Tripoli a city in limbo, ruled by fear

Images of Tripoli change from joy and celebration to fearful and tense as reporter moves toward centre of city under attack.

Libyan rebel fighters celebrate near a golf buggy belonging to Muammar Gaddafi at the entrance of Bab al Aziziya compound in Tripoli August 23, 2011. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra (LIBYA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST MILITARY SPORT GOLF CONFLICT) *** Local Caption ***  ZOH05_LIBYA-_0823_11.JPG
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TRIPOLI // The road to Tripoli has become more winding than anyone expected - figuratively speaking, at least.


Battle for Tripoli

On Sunday, it all seemed straightforward. Until then, the 50-kilometre stretch of highway from Zawiyah to the Libyan capital was a corridor of mayhem, where rebels aboard any vehicle with four functioning wheels fought running battles with forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi. No reporter following the rebels from their mountain redoubts in western Libya dared run the gauntlet.

Within hours, it all changed, the transformation signalled by the horns and celebratory gunfire of insurgents and ordinary Libyans packed in pickups and sedans and speeding towards Tripoli, their fingers thrust into the air in a "V" for victory sign and their voices joined in a chorus of patriotic songs bellowing from overtaxed speakers.

The rebels from western Libya had a right to celebrate: they had survived a five-month siege by Mr Qaddafi's forces, then broken his supply lines to Algeria and to Tunisia and taken Zawiya. The 32nd Brigade, an elite unit commanded by Khamis Qaddafi, a son of the Libyan leader, had melted away from its base at kilometre 27. It was clear: They were going to win the race to Tripoli and by doing so, win bragging rights and a future claim to political power over their fellow insurgents from the east. After months of covering the conflict, I was on their heels.

My first sight of Tripoli came at around 11pm, when I drove into Janzour, a town over whose rooftops the capital's clutch of skyscrapers could be seen on the horizon. The small boxy buildings along Janzour's poorly lit streets made the edges of Mr Qaddafi's mighty fiefdom look just as any other place in Libya: dusty and rundown.

For its residents, however, the evening was anything but humdrum. They swarmed the streets, celebrating with gunfire and chanting anti-Qaddafi slogans. "We are freedom," one man shouted in English, his grammar shaky but his exuberance all the more profound for it.

A few kilometres on, in the neighbourhood of Gharghish, a cavalcade of noisy vehicles created a gridlock. "We will take all of Tripoli tomorrow," shouted a rebel above the din. "Maybe," murmured another, his caution more prescient than might have imagined at the time.

The next morning, I discovered how prescient. Joining a rebel convoy driving back into Tripoli from Zawiyah, I expected to find a capital in the throes of revelry, giddy with a new-found sense of freedom. Instead, I found a city divided, fearful and tense.

In the posh neighbourhood of Andalus, near a row of shuttered boutiques and expensive restaurants, a 200-metre-long trail of fresh blood ended with a corpse of a Qaddafi fighter abandoned in an side alley. Someone, out of piety or simple respect, put a blanket over him.

At a roundabout two kilometres from Green Square, the heart of Mr Qaddafi's realm, the insurgents stopped every few metres, redirecting their eyes and ears to the sound of a possible snipers or ambush ahead. We tried several times to enter the square, where less than two days earlier scores of insurgents and hundreds, if not thousands, of their supporters had danced, cheered and waved flags to celebrate their liberation.

Now it was no longer clear who controlled the key swath of territory. The streets leading to it were deserted. Snipers lurked in alleys, on rooftops and in the fortress from which the Libyan leader had addressed thousands of his supporters only six weeks ago, the rebels said.

Sure enough, a nearby military academy, where rebels hoped to set up their new headquarters, soon became a target for Mr Qaddafi's soldiers. Along with a handful of other reporters, I fled, occasionally ducking behind parked cars to avoid becoming an easy target.

A few minutes after we left, a car rented by a correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera went up in flames after automatic weapons fire ignited the extra fuel cans in its trunk. The correspondent looked on helplessly as the car - and all of his equipment - were incinerated. He was lucky. Five men were killed and seven others wounded in the attack.

Yesterday, the road to Tripoli was as daunting as it seemed three days earlier - a reflection of the limbo in which the capital hovered.

In Zawiyah, it was almost impossible to find fuel for cars. At one petrol station, the last 20-litre-tank went for US$100. The Libyans who had been working for us refused to drive into the capital or even to its outskirts, as horrifying tales of violent street fighting poured in from friends and family inside the confines of the capital and swirled like wildfire.

Tripoli is a city ruled not by the rebels or by Mr Qaddafi's forces but by fear. At a clinic on the western outskirts where wounded rebels were being treated, doctors were scared, asking me not to identify them or their location. They feared the Qaddafi forces will target the clinic, said a young nurse, sporting a T-shirt bearing the slogan, "Welcome to Libya."