A Visit to My Country
When I Landed in Tripoli last March I planned to stay two weeks despite being homesick and away for nearly three years. Yet I stayed more than six weeks.
The moment I walked out of the airplane, I felt somewhat strange. I did not feel the familiar homecoming excitement. Indeed, I missed my country, my extended family members, and my friends but this is neither the country I knew nor the one I missed.
Libya and Libyans have changed a lot.
Tripoli International Airport hardly changed except it is now more chaotic than it was before while lacking any proper security. The new airport building still where it was when I last saw it in January 2011 as I then landed from a visit to Cairo. The cranes are still there but immovable and rusting under the sun. Not a single building has been added to the now deserted construction site. Except for couple of small coffee booths, carved out of the main hall, I saw nothing new.
Tripoli seemed strange place. The beautiful seafront where, families spend much of their evenings especially during the summer, and cafes dot the long Corniche have long since disappeared. By nine in the evening, the place was deserted. Not a single shop in the city centre is open after that time. Except for two police cars parked against the walls of the old city, just off Martyrs Square, or another one near the harbour entrance, I did not see any mobile or on foot police petrol. However away towards the southern suburbs, shops remain open until ten at night.
My favourite way of measuring the public mood is by talking to taxi drivers and engaging strangers in little conversations.During one of Tripoli’s notorious traffic jams, I was stuck with an ill-behaved taxi driver. The nice looking young man drove badly, hardly respected traffic priorities, ignored traffic signs, and was having bad mouth towards other motorists particularly women. Just near the famous, now deserted, Rixos hotel I decided I have had enough and got off. I said to him ‘you embarrassed me by your behaviour that is why I got off here instead of continuing with you.’ Before leaving me on the sidewalk, he said ‘this is new free Libya.’ A kind of standard reply young people use when misbehaving.
Almost every night during my stay I heard gun shots and occasional loud explosions. In the morning, people talk about what happened the previous night. Someone in some neighbourhood was shot dead or two competing gangs where firing at each other after small quarrel. During the day, though Tripoli seems quiet and safe except for the occasional road blocking by angry mob sitting car tires on fire. Occasional checkpoints appear and disappear in different parts of the city particularly at night. Shops are stuffed by all kinds of imported foodstuff and consumer goods. Egyptian and Turkish goods dominated the food market while Chinese and Malaysian share the durable goods market. A major French supermarket chain also opened two outlets at Al Hadba district south of the capital but prices are high.
I visited couple of government departments where guards were on duty but I was not bothered. Before it was very hard to enter places like The National Oil Corporation before you tell the guards why you are there.This time I was only asked to sign my name into visitor’s register without showing my ID.
Almost every day I overheard bad words or vulgar language in cafes and between angry drivers. People are less tolerant and far less helpful than they used to be. Everyone seems to be complaining about something. TV sets in cafes are usually full blastwhile taxi drivers would engage the radio talk shows like if they were setting next to the presenter.
The NATO destroyed buildings still rubbles. Nothing is being cleaned let alone rebuilt except for one where I saw some reconstruction activities: that is the former centre for green book studies near the broadcasting house whichis still guarded by military and not police officers just like it was before. The destroyed large mansion was one of the capitals’ oldest building before NATO airplanes levelled it in April 2011.
For leisure during the day people turn to cafes which appear to be everywhere in the capital. Many young people spend long hours sitting in cafes over drinks. Towards the end of the day the numbers multiply and just before dark or little after people go home. Only in two occasions I saw women among the clients. In both cases, they seemed with their families enjoying drinks in the more expensive café shops, which started to appear around Gargarish district and near the central bank close to Tripoli’s harbour.Crowded cafes are indicative of many things such as high unemployment, lack of other forms of entertainment, and above all lack of the once warm social relations among people whereby they would sit together at the famous Libyan Marboa not in cafes.
The number of head to toe veiled women in Tripoli struck me. Most Libyan women, including the middle class and the professionals, are usually decently addressed but the Taliban-like costume is something new. Now in Tripoli there are shops specially catering for this demand. The number of women baggers is also new to the streets of Tripoli.
Life in my hometown is another story. In Bani Walid shops stay open until late at night and people socialize more. Indeed the number of café shops is rising but they are not as crowded as in Tripoli. I moved around the town from end to end without coming across any checkpoint let alone seeing a single armed person in the street. People are certainly armed just like in other Libyan cities and towns but arms are not on display. New small infrastructure projects are underway. One common thing though I saw is that almost all TVs at homes I visited and cafes I frequented were tuned to the local, mostly text, TV station known as Aldardanel. Its local office is near the once university building destroyed by NATO in the late days of the war of 2011 and never rebuilt. No one knows where it broadcasts from. The government considers it illegal. Another reason why people like it and trust its news.
For almost two years now, the mountainous town has been militia free and enjoyed peace and safety after it was invaded in October 2012. It was the last strong hold of the anti NATO backed rebels, through which the late Gaddafi passed on his way to his hometown, Sirte where he made his last stand and murdered at the hands of rebels in October 2011.
Many displaced Libyan families still live in BaniWalid. One Tawregha family occupies our old family home. Tawregha, home to nearly 40 thousand people, close to Misratawas destroyed and its people forced out by rogue Misrata militias in the final days of the conflict. Since October 2011, not a single Tawreghi returned home. The entire population of Tawregha have been refuges living on charities in refugee camps except in Bani Walid where they live in free of charge homes or apartments. The weak successive governments could not help them. However, The Bani Walid social council made it a standard policy to accept refuges and help them settle in town.
During my visit the council organized a day of solidarity with the missing and the imprisoned persons in Libya. The event attracted many families and relatives of missing persons from as far away as Sebha in the south and Benghazi in the east. I met couple of attendees from Sirte who came to ‘keep the cause alive’ as one told me. Among them were couple of women, sisters and mothers, of former regime officials now imprisoned by Misrata militia under no government control. It is nearly impossible to find such people in any public event had it not been organized in BaniWalid.
When I left the airport road was blocked, and my flight was delayed by some thirty minutes. At the airport a friend called me to wish me safe trip and then said 'if you really do not have to, do not come back. Nothing is worth coming back for.'