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A city under siege: exclusive testimony from inside Tripoli

7 min

 In a rare interview, a resident of Tripoli describes the tense atmosphere inside the city as rebels prepare to move in on the capital.  


Graffiti on a road sign in Tripoli. Courtesy of Twitter user @2011feb17, who says this pro-Gaddafi slogan was painted over an anti-Gaddafi one.


In a rare interview, a resident of Tripoli describes the tense atmosphere inside the city as rebels prepare to move in on the capital.


It is increasingly difficult for journalists to reach anyone in Tripoli, which remains under the control of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi. However, a Twitter user who goes by @2011feb17 contacted us to describe how the capital’s residents are preparing for what many hope may be its imminent fall at the hands of the rebels.


While it is hard to be 100 percent certain that @2011feb17 is actually in Tripoli, his tweets, as well as photos he sent us in their original files, suggest he is indeed in the capital.



“The government is trying hard to portray life in Tripoli as calm and normal, but that’s not even remotely true”

The situation in Tripoli is very tense and abnormal and scary indeed. The government is trying hard to portray life in Tripoli as calm and normal, but in fact that’s not even remotely true. Only food stores, pharmacies and clinics remain open. Around 90% of other stores, such as clothes and shoe stores, are closed.


The majority of people are in a state of civil disobedience. Most of my relatives and friends working in the public sector have stopped going to work, so the government has stopped paying their salaries. But they weren’t getting paid because of cash shortages in banks anyway. By stopping their work, they are also protesting how the government has been dealing with peaceful protests since the start of the revolution.


“Petrol is almost non-existent. Some people join pro-Gaddafi rallies just to get a few

extra litres”


Although food is still available, it is very expensive – prices have gone up 200-300%. But people are extremely kind and supportive of each other. My neighbours always ask if we’re short on anything that they have in excess and offer it to us. And vice versa. Libyans have never been so united, which is promising.


Power stays out for up to 12 hours a day in some areas. However, cuts lasting up to three straight days have been reported in other areas, and this has taken its toll on the very young, very old and the sick.


Cooking gas has become a luxury. If a vendor promises a supply, people will queue up for a kilometer. When the electricity comes back on, many people rush to use their electric stoves, if they have one, to cook a hot meal. People who have a backyard or live on farms on the outskirts of Tripoli have started collecting wood to cook over fires.


Petrol is almost non-existent. Most gas stations are now closed. However, Gaddafi has saved some fuel for his goons, who can be seen speeding down the streets to crush protests and arrest people. His supporters are issued 20 litres of petrol for every rally they attend. So it isn’t surprising to see that some people join these rallies just to get a few extra litres of petrol.


“If Gaddafi’s thugs decide to storm your house, that’s it. No one can help you”


The exact number of people arrested in Tripoli is not and probably will never be known, due to the disorganised manner in which arrests are made. Some say 30,000; some even put the numbers as high as 60,000. I know people who have been arrested. Because their relatives found some high-ranking officer who got them out, they were not registered in the prison records, just like thousands of other people.


There is no way to protect ourselves from arrest. If Gaddafi’s thugs decide to storm your house, for whatever reason, then that’s it. No one can help you. They’ll arrive in 10 or 15 cars, with five thugs inside each car. When they reach the house, they start shooting in the air to scare the neighbours, and that’s when you’ll know it’s over. You’re gone. They’ll pick you up and dump you in the trunk of a car after a couple punches to the head. They don’t give your relatives any information about where they are taking you.


Meanwhile, Gaddafi has released murderers and thieves from prisons, armed them, and pardoned them in return for helping him crush the uprising. And that’s what they’ve been doing. I have witnessed many checkpoints where men carrying AK-47 rifles smelled of alcohol and behaved as if they were intoxicated, which is unusual in a Muslim country.


“Protesting means certain death”


Peaceful protests are no longer possible. Protesting means certain death – it’s basically suicide. Gaddafi thugs have clear orders to shoot and kill any anti-Gaddafi ‘rats’, as they call them. Interestingly, they don’t hide this fact. They announce it on TV on a daily basis, asking viewers to kill any suspected anti-Gaddafi ‘rat’. Some state television presenters even hold assault rifles while delivering the news.


Some freedom fighters have managed to get hold of weapons and are now using them in drive-by shootings at checkpoints and on security forces’ cars.


“People have formed secret neighbourhood defence committees.

Each one has at least one gun”


We are ready for the fall of Tripoli. People have formed secret committees to protect their neighbourhoods. They expect some looting to take place, mainly by remaining pro-Gaddafi thugs, but are prepared to protect their homes. Each neighbourhood committee has at least one gun. They also have Molotov bombs, spears, knives, sticks, clubs, etc. We expect more rifles and ammunition to arrive when the Freedom Fighters enter Tripoli.


We have identified pro-Gaddafi thugs or supporters. We call them ‘plain’ in reference to Gaddafi’s plain green flag. Those who are anti-Gaddafi are called ‘striped’. So when I am in a shop, for example, and a guy comes in that I don’t know, I’ll ask the shop owner if he knows the man and whether he is ‘plain’ or ‘striped’; that way I know whether I can continue to criticise Gaddafi in his presence or if I will risk getting reported.


“We don’t expect Tripoli’s fall to trigger a civil war”


Everybody is eager for the Freedom Fighters to enter Tripoli, but cautious, too. People have many different scenarios in mind. The most probable is that Gaddafi’s militia will surrender or flee as soon as the Freedom Fighters arrive. We see a large number of defections on a daily basis, from the lowest to the highest ranks of the military as well as in politics. We believe that many are forced to fight for Gaddafi and will give up as soon as they think his time is over.


We don’t expect Tripoli’s fall to trigger a civil war. Looking at the freed cities of Libya as an indicator, we have seen very little looting and no sign of civil war. I think this is very promising. Once Gaddafi falls we hope he and his henchmen will be captured alive and taken to court, just like Saddam [Hussein] and [Hosni] Mubarak.”

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