Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Libya: One Woman's War

She describes wartime months of paranoia, fear and resistance in Tripoli.
By Basma Mansuri
  • Life slowly returning to normal in Tripoli following overthrow of Gadaffi regime. (Photo: Pany Goff/Wikimedia)
    Life slowly returning to normal in Tripoli following overthrow of Gadaffi regime. (Photo: Pany Goff/Wikimedia)

At the beginning, when we heard people were going to go out and demonstrate against Gaddafi, we didn’t believe something like that could ever happen. No-one would be brave enough to stand up to him, we thought, since we all knew what he was capable of - he would just kill anyone who opposed him.

We were very frightened when the shooting and bombing began and stayed indoors for a week, although the men went out sometimes to try and find out how other family members were.

At that time, the electricity supply was still good so we could hear some news from the outside world and follow what was going on. We even had the internet for the first ten days of the war, before it was cut because people were trying to send images of what was happening out to the rest of the world.

I am my parent’s only daughter and my mother was scared so I moved back with my husband to live with my parents on that first day of fighting and stayed, and I am still there - they don’t feel safe to be left alone yet.

Gaddafi was saying in the media throughout this period that lots of people had been killed. But Tripoli is a small place and people know what is happening with their neighbours. I didn’t hear of any families who had someone killed by NATO bombs.

I think most of the people trusted NATO and we never felt scared specifically because of them. We thought they knew what they were doing. Apart from people who lived near offices related to the regime - because they might be bombed - most of the time we felt secure, especially because the NATO forces would drop papers calling on people to leave the area as they were planning to bomb it the next day.

Believe it or not, I heard people whistling and clapping out on their roofs when there was bombing, especially if it took place at night when there was no danger the regime would find out who they were. Otherwise, people could not express how they felt. If asked, they would say they supported Gaddafi, or who knows what would’ve happened to them.

Many others, though, did support Gaddafi, especially the very poor. His regime tried to buy the loyalty of jobless guys, handing out money, cars and guns. These people suddenly had power and were recruited to set up checkpoints, or just drove around the streets waving their guns and green flags.

The more educated people in Tripoli watched non-Gaddafi television channels and understood he was lying. Others who watched state TV all the time were under the impression that NATO and the United States and French were all invading Libya for the oil.

I know someone who was working in the port when NATO bombed two or three military ships. They did this in the middle of the night so no-one was there. But when Gaddafi’s forces came to the scene, with journalists and people from the hospital, they entered first. My friend said he hid and saw the soldiers killing the security guards, so they could display the corpses to the media and claim that NATO had killed them. My friend managed to escape but stayed hidden for the rest of the war.

During the conflict, we stayed at home most of the time. There were points in April and May when life wasn’t too bad, with some shops open, and some parents sending their children school. But two weeks after the uprising began, the regime released prisoners from jails in an attempt to buy their loyalty and so the rate of crime went up.

We felt very frustrated. We knew the rebels were fighting for us and we felt we couldn’t do anything. So in order to help, people in Tripoli built up secret, trusted networks to collect money and medicines to send to the rebels.

We all thought Gaddafi would be finished because of the international efforts. If it had been just the Libyan rebels on their own, it would’ve been more difficult as Gaddafi had money and power. But when NATO got involved, we thought it was clear they would go all the way.

When the rebels came, we were home because it was Ramadan and just after Iftar (the evening meal when Muslims break their fast during Ramadan). There had been warnings from the rebels that they were about to take Tripoli, but we had heard this before and it never materialised, so weren’t sure if it was plausible. We heard shooting outside and from the mosque there were cries of “Allahu Akhbar!” (God is great!) - but we weren’t sure what had happened until the next day. We expected the battle to be a lot harder as there had been thousands of Gaddafi people everywhere, on every corner of every street, checking people and searching houses.

My parents’ house is just behind the compound of Abdullah Senussi, Gaddafi’s brother-in law. The rebels entered the main entrance and we saw that Gaddafi loyalists were jumping out onto the roofs of houses next to it. Four got into our garden and began using it as cover to shoot from. The rebels were shouting at them to surrender, that they wouldn’t harm them. They didn’t believe them – they were 14 or 15, just boys really, and all they knew about the rebels was what they had been told - that they were bad people who were going to kill them. So they kept fighting, running from house to house. In the end the rebels killed one of them and captured the rest.

I saw these kids crying after they were caught by the rebels, and saying, “We didn't want to fight - they forced us.”

Now Tripoli feels much safer, most of the shops are open and hopefully the banks will open soon. Every day things get better. The rebels have spread out in the streets and set up checkpoints –they smile and chat to us, and during Eid they even handed out sweets, cakes and cold water - and in the last three days the police have started coming back. We hear every day of more arrests of people who were in the military. As far as I know, people aren’t arrested for supporting Gaddafi, although normal people who used to support him are now changing their minds. I don’t know if that’s because they are scared or because they realise Gaddafi was wrong.

It’s very difficult to see what will happen next. Of course we want to see Gaddafi caught and put on trial, and we want to build our country and create democracy. But the problem is that after 40 years of dictatorship, we don’t know what democracy is. So this is a dangerous period. We have to start from the beginning, and there are some people who just want power. The Libyans right now are very innocent. They may believe any promises. But for now, I just want to be optimistic and enjoy this time when the atmosphere in Tripoli is so wonderful.

Basma Mansuri is a 33-year-old accountant living in Tripoli.