The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Libya Dispatch: Lies, Damn Lies and Government-sponsored Trips (3)

Abu Ray reports from Tripoli as the NATO airstrikes and rebel insurgency loom ever closer. See his previous dispatches here.

As the bus pulled up to what was described as the site of a NATO airstrike, we could see the burly cameraman from Libyan state TV hurriedly stashing khaki military uniforms onto the roof of a nearby shed ahead of our arrival. It was the culmination of a truly farcical day.

Perhaps the collapsed building was just, as they said, an office and some apartments hit by a NATO missile, killing… one person? At least two people, said a bystander trotted out for the visiting journalists, others were not so sure. Maybe it was, but then why did someone have to run ahead and hide a bunch of tattered military uniforms and, as we later discovered, a helmet. Was it perhaps actually a military target?

We were in the town of Zlitan on another government organized trip, in what should have been a fascinating journey to a front line town facing an assault of rebels who had broken out of the besieged city of Misrata and were headed towards Tripoli with vengeance on their minds.

This was the war. This was the story. And even if this would be from the government’s point of view, we were ready to report it. All sides of the story. Instead, after a two and a half hour drive (through some very picturesque country, Libya alternates between olive groves, date palm orchards and deserts), we arrived in a seemingly peaceful town of bland concrete buildings and stopped at a hotel… for three hours.

They never told us why and in the distance we could hear the rumble of explosions and the sound of circling aircraft, but we were stuck in a hotel watching reruns of rallies on state TV. Finally, with little notice, the increasingly fed up pack of journalists was loaded back on the bus and taken to — a three-day-old bombing site attributed to NATO.

We had spent the day listening to the rumbles of what were probably strikes and I knew from friends on the other side that somewhere out there, maybe 10 kilometers away, there was a front line. But all we got to see was some crushed pre-fab warehouses belonging to a Turkish road building country.

“This shows how NATO wants to destroy Libya’s infrastructure,” bellowed an older man with a tribly hat that came out of nowhere. Then we recognized him, he’d been wearing a uniform at the hotel. Who are you? Part of the company? No, he was a member of the local broadcast channel, come to tell us about the perfidy of NATO.

So we wandered about, the area was littered with shell casings, not really clear what these were doing at a construction site. “Libyans fire guns in the air in defiance of NATO,” said a diminutive woman with a headscarf and mirrored sunglasses, apparently also from the local channel.

Inside the buildings, there was none of the obvious furniture associated with offices. The rooms were mostly bare, and it appeared that all the documents had been dumped in a pile in one small room. There were papers from the Turkish Nural construction company and stacks of photocopies of Turkish passports. The one I checked, however, had a visa that expired in April.

Then, I found a room covered in Arabic graffiti shouting the praises Abdel Rahman, a martyr of the 32nd Brigade (Armored) from Kharbouli town. The 32nd was the notorious Khamis Brigade led by one of Gadhafi’s bloodthirstier sons. “We took part in the events of Misrata,” read another message. A scrawled date on the wall suggested these guys had been living here since May 20, another inscription read the “Popular Revolutionary Committee Communications Department.”

Once upon the time this was a Turkish road construction company, but they probably left when the fighting started months ago and it had since been taken over by a military unit — which was probably why it was bombed. So perhaps not a blow against Libya’s infrastructure after all.

Then came the fiasco with the uniforms at the next site and finally, an increasingly tired, sun-scorched and cynical bunch of journalists were dragged to a hospital to meet victims of the airstrikes. We met a dozen men, who all loudly called themselves civilians, and said they had been injured when NATO bombed a civilian neighborhood a few days ago.

A neighborhood that apparently no one thought it was worth taking us to.

The steady diet of propaganda shoved at the captive audience of correspondents has left us all bitter and a bit shellshocked, just automatically disbelieving everything that is said. “This is not government propaganda, this is a true genuine appeal to the international community,” said the government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim one day at a press conference, almost suggesting that everything up until that point had been propaganda.

Watching state television involves a neverending stream of images of planes taking off, explosions and dead children. The impression is that hundreds if not thousands of Libyan children are dying every day from the NATO bombings. Which I suppose is possible, but why aren’t we seeing them?

