Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tripoli: A city straight out of Orwell

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TRIPOLI, Libya -- Sometimes they reveal themselves in a gesture.

They sniff with contempt at a passing car filled with Moammar Gadhafi's supporters. They turn up the volume on Al-Jazeera just when a report chronicling the government's attacks on civilians in rebel-held Misrata comes on.

Or they make a cryptic remark, like the driver working with the government minders assigned to monitor foreign reporters.

"God willing, spring will come soon", he said.

But spring began weeks ago.

"God willing, in two weeks," he said with a smile.

Two weeks is the time in which Libyans have been assuring themselves that their nightmare will come to an end.

Although Western-led forces began bombing Libya in March with the stated aim of preventing Gadhafi's forces from killing more civilians, European leaders have made it clear that they hope the campaign will make the government ripe for toppling, preferably by its own people.

But the ruthless nature of Gadhafi's regime and the fear it instils have prevented both a halt to civilian killings and a collapse of the government.

During the six weeks I spent as a correspondent in Tripoli, I got a watered-down taste of what it means to live in Libya. In the hotel where we were kept under lock and key and under day-and-night surveillance, we began to go mad.

Arguments erupted between journalists and the minders assigned to filter the information getting to us. Tempers flared among the journalists kept like prisoners. Paranoia spread. Do they have cameras in our rooms? Are they monitoring our emails?

We sought out interpreters and minders who were less inclined to keep us cloistered and tried to avoid the hardliners, like the woman -- the sister of one longtime Gadhafi loyalist -- who cancelled any trips out of the hotel whenever anyone dared to ask to go to Tajura, a restive suburb of Tripoli.

It's not just that Moammar Gadhafi's portrait adorns every square and roadway; that he and his family dominate all aspects of the country's political and economic life; that his security forces have infiltrated society through multiple layers of committees that replace civic life.

It's also that state television shows non-stop coverage of rallies in support of Gadhafi; that his enforcers stand in traffic and demand taxi drivers unfurl banners; that every single song on the radio is about Gadhafi, the 1969 coup that brought him to power, and how happy and blessed Libyans are for all that he has bequeathed them.

"All the people of the world know that we are happy," go the lyrics of one song set to the catchy rhythms of Arab wedding music, "because we are following our leader."

Even at the highest levels, Libyan officials never seem concerned about creating their own reality, even when they contradict themselves or appear delusional.

At one point, Gadhafi insisted on television that Canadian fighter jet pilots had refused orders to bomb his Bab Azizia compound in Tripoli and they instead had dropped their weapons into the sea and resigned their posts, and that all this had caused the collapse of the government in Ottawa.

This wasn't some rant he delivered to one of his adoring crowds. It was a comment he made to South African President Jacob Zuma, whose country is currently a member of the United Nations Security Council.

There's little mystery to Gadhafi's power.

Gun turrets aimed at passersby and barbed wire surround the Bab Azizia compound. Inside it looks like a cross between a tacky holiday resort and a military barracks, with soldiers in various uniforms wielding guns on pickups. Floodlights shine on the grassy area where impossibly loud pro-Gadhafi pop music plays and government supporters volunteering to serve as human shields for the Brother Leader dance and chant frantically.

Most are residents of poor neighbourhoods of Tripoli, bused in day after day and paid the equivalent of about $100 to put on a show for the journalists, and perhaps comfort the heart of the old man himself. Stay in Tripoli long enough and you start seeing the same faces over and over again.

But others, a confidential source explained to me, are pressed into service by security officials in exchange for leniency for an imprisoned brother or son swept up in the recent weeks of protest. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people have gone missing.


-- Los Angeles Times

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 7, 2011 J12

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