“Tomorrow morning, we will be heading to Ajdabya” Those were the words a man shouted in the microphone, announcing that a group of men will be leaving Benghazi at 6:00am from the Courthouse yard to join the rebels in the city about 40 kms away. Some people volunteered to go, I wanted to join in, but I am not into fighting for my freedom anytime before 9:00am. I have never seen people that happy in my life; everyone was smiling, and the crowd was energetic and positive. After all, this was the first step into a new era. The phone company announced that all calls and texts will be free throughout the revolution and I remember thinking “Damn, this revolution is successful already”.
The next morning, I went with some friends to what was called “The Freedom Square”; there were thousands of people and lots of cameras. News agencies had finally gained access to the city and were interviewing some of the protestors. While touring the square, I noticed that there was a wall with hundreds of photos on it. Some were new and they obviously belonged to the people who died in the first days of the revolution, but the old ones belonged to Abu Salim prisoners. Abu Salim was a high security prison located in the capital, Tripoli, where thousand of men spent their time and were imprisoned for political reasons(http://bit.ly/AbuSalimWiki). No one knew what went on inside; visits were mostly forbidden and the men who went in, rarely came out. In 1996, riots took place inside the prison and the guards managed to take control in few hours. Instead of taking the prisoners back to their cells, they were all taken to the yard, where the guards started shooting them. Within 4 hours, 1269 men were covered under cement and buried in that yard. Abu Salim was the secret everyone knew, but couldn’t talk about. In 2009, after being pressured by the U.N, the Libyan Government finally came clean about the massacre.
I went home that evening to find Gaddafi on TV giving a speech. He was all fired up, but I have learnt not to take him seriously. He asked people in Benghazi to take it back from the rebels and mentioned how sad he was to see how the rebels were destroying the city, the city he loved and built (which explains why the infrastructure was a disaster). Then his tone changed, he started threatening and promised to enter the city and clean it, street by street, house by house, room by room and inch by inch, until he caught all the traitors, who he referred to as rats. I did not finish the speech because I fell asleep.
That night I have learnt that Gaddafi was not bullshitting. He meant every word he said in that speech, which was a first! My mother told me that she heard on the radio that Gaddafi would be sending his air force to launch the first attack on the city. We left the house that night to stay at my mom’s family house. The house was full and all of my cousins and my mom’s relatives were there. I asked my mom why couldn’t we just die at home like everyone else and my dad laughed and said, “Nothing is better than sharing the joy of air-strikes with loved ones”. We sat all night waiting in the dark.I couldn’t take staying inside for long, so I went out to see what was happening. People were out smashing street lamps (apparently air-jets use those lights to locate homes, which sounded reasonable at the time) and they were shouting and calling for Gaddafi to bring it on, to bring his air-jets, tanks and soldiers. People weren’t scared and they continued chanting that their hearts were numb to fear. The attack did not happen that night; the pilots refused to attack the city and fled to Malta instead, where they sought asylum.
I spent the next day at Freedom Square where I volunteered to work as a translator, because people were saying embarrassing shit on TV, Like that one person who was telling CNN in broken English about how he will march all the way to Gaddafi’s Mansion, and slit his throat. I had to explain to the man that this was very Bin Laden of him. The night time came and I decided to take a break from the revolution and go watch a soccer match at a friend’s house, ignoring my family’s warnings about how it was still unsafe and that Gaddafi supporters were kidnapping people. The match ended and my friend insisted that I should sleep over but I explained to him that through the course of history, it was always safe to drive after midnight during a revolution. The road was completely empty, except for that one car that drove behind me for at least 5 minutes. The car finally passed me but suddenly stopped sideways blocking the road and I hit the brakes. Two men came out of the car holding large wooden sticks and started shouting at me to step out of the vehicle. I was not sure if they wanted the car or me, but I couldn’t risk waiting for an answer. So I did what seemed reasonable at that time; I dropped the gear into reverse and drove over one of the men; he fell down and I drove up the sidewalk and shot off. The men got back into the vehicle and followed me but I managed to lose them and finally got home.
I woke up the next day thinking about what happened the night before. I started to realize that this is not all fun and games anymore; this was a fight against a bloody dictator. Now the question was, how far will I go to protect myself? And the idea of having to hurt someone to stay safe haunted me throughout the whole revolution. I went to the Freedom square that evening where I stood among the crowd, a song was playing through the speakers and we all held hands and sang along “ We will remain here, and the pain will fade away” some of us were lucky and remained, but not all of us; and as for the pain, the pain never faded away.