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Letter from Tripoli: An eyewitness account

Yesterday evening (21 February) I was able to speak via Skype for about 20 minutes with a friend who lives in Sarraj, a suburb of Tripoli that is located 10 kilometers west of the city’s center. He agreed to my publishing a summary of the main points of our conversation; and he also answered some follow-up questions via email. Ali, which is not his real name, speaks fluent American English; his background, which I will not specify, makes him qualified to give reliable information about certain military matters

The atmosphere in Sarraj is fearful and tense, but otherwise calm. There is no violence on the streets, but everyone can hear loud caliber rounds fired every few seconds. “This proves that sniping is taking place,” writes Ali in his email. “It means, actually, that someone is aiming and shooting at something and apparently not wasting his ammo too much with careful firing. It is an eerie feeling to stand outside and hear this.”

He also saw three Chinook helicopters flying over his neighborhood, heading north toward the center of the city. More details about that below. Ali and his neighbors take turns patrolling the neighborhood around the clock, to protect it from roaming mercenary soldiers; but otherwise they stay at home. Since Qaddafi’s regime enforced a strict ban on civilians owning firearms, they are using makeshift weapons to protect themselves. Ali said he is armed with a crowbar. The mercenaries, Ali said, are everywhere. They come mostly from Chad and Darfur.

The government briefly blocked access to Aljazeera and other satellite television stations, but then stopped. Libyans are now able to watch satellite television, and they do have access to the internet, although the connection is unstable and capricious. There was quite a lot of interference during our conversation via Skype, with Ali’s voice breaking up several times. He said that he can access his Gmail account from his laptop computer, but not from his iPhone. In terms of infrastructure, water and electricity are fine. His family stocked up on food and supplies before the current troubles began, and are not worried about shortages.

Ali confirmed readily that he was afraid. He said that neither he nor his friends have any sense of how the situation in Libya would play out. “On the one hand I cannot believe that things can go back to the way they were before all this,” he said. “But on the other hand, Qaddafi obviously does not have any limits. We knew he was crazy, but it’s still a terrible shock to see him turning mercenaries on his own people and just mowing down unarmed demonstrators. So yeah, we knew he was crazy. But maybe we did not realize he was that crazy. It’s a scary and devastating feeling to be here now.” Ali said that he knew for a confirmed fact that civilian airplanes were being used to fly soldiers and weapons to Benghazi.

He also heard from several sources that officers in Benghazi, including air force officers, had been executed for refusing orders to kill the anti-government demonstrators. The same sources described a mass grave near Benghazi, containing the bodies of more than 100 executed officers.

Below are Ali’s answers to questions submitted by some people who follow me on Twitter. I’ve edited them for spelling, grammar and typos.

Q: What is the situation with the army? Are Libyan soldiers attacking demonstrators, helping or staying neutral? Do you know if soldiers are defecting to the opposition? If yes, are they doing so in significant numbers?

A: The Libyan army is one of the poorest and most neglected security sectors in the government. They are poorly fed , equipped, trained and paid. They are mostly ceremonial and Qaddafi does not trust them. So what we have here are private battalions with each of his sons owning the one named for him. So for example his son Khamees has a battalion belonging to him calling it “Kateebit Khamees.” Each is placed in private super huge barracks situated strategically around Tripoli for situations like these. These battalions are well-equipped, trained and paid and are extremely loyal not to the country but to the leader of their battalion.

So to answer your question the regular army is non-compliant and has mostly sided with the people. Remember they are poorly-equipped and so can be of only limited help. However, the battalions belonging to the regime itself are very much in the fight and are killing people wholesale. Still their numbers are not so great to cover this huge country so it seems they are complemented by mercenaries.

Q: How bad are the air strikes? What are they targeting?

