. That his rule will last much longer is unthinkable. That his forces would ever retake Benghazi or Misurata unimaginable. That NATO might allow any of that given the resources poured into establishing the stalemate which has lasted roughly a month, impossible. Gaddafi’s departure date is unknown though that he will leave, whether to some unsecured exile to the state of a moral fellow-traveler or a beneficent nation or if one of NATO’s rockets finally catches him, that he will leave now seems certain. Free Libya has moved on. When will the rest of Libya?
Jeremy Relph is a freelance journalist. http://jeremyrelph.com
Libyan freedom fighter returns home (to Michigan) for son's graduation
Spends 150 days in revolution
By Tim Jagielo
Published: Friday, June 3, 2011 3:49 PM EDT
Mustafa Gheriani has two hearts, one for his home country of Libya, and one for his family in Tyrone Township. He has been in Libya since the uprising against the dictator Col. Moammar Gaddafi began in February, on the east side of the country.
Gheriani wanted to see his youngest son graduate from Fenton High School and returned home on Wednesday to spouse Lois Van Lente and their two sons.
“He has a torn heart,” said Lois Van Lente, who had not seen her husband of three decades since New Year’s Day. She spent many days and nights for five months with little communication, worrying about his safety.
In Benghazi, Gheriani assisted in forming the provisionary rebel government and, because of his English skills, became a liaison between the rebel leaders at the seat of the rebel government and the international media. The rebel government formed the National Transitional Council (NTC) in Benghazi. Gheriani said he felt comfortable leaving the NTC and his country’s revolution, but it was still a tough choice to return home.
“It was a great sight to see you,” said Van Lente to her husband. “Alive and in one piece,” added Gheriani, smiling.
The couple’s reunion will be short, as Gheriani will return to Benghazi at the end of the month. “I understand how important his mission is,” said Van Lente.
His role in Libya
Benghazi rose up quickly against the Ghaddaffi regime, following a bloody crackdown against protesters. When with the regimes’ politicians scattered, there was no government in Benghazi. “We gotta run the city,” said Gheriani. “My gosh, we have a revolution.”
With no government, there were numerous gaps to fill, to ensure both social order and services. Gheriani was one of the first two Libyans who stepped up to speak with the international media, and give a public face to the newly forming transitional government. “The world wanted to see a government,” he said.
Gheriani worked with reporters and other media to help the world understand who the rebels were, and what they wanted. His job was to make sure Libya’s story stayed on the front page.
After six weeks, Gheriani was relieved of his duties as media liaison. He worked on planning food quantities and logistics, making sure everyone had enough flour, rice, and semolina, staples of the Libyan’s diet. His report was completed just before he returned home.
For love of country
The Libyans fought against Gaddafi’s forces with what Gheriani described as the “Hyundai Army,” young men and women fighting with whatever they could find, or make. “He’s a brutal guy,” he said. “He’s a terrorist, basically.” Gheriani said the fighters had little organization and were driven by “pure resolve.”
When cities in the west side of Libya tried to rise up against Gaddafi and were quashed, 150,000 people fled to Benghazi, seeking refuge. “I was so proud to say those 150,000 people were absorbed into people’s homes,” he said. Residents of Benghazi opened their summer homes and spare rooms to the people of besieged cities such as Raz Lanuf.
Former Gaddafi regime members were protected from reprisals and were asked to stay home. “We wanted a peaceful revolution,” Gheriani said.
The new NTC members worked 19-20 hours each day. “People really rose up to the moment,” he said. Gheriani compares the current revolution to the French Revolution.
The world responds
When Libyans took to the streets proclaiming their freedom, they waved American, French, British and Italian flags, among their own. “This is unique,” said Gheriani, who said the international community is finally comfortable with who is behind the revolution, and is lending help via NATO air strikes
Gheriani’s homecoming is just in time for international military pressure to mount against Ghaddaffi’s forces through international military strikes, aimed at protecting civilians from Gaddafi’s military forces. Recently, Russian leader Dmitry Medvedev admitted that Gaddafi needs to step down.
Five of Gaddafi’s generals have defected, Al-Jezeera reported. These generals claimed that Ghaddaffi’s power is weakening. Gheriani said that at the moment, Ghaddaffi has very few strongholds, including his home town of Sirte.
Gheriani gives credit for his pivotal role in Libya to his family, and most importantly his wife, Lois. “I couldn’t have chosen a better wife,” he said. Gheriani expressed that his wife gave him the most support out of everyone. “I know my kids were taken care of,” he said.
Back to the fight
Gheriani is returning to Benghazi on June 21 to continue his work. He even hinted that his wife might be joining him in Benghazi, once his son is away at college.
His business offices in Tripoli were ransacked, but that is the last thing on his mind. For Gheriani, it’s the revolution.