YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Inside a city running on fear

Six weeks in the Libyan capital, in a hotel under lock and key, give a journalist a taste of the daily oppression and suffering Kadafi's regime inflicts on citizens.

May 01, 2011|By Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times
  • A portrait of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi hangs in a Tripoli middle school. He and his family dominate political and economic life, and his security forces have infiltrated society.
A portrait of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi hangs in a Tripoli middle school.… (Rick Loomis, Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Sometimes they reveal themselves in a gesture.

They sniff with contempt at a passing car filled with Moammar Kadafi's supporters. They turn up the volume on Al Jazeera just when a report chronicling the government's attacks on civilians in rebel-held Misurata 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 last month with the stated aim of preventing Kadafi'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 Kadafi's regime and the fear it instills 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?

A curious form of Stockholm syndrome developed. We became obsessed with the lives and shades of politics of our enforcers. We played guessing games about which minder or interpreter would be more malleable, wondered about their private lives and what brought them to their jobs.

Was the Serbian-trained dentist who volunteered to serve as an interpreter a native of Surt, Kadafi's hometown and his base of power? Did the British-educated spokesman believe the untruths he spouted daily? Did the gentle press official from Benghazi secretly long to go to his family in rebel-held territory?

We sought out interpreters and minders who were less inclined to keep us cloistered, and tried to avoid the hard-liners, like the woman — the sister of one longtime Kadafi loyalist — who canceled any trips out of the hotel whenever anyone dared to ask to go to Tajoura, a restive suburb of Tripoli.


It's not just that Moammar Kadafi'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 nonstop coverage of rallies in support of Kadafi; that his enforcers stand in traffic and demand that taxi drivers unfurl banners; that every single song on the radio is about Kadafi, 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.

On Feb. 28, Kadafi's son Seif Islam, briefly trying his hand at being the "good cop," acknowledged that hundreds of people, including innocent civilians, had been killed in the uprising here, in part because security forces overreacted.

But weeks later, the message changed. Only terrorists and members of the security forces had been killed. And the number kept creeping downward, from 600 to 300 to, according to Moammar Kadafi himself, 150.

At one point, Kadafi 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 Kadafi'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-Kadafi pop music plays and government supporters "volunteering" to serve as human shields for the Brother Leader dance and chant frantically.

Los Angeles Times Articles