I am not sure about the results of the air strikes since just before the assault started in Tripoli all the mobile phone lines were cut and no one standing outside can communicate anymore with anyone from a distance. I started to hear fighter jets roaring but not so loud because they were actually making sharp turns from a distance several times it seems over the same area . Then the TV confirmed what I did not even want to imagine. TV channels including Aljazeera, Al Hurra and others were talking about protesters being attacked by fixed-wing aircraft. What confirmed this was the footage of two Libyan Mirage F1 fighters defecting to Malta with their pilots announcing that they refuse to kill their people! (Click here to see photos of the Mirage fighter planes in Malta).

Q: To what extent are you (Libyans, in general) aware of world reaction to events in Libya? What do you (personally) think about world reaction? What would you like the world to do?

A: Libyans are disappointed and consider the world reaction as a very weak one. From the TV official announcements the US and the EU, for example, tried to be very careful with their condemnation. It was quite clear that they were weighing their options and the consequences of either angering a surviving Qaddafi and the shame of being silent towards this carnage. Oil contracts and work opportunities for their locals seem to have a higher priority than even frowning at a tyrant going berserk on his people. Only when Qaddafi’s chances proved to be weak did they take a bolder stance; that is when they started to actually condemn the killings – but a bit too late.

Q: Can you confirm that you saw Chinook helicopters flying over central Tripoli several times, and you hear what sounds like mortar or rocket fire (single shots) quite frequently?

A: Yes, I saw three Chinook helicopters over flying my neighborhood north bound. They either were going to drop off their load in Miteega airbase north of Tripoli or drop mercenaries in the middle of the city. These are large helicopters with a 20,000 pound load capability or 40 troopers with full gear. They passed almost 30 minutes before fixed wing jets started flying and the helis made several passes traveling southbound and north bound again. Clearly they were busy dropping off something and loading up again.

Again as soon as I went to see the TV people were wailing, saying foreign mercenaries were taking positions in the city and had 4X4 trucks and were calling people on megaphones not to leave their homes.  And firing in the air to scare people.   When paroling our neighborhood we hear from a distance loud high caliber rounds being fired once every few seconds, proving that sniping is taking place – that actually someone is aiming and shooting at something and apparently not wasting his ammo too much with careful firing. An eerie feeling when standing outside.

Q: What can you tell us about the tribal rivalries in Libya, and how these are affecting reactions to Qaddafi during this crisis?

A: Libya is a tribal community and although it’s a dying notion, Qaddafi made sure to keep the people aware of their tribal divisions, winning the alliance of larger ones and hence keeping the population under control. Although the larger ones like the Werfalees and the Megrahees were privileged with power and money, his recent actions angered these tribes and for the first time in decades tribal barriers have withered away. People are uniting with other formerly rival tribes or even different ethnicities like the Amazeegh or Berbers.

Q: You said Qaddafi was believed to be hiding in a bunker. Can you say where that bunker is located?

A: It is believed that this ferocious campaign in Tripoli is due to the fact that the planned million man march today was aimed to go to the last uncalibrated and hugely symbolic fortified bunker in the heart of Tripoli called “Bab al Azeezeeya.” It is a huge area surrounded by at least three  thick walls and is known to be where Qaddafi spends most of his time and receives diplomats and delegates and make announcements. It seems he and his children are still there. Since the announcement to march to this place was announced yesterday evening people got shot wholesale in Tripoli and today the situation further escalated with the mercenaries, helicopters and fixed wing attack combination. At least that is what I think. Yesterday Saif al Islam [Qaddafi’s son] gave Libyans 48 hours to think it over. Well, things picked up pace less than three hours after his announcement.

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    1. SusanPAus

      Thank you for your comments. I am from a western country and can I say that I/we feel very disappointed with the response from major western world powers. Many of us have lobbied and asked and begged our leaders to comment and respond. I think the world is almost turning on its head. The U.S. is perhaps the weakest ethos wise it’s ever been. You guys are stronger than you have been (as a nation). How you come out of this and what you create in your country will be the telling issue in the end and you will need every ounce of wisdom to achieve great things now.

      What does one say when a leader – any leader – chooses to kill off his/her people and, as happened today, refer to them in the most insulting terms? This says it all; Gaddafi is not a leader. That loyalty you spoke of from military divisions to Gaddafi’s son. Interesting. If you want people to defend a country and its people, you don’t ensure they are loyal to an individual but to the ethos of serving each man, woman and child who lives on that land.

