TOBRUK – This city in eastern Libya has been waking up to the sound of its new radio for a week, a free radio. In a free city. Comments are pouring in on Free Tobruk’s airwaves. Listeners recite odes to the revolution or make stinging jokes about Muammar Gaddafi. The colonel is compared to a donkey, and called the Middle Eastern Hitler.
The Libyan leader’s speech on Tuesday, threatening protesters and saying he was ready to fight “until the last drop” of his own blood, didn’t shake the protesters’ faith in their revolution. The big screen set up in the city center to show the speech became a target for thrown shoes – the strongest sign of disrespect in the Arab world – and garbage. “He treats us like slaves!” Tobruk’s citizens shouted. “He’s speaking to us like we’re foreigners!”
The rift between the population in the eastern part of the country and the man who’s been in power since 1969 seems final, although some still worry about a backlash. On Wednesday, stores stayed closed, and Tobruk feels like a ghost town living on its reserves.
The army blocked access to Libya from Egypt until Tuesday. At the Sallum border control, tens of thousands of Egyptian workers were trying to return to their country as doctors were trying to cross over to Libya to deliver medical care. At midday, some western journalists were allowed to get in and were welcomed by Libyans, a sign that the uprising will finally be reported without censorship.
Until then, protesters had no other choice but to send to Egypt, but also to Tunisia, on the western border, short videos filmed on their cell phones. “This is the first time we’re happy to see the media. For 40 years, all we had was fear,” says one of the protesters. “Because of Gaddafi, Libyans have been seen as ignorant and terrorists, we want to change that too.”
All along the coastal road leading to Tobruk about 60 miles west of the border, armed civilians wearing mismatched uniforms taken from soldiers have replaced security forces. Foreign reporters are taken in cabs that refuse to be paid. Official police have disappeared, even from WWII battle sites deemed dangerous because of the ammunitions that can still be found there.
Symbols of the regime have been systematically destroyed. Gaddafi’s portraits were trampled or marked up with mustaches and eye patches. Monuments celebrating the Green Book, the Libyan revolution’s bible, have been destroyed with hammers. All official green flags have been replaced by banners with three horizontal stripes: red, black and green, the flag of the 1951 independence.
In Tobruk, the army refused to open fire on the protesters from the very beginning. Members of the Popular Committee, created in place of the regime’s Revolutionary Committees, say they have weapons but not enough ammunitions.
In the city center, the Jamahiriya square was renamed after a victim of the regime, Mahdi Elias, a student who was hung in 1984 after a trip to the US, when tensions between Washington and Tripoli were at their peek. “I could talk for days about what we’ve been through. When (Gaddafi’s son) Saif Al-Islam emerged five years ago with reformist ideas, we gave him a chance although we thought he was too young to take over his father,” says Fathi Farj, an engineer in petro chemistry. “But now he’s shown his true colors, he wants to divide and conquer. That’s his father’s strategy. That’s what he’s trying to do by waving the threat of a civil war.”
Tobruk may have been freed, but like Ajdabiya and Benghazi, it’s holding its breath. Rumor has it about a thousand armed men left Beida, between Tobruk and Benghazi, for Tripoli. News from Benghazi, the country’s second largest city, further west is worrying. Some say forces loyal to Gaddafi have retaliated. Contacted by phone, doctor Ahmad Ben Tahr from the Jalal hospital says about 300 people have been killed in five days, their bodies still ilie in the courtyard because the morgue is full. “In a couple of days, we’ll be running out of antibiotics,” he says.
In a city where African mercenaries from Chad, Niger or Nigeria have fallen in the hands of the rebels, many prisoners have been found in abandoned military bases. Says a member of the Tobruk Committee: “The United Nations has to impose a no-flight zone. We’re not safe yet. We’re afraid they’ll start to bomb us.”
Read the original article in French.