‘We are Gaddafi. We are Libyans’

Conflicting accounts gathered from a day in former Gaddafi stronghold Bani Walid reveals the tensions that simmer just below the surface of Libyan life.

At first glance, the neighbourhood looks like many in Libya: rundown and bullet ridden.

But, as I began to speak to people, I heard a chant that I hadn’t heard since before the revolution.

“Muammar wbas”, which translates as “Muammar, that’s enough”. It’s a pro-Gaddafi chant, implying that now deceased dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi is all Libyans need, or needed. 

The neighbourhood where I heard this slogan was in the city of Bani Walid. It was a stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists that fought hard against the rebels.

On a makeshift football pitch, young men dressed in jeans and flip flops kick a ball around. Like football games around the world, it was a passionate exercise.

Pro-Gaddafi chants

Once the crowd spotted me, though, things came to halt.  I was soon surrounded by boy,  all demanding to know what I was doing in their neighbourhood.

When I told them I’m a journalist, they suddenly erupted in pro-Gaddafi chants.

At first, it seemed incongruous given the state of the neighbourhood.

As I quickly glanced around, trying to avoid the boys tugging at me, I saw the damage from the fighting is immense. There were holes where apartments once were. Fire damage coated much of the buildings that still stood.

I asked one of the older boys what happened.

“Rebels. They stole our houses, and then the soldiers had to fight to get them back”.

His words didn’t make much sense, and excitedly he continued to talk.

(Full disclosure: I speak the Arabic of a five year old, but even I could tell the young man’s words were borne more of passion than fact.)

‘We are Gaddafi’

Even so, that passion is important. Passion informed much of what I discovered in this neighbourhood.

Noticing my conversation with the footballers, a man approached. He must be in his late 40s.

In broken English, which is still light years ahead of my Arabic, he said: “We are Gaddafi. We are Libyans. What has this revolution brought us? Nothing. We are slaves still. There’s no security. Gaddafi was a bad man but he never bombed my house.  I ask you, is this better?”

As he finished the assembled football crew shouted more pro-Gaddafi slogans.

I asked the man if he is willing to go on the record. He said “no”, and went on to accuse the media of distorting facts and blaming Gaddafi for what happened to Libyans.

On the surface, our conversation was good natured, but I could tell the man was upset.

I can understand his agitation. This is the first time Libyans have experienced war, and it is frightening. When you’re scared, you want what was before. In this case, “before” is the Gaddafi era.

Not alone

The man is not alone. Dotted throughout Bani Walid are neighbourhoods that remain loyal to Gaddafi.

Part of the regime’s strategy to remain in power was to divide the tribes and cities, favouring some over others. 

Those neighbourhoods Gaddafi favoured are the ones that some rebels claim are harbouring former Gaddafi fighters.

In Bani Walid, suspicions run deep. A local council has been elected and its leader, Mohammed Bashir, is an eloquent man with a white beard.

He was a rebel brigade commander during the revolution and led the assault on Bani Walid. 

Now, though, he’s engaged in a battle of a different kind.  He is trying his hardest to bring prosperity to the town.

I asked him what he thought of those who were still pro Gaddafi.

“We need to reconcile. We need to rebuild Libya.”

Political question

It’s a politician’s answer to a political question.

I’m sure he is banking on that political skill to navigate his way through Libya’s political landscape.

He may well need it.

Another local, a man who also refused to reveal his identity, said of the rebel-turned-council leader:  “You can’t trust him. It was he who led the militias who destroyed our town. They blame Gaddafi, but I know the real story. I know who did it.” 
His words sum up the tension simmering just below the surface here. Everyone claims they know the real story everyone says they know the truth. 

That’s the thing about truth: everyone has their own version of it.

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