      I am glad to hear about the tribes. I’m glad because their change of heart speaks of a nobility and, in some ways, I wish they would cut off the oil. Then again, as it stands, Libya is finding out who its real friends (in terms of ‘power’ leaders) are right now and I can only praise the Tunisian and Egyptian doctors who have waited for hours at the border ready to help. And, I know, many people in the world are your friends and care deeply for your situation. I know many who are longing to send aid but who need to wait. I pray for you and your family and community that you come out of this whole. I offer my condolences to the families of the martyrs. They shall never be forgotten.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Bettertry

      Unbelievable, but it just goes to show that this is one guy whose has lost it. I really feel for the citizens of libya who, most of, the world didn’t know they were being led by a nutter up until now. But one thing is true the horses have bolted from the stables and Libya will never be the same again.

      Reply to Comment
    3. I am not a Libyan, nor an Arab, but I am Human. If you’re horrified at the mass murder of innocent Libyans, then sign this digital petition asking world leaders to stop the killings. And spread the word asking others to sign. We must speak together as a world of decent people. Silence is assent. Don’t just ask why the world is silent, act!


      Reply to Comment
    4. Gayle Fleming

      First, Lisa, thanks for this. And thank you Ali for sharing. I am appalled, but then again not so much. I have been saying for 20 years or more that Gaddafi is insane-truly insane so I’m not that surprised that of all the Middle East leaders, he would react with such viciousness and violence.

      My prayers and thoughts are with you and the Libyan people, and it is certainly my prayer that the international community finds a way to help bring an end to this tragedy.

      Peace and Blessings.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Well done Lisa – you are true journo.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Jason Swindle

      Thank you. Best report in the world yesterday. Please pass on my prayers to your friend.

      I hope these peaceful people find shelter to protect their lives.
      I hope world leaders put peoples lives ahead of monetary profit
      I hope world people put people’s lives ahead of monetary profit
      I hope action to stop those who are slaughtering happens today
      for the sake of peace. No fly zone over Libya today and peacekeeping force on the ground by Friday please

      Nam myoho renge kyo

      Reply to Comment
    7. Absolutely stunning account but I did have a bit of a smile when you described Ali as fluent in “American English” does that mean that he can’t understand Standard English or Australian English?

      Reply to Comment


      Reply to Comment
    9. Arlosoroff

      my sincerest hope is that no more lives will be lost in this madmans attempts to hold onto power.
      the video of him today giving his speech of over an hour long to no audience at all was really quite a depressing picture.
      there he was, in this empty, bombed out building, a symbol of his victories, shouting at a camera on his own.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Qaddafi murders hundreds, Obama calls for “restraint.”

      What did the US president mean by that? Was he saying, “Please, Mr. Qaddafi, don’t escalate to killing thousands instead of hundreds?” Or maybe, “Don’t kill hundreds, kill only dozens.”

      The shame of the Obama administration continues. What you must understand about this president is that he does not care about foreign policy at all. What happens in Libya is truly of no concern to him. This is a man solely focused on expanding the size and cost of the US government and its regulation of the American people.

      I just about guarantee that Obama has spent multiple more hours working on keeping the protests in Madison, Wisconsin, going than he has even consulting about Libya.

      More at the link of my sign-in for this comment.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Patricia

      Many blessings from Mumbai…You are not alone. People all over the world are praying for you and pressuring their governments to speak out and help. UN intervention is being urged. You are not forgotten.

      Reply to Comment
    12. I just want to support the people there

      Q: To what extent are you (Libyans, in general) aware of world reaction to events in Libya? What do you (personally) think about world reaction? What would you like the world to do?

