|Medical student Masoud Marghani was arrested and held in prison until Tripoli fell to anti-Gaddafi forces [Evan Hill]|
Masoud Marghani and his 13 cellmates in Tripoli’s Jdaida Prison could hear freedom on the doorstep.
Anti-aircraft guns manned by troops loyal to Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi thundered on the roof. Outside the walls of the compound, there was shouting, explosions and the chatter of small-arms fire.
It was the night of August 20, and rebels had entered the capital. Inside their second-floor cell, Marghani and the others waited. As the sound of fighting drew closer, they became agitated. Guards pointed their AK-47s into the cells, threatening to kill the men if they didn’t shut up.
Nobody slept. The fighting continued through the night. One by one, guards deserted their posts. Gunfire continued into the morning, and no one came to deliver food or check on the inmates.
At one point, the warden Haj al-Fituri walked by Marghani’s cell.
“What time is it?” a prisoner asked.
“It’s too late,” Fituri said. Then the warden went downstairs, and the men never saw him again.
By afternoon, rebels had cautiously entered the compound, but Marghani and the others remained trapped on the second floor. In an interview with Al Jazeera, he described how he and three other men unhinged their bathroom door and used it to smash open the cell. He opened his hands to show the scars on his palms.
The inmates poured out and began freeing others on their floor. Down below, Marghani saw a man below in civilian clothes toting an AK-47.
“When I saw a civilian man inside with a gun, I understood,” he said. “The guards didn’t go inside with their guns.”
Marghani had spent the past two months incarcerated. He was first in the notorious Abu Salim prison, then transferred to Jdaida, where rules were lax. Like hundreds of others, he was thrown in jail for protesting against Gaddafi.
Marghani is a fifth-year medical student who worked first as a pharmacist and then at a medical supply company to support himself.
His mother comes from Benghazi, long a hot bed of anti-regime sentiment and the stronghold of the National Transitional Council. Her father had six wives, and it was Marghani’s network of 13 uncles who first told him about the uprising that broke Gaddafi’s grip on the east.
Marghani and his friends had seen the Facebook call for a “revolution” on February 17, but many didn’t believe it could happen.
“They felt afraid even of the idea,” he said.
‘This is a rat’
Two days before the scheduled uprising, when protests broke out in Benghazi over the arrest of well-known human rights lawyer Fathi Terbil, Marghani’s uncles called him in Tripoli.
When the protests escalated into a brutal regime crackdown and an armed resistance that brought down the local military garrison, they kept him informed.
On February 20, when the garrison fell, his uncles called him in tears.
“We are free here. We are free. How are you,” one said.
While they were speaking on the phone protesters were out in force on the streets of Tripoli, and it looked as if Gaddafi’s government would soon be toppled.
Marghani turned the phone to the crowd so his uncles could hear the chants of “With our soul, with our blood, we’ll defend you Benghazi”.
“I thought everything would be done when I saw people in the streets everywhere,” Marghani said.
But Gaddafi did not back down. As the crowd marched to the Tuesday Market roundabout in Margahni’s western neighbourhood of Gargaresh, they ran into two anti-aircraft guns. When the artillery opened fire, the protesters scattered.
Tripoli was shut down in the months to follow. Mobile phone and Internet services were disabled for two weeks. Military, security and mercenary forces were deployed throughout the capital. Civilians were shot dead for venturing outside their homes after 6pm.
Marghani stayed inside. His brother was in Spain working as a banker, so he wanted to help his father protect the family. His mother had asked him not to leave.
Petrol, food and other goods became scarce and prices went up. Fuel queues sprang up across Tripoli. The government capped the amount of money allowed to be withdrawn from banks to 1,000 dinars ($832), then 500, then 250.
In June, Marghani set out to take his father, mother, two nephews and pregnant 40-year-old sister to Tunisia. When they reached the border crossing at Ras Ajdir, Marghani was taken aside. His mother’s family’s name, well known in Benghazi, had raised a red flag.
A customs officer told him his picture in the computer system was too blurry. They took him to a small shack, promising only a few questions. Soon, plainclothes guards with AK-47s took over and pushed him outside, following him with their guns.
“What did you do?” his father asked.
“I didn’t do anything,” he said.
“This is a rat!” the guards shouted.
Taking up a weapon
Marghani was taken for interrogation then shipped to Tripoli. He spent 35 days in Abu Salim. The prison housed more than 1,000 inmates and was known for violence. Rebels emptied Abu Salim after seizing the area earlier this month.
Officers told Marghani he was being charged with helping to burn down a police station and two other building’s belonging to Gaddafi’s oppressive People’s and Revolutionary Committees.
In fact, it was true. Marghani assumed that informants for the regime had been among the crowd, perhaps even taking part. Even so, he denied any part in the torched buildings.
He was brought to a tent in a courtyard, blindfolded, and grilled with questions. Beside him, at the next interrogation desk, he heard an officer play a recorded phone call to an inmate. The officer paused the recording repeatedly to ask the man if it was his voice speaking on the phone.
Marghani could hear the man on the phone call; he spoke of standing with his gun in the middle of Zawiya – a town rebels seized before entering Tripoli from the west.
“We’re going to kill Muammar like a dog,” he said on the recorded call.
When the man denied it was him, guards beat him. Marghani also received beatings but was never tortured, though he said others were.
Marghani was moved to Jdaida, in southeast Tripoli, a dirtier prisons but where inmates were allowed cigarettes and phone calls.
Marghani and others evetually learned of the fall of Zawiya and of Gharyan, to the south. Within two hours of arriving in Tripoli on August 21, rebels had freed all the inmates in Jdaida, breaking open cell doors with steel rods.
There were no common criminals in Jdaida, Marghani claimed, only political prisoners and opponents of the regime like himself.
After being freed, he spent two days with friends in Souq al-Jomaa, a staunch anti-Gaddafi neighbourhood. He then returned home to Gargaresh to see his family, who never escaped to Tunisia.
After a short visit, Marghani left again. His friends told him about a Gaddafi weapons depot hidden in the basement of a nearby apartment building, and Marghani wanted to go there to secure himself a gun.
Rebel fighters tried to tried to stop him from entering the depot, but let him through when he told them he had done time in Abu Salim. He took an AK-47 and some ammunition.
These days Marghani mans checkpoints in his neighbourhood, waiting for the conflict in Triploi to finally settle down.
“Actually, I am a doctor, a medical student,” he said. “Hopefully, I will hand over my gun and get back to a normal life.”
Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill