The Malta Independent 16 June 2019, Sunday

A Surreal walkabout in Tripoli

Malta Independent Sunday, 4 December 2011, 00:00 Last update: about 6 years ago

The recent visit to Libya by the Prime Minister was a whirlwind of activity. In the space of 36 hours, the Maltese delegation went on a walkabout in Tripoli at close to midnight, met the Libyan leadership, was reunited with the pilots who deserted from the Libyan Air Force and flew to Malta and then inspected the damage and witnessed the evidence of war crimes in shattered Misurata.

Michael Carabott writes

I accompanied the Maltese delegation written articles about what we saw and felt in this war-ravaged country, just a few hundred miles south of us. But now I am writing about what life is like in Tripoli and about a surreal walk through the medina and Martyrs’ Square, formerly Green Square.

My colleagues and I had just finishing filing our preliminary reports on the Monday night. We were all restless: we were in Tripoli after all, albeit safe in our hotel, which was being guarded by soldiers of the revolution. It seemed, though, that we were not the only ones with itchy feet.

Just as we all agreed to go on a walkabout in the city centre and headed for the lobby, we saw that Foreign Minister Tonio Borg and Finance Minister Tonio Fenech were thinking exactly the same thing. 

Both parties being a bit worried, it was decided to stick together, seeking safety in numbers. With some trepidation, we all set off with our guide, a man named Jibril, who had taken part in the revolution and was instrumental in coordinating the social media wave in Libya during the revolution.

And so our band of 20 jacketed ministers, aides, journalists and Maltese security officers set off. At first, we were all wary, sticking together as a large group as we wandered through the medina. It was 11pm and the streets were pretty empty, apart from a few kids kicking footballs about. But, as I have already written elsewhere, something about Libya has changed. Gone is the feeling of being watched all the time and also gone is the sense of furtiveness and hostility. Before we had gone very far, people – including children – were leaning from their balconies to give us the V for Victory sign. All we could do was reciprocate, in-between marvelling at the way every shop front had been painted in the colours of the post-revolutionary flag rather than Gaddafi green. 

Another curiosity is that Gaddafi has become something of a ‘Lord Voldemort’. No Libyan will mention his name – it is always “the former regime”. As we walked out onto one of the main boulevards leading to Martyrs’ Square, we relaxed. Stall-holders were selling traditional scarves and Libyan flags. Everyone said ‘hello’, and people driving by in their cars hooted at us and fêted us as foreign visitors in their new free Libya.

This was not the same city that I saw some years ago. Back then it was dominated by Gaddafi, his family and brutal henchmen. One thing that struck me this time is the amount of uncollected rubbish lying in the streets. It would seem that there are more important things on the agenda, such as building up a country’s political infrastructure from scratch, from nothing, from the bottom up. But Tripoli seems strangely unscathed. Some of the building where loyalists held out until the end are pock-marked by shell and bullet damage, but if you were looking for purely physical evidence, then you would not realise that a very bloody war had been fought there, only weeks ago.

When we got to Martyrs’ Square, I was blown away. I spoke to soldiers of the revolution, many with that distant look in their eyes, caused by atrocities they had witnessed that I could never hope to understand. I spoke to people who had had their finger-nails ripped out, one at a time. I spoke to a soldier who works for no pay, keeping law and order on the street. His reasons were simple: “My friends did not die for nothing.”

We spoke to some of these ‘rebel’ soldiers, and they were so happy that their efforts had paid off with this first diplomatic visit by a government delegation. They asked us who we were, and they were only too happy to tell us their stories, pose for photographs and show us where they had fought, just weeks earlier, on the streets in Tripoli. All the while, men brewed and sold tea while youngsters were playing table soccer under the huge spotlights of the Square. Old and young would come up to us, shake our hands and tell their stories to the two ministers who were with us. Some actually came up and hugged and kissed us, and all the while the soldiers who were there showed that the Gaddafi mentality had gone. They were obviously wary – after all, two cabinet ministers were in the open in Martyrs’ Square, on their watch. But they allowed people to come up and talk to us and ask us questions.

Yes, this is the new Libya. In Martyrs’ Square you can see the hotel where Gaddafi delivered one of his last public speeches and the ground is littered with thousands of bullet casings that had been fired off in celebration. It was all very, very surreal.

When we agreed it was time to head back to our hotel, the soldiers decided that we should have an escort. The older fellow, with a greying beard, slung his AK-47 over his shoulder and walked with us. The other hopped into a jeep and edged along slowly, even holding up the traffic for us to cross the road. Libyans in their cars spotted us from miles away, everyone wanting to get a glimpse of these ‘VIPs’, wanting to thank them for their visit.

Before long, we were back at the hotel – but we had done the unthinkable. Only a few weeks earlier, Tripoli had been a war zone, yet without any particular planning or special security detail, we had all been walking around the middle of the city. Our feelings of trepidation had been unfounded. We were welcomed with open arms and Libya had demonstrated that it could take the first steps of many on that long road to democracy. And I believe they will get there. It will not be easy, but get there they will. I say this because I have seen it with my own eyes. The Libyans have come too far to falter now. 

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