Stefan Buchen: “Who’s in charge of the new Libya?”
Our filming expedition through Libya a mere two months after the fall of Gaddafi is full of surprises that shed light on the transitional phase here following eight months of war.
Cameraman Juan-Pablo Mondini and I were first in Misrata last April at the height of the war. At that time, this Mediterranean coastal city was surrounded by Gaddafi’s troops, under siege and under heavy fire. Armed rebels suffered heavy losses defending the liberated parts of the city. We reached Misrata by sea from Malta, the only accessible route still available, and documented the battle here from the perspective of the rebels. As journalists, we were enthusiastically welcomed by the rebels, who saw us as the only way for the world to learn of the misery, desperation and death that had taken hold of the city. We accompanied them in the front lines, where they eagerly agreed to be interviewed.
Recently, we unexpectedly met one of the rebel commanders again who had spoken with us back during the battle. His beard is more well-groomed than back then as he gets out of an armoured jeep accompanied by four bodyguards. They eye us suspiciously as I greet the commander, “‘As-Salāmu `Alaykum’, do you remember us? We met here back in April. How have you been since then?” He’s not interested. “I don’t give interviews anymore”, he says before getting back into the jeep and speeding away.
This scene accurately reflects the lack of clarity about the situation in Misrata and elsewhere in the country. Who’s in charge in the new Libya? The war-torn city now has a civil council and a military council with representatives whose names are well known. But they don’t seem to actually hold the reins. By all appearances, the power now lies in the hands of men like the newly camera-shy rebel commander. “We will not surrender our weapons to the transitional government”, one Misrata-based Gaddafi opponent of many years who we also met last April assures us. “Oh, everybody might turn in one Kalashnikov for appearances’ sake. But two more are stored away at home, just in case”, he says.
Misrata’s rebels are rumoured to have captured some 400 functioning tanks, and some of them can be seen standing guard outside the gates of the city. In recognition of the city’s important role in defeating Gaddafi, interim Prime Minister El-Keib has appointed a man from Misrata to be the new Interior Minister. The question is whether steps like this are enough to ease the tensions between the civil transitional government in Tripoli and the armed rebels spread throughout the country who feel neglected in the redistribution of power.
We encounter another surprise at the university campus in Tripoli. Shortly after the capital city was liberated late last August, we met students here who had been imprisoned for their resistance against Gaddafi. Betrayed by government spies on campus who had infiltrated their resistance group, they paid a high price for their part in the revolt. Gaddafi maintained committees that kept a very close eye on the university, charged with the job of nipping any sign of resistance in the bud. The despot’s bloodhounds have now disappeared. So we are even more surprised to hear that there is now a new monitoring committee known as “ladjnat al-amr bi al-maʿruf wa al-nahy ʿan al-munkar”, which translates roughly into the ‘committee for commanding right and forbidding wrong’, terminology taken from the Koran.
The Taliban government in Afghanistan had a ministry with this name, and there is also an official government office in Saudi-Arabia that operates under the same name. In arch conservative Islamist regimes, such bodies are responsible for monitoring public morals. And it’s no different on the university campus in Tripoli. Female students readily explain to us that the new committee makes sure that nothing happens that contradicts Islam. “Like what?”, we ask. “Like girls and boys getting too close to one another”, they reply, also emphasising that they welcome this new type of surveillance. We don’t really get an impression of a fresh breeze of freedom whisking through the campus.
We encounter our most pleasant surprise in the run-down, poverty-stricken district of al-Akwaakh just outside Tripoli, where we happen upon a young rap group called “thaurat ar-rap”, or ‘revolution of rap’. These four young men discovered their love for this music three years ago. In the absence of anywhere else to perform, they have perfected their act at a local bus stop ever since. They’ve never had an official concert or released a record, but they are good, genuinely good, with lyrics in their local Libyan dialect telling of the gritty reality of their day-to-day lives. Their musical criticism of the regime predated the rebellion, and now they are demanding “ath-thaura ba´da ath-thaura”, or the ‘revolution after the revolution’. Their songs denounce the widespread presence of innumerable weapons and the unbridled greed of those unscrupulously grabbing for the most lucrative posts in the new Libya. They are currently planning their first tour of this now-liberated country. We hope it actually happens.
Stefan Buchen studied French, Arabic and Arabic literature. Since 1995 AFP-correspondant in Jerusalem. 2000 traineeship at the German broadcast corporation NRD. Buchen published many reports about Iran, Iraq and Palestine. 2011 he was awarded as the reporter of the year and is prize winner of the “Preis für die Freiheit und Zukunft der Medien” (2011)
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