Notes on a revolution

The Sunday Times

The memories will live for ever. The screaming 64-year-old woman castigating a group of young Libyan rebels for their cowardice as they sheltered from sniper fire outside her front door. The motorcyclist wearing a T-shirt with Barack Obama’s face on it, an assault rifle slung nonchalantly over his shoulder as he sped towards the capital to the thud of mortars and the clatter of machinegun fire.

The jubilant scenes as rebel fighters stormed the capital at night to the cries of ululating women and men who set off fireworks in the street. The tears of joy rolling down the cheeks of Libyan rebels who had just routed Colonel Gadaffi’s troops in the heart of the capital.

Those were heady days, watching anti-Gadaffi forces launch their lightening assault on Tripoli. It was hard not to get swept up in the euphoria. The few photographs I have of that time show a young reporter beaming a wide, adrenaline-fuelled grin, often mimicking the ecstatic rebels around him by raising his hand in the “V” for victory salute.

During the vicious assault on Gadaffi’s palace in the heart of Tripoli, a sniper’s bullet thwacked into my helmet, knocking me to the floor. Friends and family were amazed that I continued to report that day alongside the rebels until they got inside the palace. A veteran Reuters correspondent I met later said: “You’re a Sunday paper, Miles. What are you doing getting shot in the head on a Tuesday?”

That wasn’t the point. I was watching history unfold around me: one of the most despotic regimes was about to crumble and I had a front-row seat. But, even as the celebrations began, there were already portent snapshots of the potential trouble that lay ahead.

I watched one Libyan rebel, who had risked his life to smuggle me into his home when Gadaffi still controlled Tripoli months earlier, carry off a stack of shiny new briefcases from an arms dump inside Gadaffi’s palace. The briefcases contained new sniper rifles. Thousands of other civilians joined him in plundering the weapons, including teenage boys.

“This is Gadaffi’s last gift to us,” one rebel said as he looked on in horror. Tripoli is now brimming with the guns that were looted that day.

Then there is the psychological toll. Many of the rebels have witnessed friends torn limb from limb by Gadaffi’s heavy artillery; a mass of charred bodies burnt to a cinder in a Tripoli jail; heavy machinegun fire that sliced through comrades as they stormed Gadaffi bastions.

“When this is all finished, we’ll be left with a generation of young men who will have to come to terms with what they have done and seen,” said a Libyan psychologist who had left his practice in Ireland to join the rebels.

There were other worrying signs, too. Fighting broke out sporadically among the various rebel factions inside the capital as each one tried to lay claim to a different landmark.

The words of one young rebel from Birmingham, the 21-year-old Ahmed Khalid, echoed through my mind as I watched these events unfold.

“You know when you want something so badly it becomes a fantasy. When it does happen, you don’t know what to do,” he told me as bands of rebel fighters swarmed the lawn of Gadaffi’s palace, Bab al-Azizia.

The fantasy that many Libyans thought that they would never see has finally materialised. Gadaffi, one of the most barbaric and tyrannical leaders in the Middle East, lies dead, possibly executed by a rebel fighter filled with rage at the way the colonel brutalised his people for almost 42 years.

Gadaffi ruled his country with an iron fist. He locked up or executed dissidents and banned political parties. Thousands vanished into Libya’s prisons: more than one thousand were massacred in a single spasm of blood letting inside Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in 1996. Even opposition leaders living abroad were not spared: Libyan agents hunted down and then assassinated them too.

Gadaffi had rewarded brutality. He enriched Huda Ben Amir (known as Huda the executioner), making her the mayor of Benghazi city because she had ended the life of a dissident by tugging down on his feet as the man kicked and writhed on the gallows inside a packed basketball stadium in the city.

Such brutality bred its own ruthlessness: rebels described how they had used meat cleavers to butcher Gadaffi’s snipers as they awaited the rebel advance on Tripoli from the west.

But what happens next now that the rebels have achieved their dream of ousting the Libyan dictator and what does Gadaffi’s death mean for the rest of the Arab Spring?

The day before Gadaffi’s bloody demise, Mahmoud Jibril, the acting Libyan prime minister, warned of the “frightening scenario of … chaos” and the potential for infighting between the secular, religious and tribal factions vying for power in the new Libya.

The challenges faced by the interim government are huge. Most Libyans have never voted and opposition groups, weakened by years of repression, are poorly structured. Civil society is nonexistent. Tensions between the cities remain and each region will want a stake in the new government.

There is also the issue of reconciliation: there are still Gadaffi loyalists in Libya and the new government will have to act with caution to prevent further acts of vengeance from being meted out.

It will also need to ensure that the various heavily armed militias turn in their weapons to a national police force.

The wider Arab world is watching closely. Gadaffi’s death was the most dramatic demise of a leader during the Arab spring. Images of his end, like those of the executions of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife in 1989, will send a chill through the palaces of Damascus, Pyongyang and other one-family dictatorships around the world.

In Syria, the protesters were chanting Gadaffi’s name as they defied the guns of President Bashar al-Assad’s security forces on Friday. Even as at least a dozen died, they hurled the slogan “Bashar — you are next!”

News and images of Gadaffi’s gruesome death spread fast on Facebook and Twitter. In Barzah, near Damascus, a 25-year-old protester was reported as saying: “Today we are walking on the same path as Libya.” He and others were said to be calling for armed resistance.

However, neither Syria nor Yemen are likely to face the western firepower, training and weaponry that helped Libyan rebels to topple Gadaffi.

Nato’s involvement in Libya could still be a curse for the new Libyan authorities, which will have to juggle the various vested interests of its foreign backers over the coming months.

Qatar, which provided Libyan rebels with millions of dollars in aid, special forces training and more than 20,000 tons of weapons, has allegedly continued to ship arms to the rebel factions it supports despite the interim government’s protestations.

The stakes are high as people in the Arab world — and their neighbours in Iran — wait for what comes next.

An adviser to Tripoli’s military council told me: “A man who came by force, had to go by force. This was the perfect end to a bloody man.” The uprisings in Syria and Yemen will take succour from another dictator’s demise.

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