By George Grant.
Sirte, 20 October:
“Today is 20 October, and you know what happened on this day”, says Abdulrazig Farkash, standing against a backdrop of billowing smoke emitted from burning tires.
No more than 30 metres from where we are standing, a group of around 20 young men let off their Kalashnikovs into the evening sky, as cars with frightened passengers are forced to make hasty u-turns away from the road now closed ahead.
The immediate cause of the protest is the ongoing siege of Bani Walid, but as Farkash says, its timing is no coincidence. As night falls, prolonged bursts of machine-gun fire are interspersed by the boom of rocket propelled grenades.
One year to the day since the brutal death of Muammar Qaddafi in Sirte, his hometown has yet to move on from the scars last year’s revolution left behind. The revolutionary flag can be seen flying in public, but it is the green flag of the Jamahiriya that is stowed furtively in private, and flies still in people’s hearts.
“People here – if they find even the smallest opportunity – they will make problems for this revolution”, says Khaled Ali, a young student at Sirte university and supporter of Qaddafi. “In their hearts there is blood. In every house you will find someone who died.”
Walking around the shattered ruins of the town, it is hard to believe that Ali is far wrong. The destruction is everywhere, to homes, to shops and to schools.
“NATO has done this”, says Marwa Ziyan, sitting smoking a cigarette next to the bombed-out remainders of his uncle’s home. “They hit this house, but the family has nowhere to go. Fifty-eight people were killed by NATO in this area”.
Inside Ali’s house, solidarity with Bani Walid is not hard to find. On the back wall of the sitting room, the Bani Walid channel can be seen playing continuously. “It is the same in all of the homes”, Ali says. “All of the people here are with Bani Walid, without a doubt. Bani Walid has seen what they did to us here in Sirte, and they do not want the same to happen to them.”
On a short, continuous loop, the channel itself shows footage of two Bani Walid residents delivering defiant messages of how they will never leave the town until death. It is interspersed with occasional flashes of large letters delivering a message to much the same effect and footage from last year showing Tawerghans in Misrata, bound and kneeling, being forced to eat the green flag.
The Bani Walid siege has certainly heightened tensions inside Sirte. On 12 October, a 10pm curfew was enforced by the local Supreme Security Committee following clashes between local residents and Misratans living in the town.
In the past week alone, four Misratans are said to have been killed, with the body of one discovered just yesterday. “How can these Misratans be doing this to Bani Walid?” asks Ali. “They are not even human.”
It is not just against Misrata that anger is directed here. People are also deeply unhappy with the new government. “I ask you, what have they done? Look around you – the buildings are destroyed, the schools are destroyed, there is no safety”, says Mohammed Gudwari, an elderly lorry driver.
“The government came here; they promised to build houses, but they have done nothing. I drove my lorry for 43 years. I got nothing from Qaddafi, but I still love him”.
Gudwari’s younger colleague, also a lorry driver, shares similar sentiments. “I would give anything for just one day of Qaddafi”, he says. After we have been talking for some time, he pauses, fixes me with a stare and says: “Wait here. I want to show you something”.
He scales a mound of sand adjacent to a small shed near to which we have been standing and reappears moments later with a small bundle in his hands. He unrolls it quickly and holds it aloft. It is a green flag.
“And look there”, says another member of the group, pointing towards a damaged pylon some 25 metres away. “Do you see? The green flag. The government has not seen it there, so nobody has taken it down”.
I ask the group, seven strong, how many of them voted in the elections. All shake their heads save for Gudwari. “I voted because one of my relatives was standing”, he says. “Nothing more than that”.
From a car parked-up nearby, a young man who has been listening tentatively to our conversation suddenly shouts: “Magarief is a stooge of the CIA! We hate him!”
The men are inherently suspicious of Libya’s new political rulers, but particularly those who spent years abroad. Magarief, most seem convinced, is nothing more than an American agent. It is Qaddafi who truly represented Libya.
A little out from the town centre can be found the now infamous site where Qaddafi was first discovered – or strategically placed – by revolutionaries exactly one year ago. The drainpipe. It was filled in by local residents infuriated by the continuous stream of photographers and other curious types who came to visit, but has subsequently been reopened.
Peering down the dark tunnel, one is immediately hit – perhaps appropriately – by the stench of something that has died. It is not a place to linger long. Just across the road under which the pipe runs can be seen the burned-out ruins of the convoy in which Qaddafi and his entourage were hit as they tried to flee the town.
Legend has it that Qaddafi survived the blast and limped, bleeding, to the drain in which he was subsequently discovered by the Misratan revolutionary Omran Shaban.
It was Shaban’s death on 25 September, which followed his capture in Bani Walid two months earlier, that led to the current siege of the town with which the people of Sirte now feel so much solidarity.
One year on from Qaddafi’s death, Libya has by no means freed itself from the dictator’s long shadow just yet.