For the three out of the past four days, I’ve been yanked out of the edges of sleep at 2am by loud explosions outside my window. I climb over the balcony and stand on the hotel’s bizarrely grassy roof and we listen to planes streak overhead and watch flashes in the distance.

“Now when you hear the boom, count the seconds until the flash and then divide that number by three, that will tell you how many kilometers away it is,” said one of the TV technicians that I normally see sunbathing out there during the day. Engineers, always flaunting their knowledge of physics.

But in all these bombings, many in Tripoli, the best they can do is a bogus three-day old site all the way in Zlitan? It suggests that NATO’s gunners are actually hitting their targets, despite Ibrahim’s increasingly shrill press conferences about NATO’s depredations.

While they are not exactly convincing the journalists, the government does seem to have hit upon something with the focus on NATO. The whole popular uprising and civil war was always a bit of an awkward topic. You could call them al-Qaida, or armed gangs of foreign agents, but in the end most people realized that it was Libyans fighting each other.

But with NATO here was an undeniable case of foreign aggression, something everyone could unite against. The programs on TV juxtapose black and white images of the Italian conquest and massacre of 1/3 of the population during the Fascist era, with the images of NATO planes, explosions and dead, dust-covered children. People in the streets will talk about misguided brothers in the east, but save their real vitriol for the NATO jets that shake their neighborhood and wake up their children crying at 4am.

It’s hard to know where people’s real concerns and feelings begin and where the rent-a-mob takes over. A few man on the street interviews gave me some reserve, guarded views on the subject of daily life, which was a refreshing change from the spittle-flecked rantings we’ve been subjected to almost daily at a series of demonstrations.

With the recognition of the rebels internationally, Qadhafi staged a series of huge pep rallies around the towns of his rump Libya, with thousands of people in each place cheering wildly while one of his speeches is broadcast. A way to boost morale, it seemed.

But are these crowds bused in? We certainly saw plenty of buses on the way there. Are these people even from these towns? Do they really love the Brother Leader that much? Hard to say, because any attempt at a conversation immediately attracts a circle of shouting youth mindlessly screaming “God, Moammar, and Libya only.”

For several of the demonstrations, they drove the bus into the middle of the crowd, making us the focus of the demonstration so that soon a thousand people were all screaming at us, chanting their slogans (the people, want, Moammar the Colonel… it rhymes in Arabic) and pounding the sides of the bus.

Then we have to get off.

Maybe this is a bit like the Freedom Riders in Mississippi must have felt as they descended their buses to the roar of an unfriendly crowd (alright, fine no one beat us up, but still) and the minders form a narrow corridor for us to squeeze through the shouting crowds as everyone shoves Qadhafi pictures at us or screams Sarkozy Fuck you! into our faces.

I’m not sure if it’s meant to intimidate us or just drown us in the wild enthusiasm of wholehearted Qadhafi love to show us what it’s all about, but all it’s really given me is a profound unease of crowds.

I did manage to have some kind of conversation with people at a few of these, in some cases I’d be approached by English speakers or someone was patient enough to work through my Arabic and I ask them: But why do you love the Brother Leader so much? Might as well ask why people loved their mothers or life itself. One man told me how he drove out the Italians and gained Libya its independence (an unusual argument from an historical perspective), another said he’d freed the black slaves of southern Libya. One woman just stopped, and said, “I don’t know why we love him, he’s just in our blood.”

One kindly old man guided me out of a close pressed crowd to the edges when he saw I’d had enough… but then when he started talking about Qadhafi his eyes started from his head and almost began to whirl in circles like a manic cartoon character. “Libya has already had its revolution, we don’t need another!” he said before breaking into the usual chant.

The rebels say most people in Tripoli and the surrounding areas oppose Qadhafi. Others say there is a hard core for and against, and then a vast middle ground of people who just want to be left alone. As journalists sent here to observe and report, I feel like we are so smothered and blindfolded by the competing propagandas that we are left groping in the dark and reporting gut feelings that could be gravely mistaken.

Postscript: A few hours after I wrote this, we were taken back to Zlitan to see a burning warehouse full of sacks of flour and a destroyed flu clinic they said had been hit that morning by NATO airstrikes. How to know? People describing themselves as residents rushed to the site after journalists arrived, waved green flags and chanted about God and Moammar.