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2011-09-27

Video Report from Libya: "I Never Expected We Would Be Free"

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In Libya, a brigade commander of Libyan revolutionary fighters says his forces are communicating with families stuck inside of Col. Muammar Gaddafi’s besieged hometown to try to secure a way out. More than one month after seizing Tripoli and effectively ending Gaddafi’s rule, revolutionary forces still face fierce resistance from Gaddafi loyalists in the towns of Sirte, Bani Walid and in pockets in the country’s desert south. Meanwhile, the National Transitional Council has delayed announcing an expanded interim cabinet of up to 36 members that is supposed to be more representative. Even as the fighting continues and questions remain over Libya’s political future, inside the recently liberated capital city of Tripoli the mood is largely upbeat. Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen of Big Noise Films were in Tripoli last week and filed this report. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to Libya, where a brigade commander of Libyan revolutionary fighters says his forces are communicating with families stuck inside Muammar Gaddafi’s besieged hometown, trying to secure a way out. More than one month after seizing Tripoli and ending Gaddafi’s rule, revolutionary forces still face fierce resistance from Gaddafi loyalists in the towns of Sirte, Bani Walid and in pockets in the country’s desert south.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the National Transitional Council has delayed announcing an expanded interim cabinet of up to 36 members that’s supposed to be more representative. Even as the fighting continues and questions remain over Libya’s political future, inside the recently liberated capital city of Tripoli the mood is largely upbeat. Democracy Now! correspondent Anjali Kamat and Jacquie Soohen were in Tripoli last week and filed this report.

ANJALI KAMAT: In the newly liberated streets of Tripoli, the celebrations continue. Months of violent struggle to reach the capital seem to have finally and decisively ended. But after 42 years under Gaddafi’s tight control, how are people adjusting to their newfound freedom?

We went to the heart of the battle for Tripoli, Muammar Gaddafi’s compound, Bab al-Azizia, a sprawling complex behind a maze of walls and fortifications. The outskirts still bear the traces of the battle that raged here for days—bullet holes, blown-out windows, munition boxes. Small groups of people sift through documents, including people’s personal files that are scattered across the ground. In the center of the compound, at Gaddafi’s main residence, what he called the "House of Resistance," we find thousands of people from Tripoli and across Libya who have come with their families to witness this piece of history firsthand.

We’re standing inside Bab al-Azizia. This was Gaddafi’s compound. This is in the heart of Tripoli. This was the nerve center of Gaddafi’s Libya. And today it’s filled with revolutionaries and filled with tourists from across Libya.

LIBYAN MAN 1: [translated] Really, I’m so happy. After 42 years, I never expected we would be free and in charge of our own destiny.

LIBYAN MAN 2: [translated] This was impossible, even in our dreams. What can I say? Thank God. This freedom was unthinkable for 42 years. Tripoli was besieged. We couldn’t speak. Even so, we came out on February 20th, and we were so scared to be on camera. But thank God. It used to be impossible to get close to this building. It was heavily guarded, and you see how many walls there are.

ANJALI KAMAT: This was an incredibly fortified compound, impossible to get anywhere near where we’re standing right now. And today this place is full of people. And every inch of wall, every surface, is covered with graffiti. Everyone wants to make their mark felt. I think every single person who come here, who was in this space, in this palace, in this compound, has sort of signed their name, their family name, their town, on here—revolutionaries from Zawiyah, revolutionaries from Misurata, revolutionaries from Suk al-Juma, which is a working-class suburb of Tripoli.

Right here, in front of what remains of American munitions from Ronald Reagan’s air strikes in 1986, is where Gaddafi had erected a giant fist crushing an American fighter plane. It was from here that Gaddafi gave his now-infamous speech eight months ago saying he would hunt down the people rising up against him, street by street, house by house. Today, the remnants of Gaddafi’s memorial to the American strike are scattered across the entrance to Bab al-Azizia, and victorious rebel graffiti now marks its walls.

One man visiting Gaddafi’s compound for the first time said it was a mistake to think that the people of Libya had simply acquiesced to the regime all these years.

JAMAL HANIF: We are very proud of the Libyan people. A lot of people in the whole world, in the whole world, they said, "Why you’ve been quiet for 42 years?" I tell them now, we are not quiet for 42 years. We have tried so many times. So many times.

ANJALI KAMAT: The hallways of Bab al-Azizia are teeming with children. Like hundreds of others, Nafsiya, a mother of three, brought her children to tour the premises.

NAFSIYA: [translated] I can’t describe how happy I am. Thank God for this freedom, and the tyrant is gone. We used to live in fear. We didn’t have the freedom to speak or enter Bab al-Azizia. This is something to remember. It’s the biggest victory for Libyans and for future generations.

ANJALI KAMAT: Once a powerful symbol of Muammar Gaddafi’s unshakeable authority, Bab al-Azizia is now a monument to his defeat. In one part of the building, a sign hangs, reading, "This is where the rats lived," next to a hole in the wall leading down to a network of tunnels that stretches on for miles. People take turns walking down the dark staircase to glimpse what may have been Gaddafi’s escape route from the city.

Amidst a throng of families at the compound were also dozens of armed young men, all of them former fighters back for a visit. They received a hero’s welcome of families crowding around them and posing for photographs. We spoke to one young fighter, Mustafa, age 20, who was part of a unit from the city of Misurata. He showed us how his unit had stormed Gaddafi’s compound just weeks earlier.

MUSTAFA: [translated] I’m from a brigade in Misurata.

ANJALI KAMAT: Mustafa explains that the compound was filled with Gaddafi’s snipers.

MUSTAFA: [translated] About 200 people were killed by snipers that day. It was a massacre. They were all controlling positions here. We made our entry from that wall. Then, once we were in, we secured the gates.

ANJALI KAMAT: After eight hours of heavy fighting, the snipers retreated to the heart of the compound.

MUSTAFA: [translated] No one can describe how it feels. You’re knocking on Gaddafi’s door in his own house. We used to be so scared. All Libyans know this. You couldn’t even park your car or walk near these walls. And we entered this fortress, entered his house and the tunnels he built. We found incredible weapons storage facilities. It’s as if Gaddafi invested all of our wealth over 40 years in weapons. What can I tell you? God is great. Thank God. It’s just indescribable.

ANJALI KAMAT: As we returned to the main compound, we passed the ruins of one of the buildings flattened by NATO air strikes earlier this year, a reminder of the many questions regarding international influence that looms in Libya’s future. With the battles against Gaddafi forces still raging in towns like Bani Walid, Sirte and Sabha, and with Gaddafi himself still at large, the final fight for Libya and what it will become is far from over. Here, however, standing in his house, people are less concerned about Gaddafi’s whereabouts as imagining for the first time their own futures without him.

LIBYAN MAN 3: [translated] Freedom! Goodbye, Gaddafi! This is freedom! Take that, Gaddafi! I’m sitting in your house!

ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, I’m Anjali Kamat, with Jacquie Soohen.

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