      A: Libyans are disappointed and consider the world reaction as a very weak one. From the TV official announcements the US and the EU, for example, tried to be very careful with their condemnation. It was quite clear that they were weighing their options and the consequences of either angering a surviving Qaddafi and the shame of being silent towards this carnage. Oil contracts and work opportunities for their locals seem to have a higher priority than even frowning at a tyrant going berserk on his people. Only when Qaddafi’s chances proved to be weak did they take a bolder stance; that is when they started to actually condemn the killings – but a bit too late.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Ben Israel

      Suddenly, all this outrage against Qaddafi. Where have you all been all these years? Everyone knew what a horrible regime he ran and why so much hatred built up against it inside the country. Everyone knew about his role in the Lockerbie terrorist attack. Everyone knew about his framing the Bulgarian nurses and his sentencing those innocent people to death until Bulgaria paid a ransom worth millions of
      dollars. Yet you all kept your mouths shut then. Why weren’t you complaining to your governments then about action against this international outlaw?

      Reply to Comment
    14. Ben Israel, this is an interview with a friend of mine – someone I care about and worry about very much. Unless you have a constructive comment to make, I’d really prefer that you not comment here at all. I am asking politely and once only, okay? I did not notice you or any of your nationalist Zionist friends demonstrating outside the US embassy in protest of their support for Qaddafi.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Ben Israel-
      we’re proud of the libyans for standing up for themselves.
      not everyone needs a decade long american military occupation in order to rid themselves of a dictator and his imperialist supporters.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Ben Israel

      I have only admiration for what the Libyans are doing and I hope they succeed in getting rid of the tyrant and setting up a decent regime, which they deserve after so many decades of oppression.
      My point is that everyone OUTSIDE Libya knew what kind of regime he had. Yet Qaddafi’s Libya was appointed to the UN Human Rights Commission. That sounds like a bad joke. Where was all the outrage then?
      I’ll tell you where it was? It was politically incorrect to criticize Qaddafi then. The excuses were “he is a third worlder-he is an Arab-his country was a victim of European imperialism-we are in no position to critcize him, we believe in multi-culturalism so maybe the regime he set up is the best one for the people of Libya, he supports the Palestinians and confronts Israel, he is in the forefront of opposition to neo-colonialism…….etc, etc, etc”. You all know what I mean.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Tahel Ilan

      Libya has oil (and also had WMD’s that they allegedly gave up).
      The western wold therefore had/has an interest in staying on good terms with Kadhafi (not to mention his so-called cooperation with Europe on the immigration issue).
      True, Libya shouldn’t have been sitting on the HRC, but hey- should the US be sitting there? The US is responsible for much greater human rights abuses statistically.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Lisa, “Ben Israel and his … nationalist Zionist friends” – while you are just a rich Canadian tourist (although extremely talented and a stunning beauty), enjoying sea vistas from your rented Jaffa apartment?

      Guys, you live in the movie in this site.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Maxim, your comment makes no sense to me. At all.

      BTW, I am an Israeli citizen. And also BTW, I think my bank manager would fall on the floor laughing if he heard you call me ‘rich.’

      Not that any of that matters, since this article is about a person who lives in Libya – which is what the comments should be about.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Lisa, this is exactly what I say. You are an Israeli citizen and excellent journalist, as I will never be tired to repeat. You always bring fresh materials, you writing skills are brilliant and you often manage to write in two dimensions simultaneously. And to ignite the readership.

      But, Lisa, how can you call anybody a Zionist? Are YOU not a Zionist but just a rich Canadian tourist?

      This is what I meant.

      Reply to Comment
    21. A national Zionist = איחוד לאומי

      A political ideology.

      Reply to Comment
    22. OK now I see. It does not follow naturally from the text, or maybe I missed something or maybe just I’m out of the narrative.
      Anyway, the biopic at Facebook, with a pro make up and a wandering glance, is a sheer knock out.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Today van Rompuy (EU president) stated he is appalled by the lack of action from the EU leaders when it comes to helping the Libyan resistance. He said: are we going to stand by and watch while another Srebrenica, another Rwanda, another Dafur is going to take place?

      I think he is right- and cannot help but question why we do nothing.
      Thank you Lisa for writing this article and caring.

      Reply to Comment
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