*This post is password protected because I think it can be easily misread to reinforce the barbaric/terrorist depiction of Arabs and Libyans that often stems from US hatred and ignorance. This understanding, would of course, be an incorrect interpretation of my message. I chose to reserve it for people I trust know me and my politics well enough to recognize this. I do not believe that the USA culture is any less (and most likely more) violent than what I have witnessed here. This should be understood only as my reflections from my family trip and my frustrations with the violent culture left in the dust of the revolution.*
You are with Gaddafi or with the revolutionaries? She had a plastic machine gun pressed to my face and a gang of 3 year-olds equally armed behind her.
“No, I am with her.” I pointed to my aunt. Let her deal with them, I think. Wrong answer. The ticking of the machine gun, child rebels screams, and the swinging of a plastic police baton was all that could be heard for the next several minutes. Swept up in an experiment with child militarization, I never once gave the desired answer. I was repeatedly given two options. Most times I had a dozen imaginary bullets piercing my skull before my allegiance could be gauged by the overzealous gunkids. My cousin, who left high school to fight in the real rebel army, watched enthralled by his younger cousins. Was that pride in his eyes? Did their play bring back painful memories he’d tucked deep in his manly façade. The teenage boy I had known 3 years ago had discarded his schoolbooks and childhood for a gun. I barely recognized the adult who lay on the cushion now.
The next morning we would see up close some of the repercussions of the war the children recreated in the living room almost every night with great devotion.
We were at the end of our 2 hour journey east.
“See the buildings that were bombed? NATO.” My uncle directed our attention back and forth across Tarablus (Tripoli) Street, the main street in the town of Misurata, a town 200 kilometers (124 miles) east of Tripoli.
After the rebels seized Benghazi, Gaddafi officials had proposed dividing the nation in half granting the east sovereignty, a proposition they hoped would halt the rebels’ progression west. Misurata became a glitch in that plan when it emerged as a rebel strong hold in the western half of the nation early in the war.
“They fought here for almost 6 months, but the revolutionaries couldn’t get past Gaddafi’s troops. Then NATO bombed Gaddafi forces, allowing the rebels to move on to Tripoli”
The front of every sand colored, three-story building was splattered with bullet holes. Most windows were shattered. The street lamps bent over succumb to gun fire, and the palm trees were now tall columns, their leafy tops blown away. Every few blocks was the remains of a structure cut in half by a no-fly-zone enforcing NATO. Graffiti on tanks read “free Libya” but their eerie presence along the side of the road, abandoned with bullet holes, is a constant reminder of a recent violent revolution that maintains a grasp on the minds of the “free” Libyans.
“That is where his snipers hid, on the top of that insurance building.” My Uncle relayed the battle stories of the surrounding infrastructure as told to him by his wife’s family, Misurata natives.
Trips to Misurata have become a hajj of nationalism. Tripolitans, never having ventured east before the war, enter the bullet ridden city in packed cars with their families to celebrate the victory over Gaddafi’s forces which enabled the rebels to progress on to Tripoli. After moving beyond Misrata the rebels secured the capital and through which the country, a victory that everyone recognizes would have been impossible without NATO involvement. My own mind tackled the need of NATO intervention, a bittersweet savior the need for which had been implanted decades before the knight on a white steed entrance.
“And finally here, the museum.”
The destination for our envoy was a make shift trophy shelf of items seized from the Gaddafi compound, weaponry taken from his soldiers, and other war souvenirs. Out front the massive metal eagle that had once watched over the Gaddafi home in Tripoli stood defiled by spray paint and surrounded by tanks and bombs, all too large to fit into the small freestanding building. Gaddafi’s picture decorated the entrance mat. Visitors embraced the opportunity to trample his face as they entered, most pausing for additional stomps. Several of the children were particularly enthralled, staying for several minutes jumping passionately up and down. I hesitated, and gently walked across, unsure how I felt about participating in this celebration of death. Had my privileged US life left me unable to relate to my family who find unquestionable joy and beauty in the death of this, despite all his terrible acts, human? Was I disrespecting my family by avoiding the face as I walked in?
While most museums disguise their promotion and perpetuation of imperial legacies by presenting captured cultural artifacts of far off cultures and neutralizing wars through sterile scientific presentation, this museum did not hide behind a faux objective lens. Through my discussions with people here, I find that most are so devoted to upholding the infallible depiction of the rebel army that they couldn’t fathom another form of depicting the recently passed war.
Pictures of the rebels and civilians who lost their lives in Misurata lined the walls. Child art projects from during the revolution simultaneously celebrate the new Libya and cartooned the now deceased leader, who had been hiding in exile at the time of their creation.
Images of blood splattering from amputated limbs served as the prosecuting evidence for the adjacent walls lined with passport pictures of those, both Libyan and not, who had betrayed the rebel cause in the city. A wanted list of vengeance hunting those who’s condemning choice was to fight for the status quo.
The enthusiastic curator, points to different objects. He lifts a cardboard cover to expose a picture of a young soldier in street clothes; he lay sprawled on the street, having taken a bullet to the head, large portions of his mind exploded on the pavement. My grandmother, brought to tears, sat in a chair near the entrance for the rest of our visit simultaneously crying and praying. As her sobs and holy whispers were the background sound for the remainder of my visit to this museum, I found comfort in her response and emotion, for it was the only one visibly displayed by my family with which I could relate.
“This is the best museum ever!” One cousin proclaimed. He didn’t see the nauseous look on my face before he bounced away, his attention now shifting to another missile. “Look”
I simultaneously fought down my lunch and back my tears. Like most USians, I have a fairly high tolerance for gore that has been built up from years of intoxicating violent images in almost every movie or show I had watched. Additionally, my father had never hid the brutal realities of the Arab world, and had often shown his small children videos and photos of Israeli and Gaddafi violence. I was able to glaze over most of the bloody pictures, but my families interactions with the exhibit pushed my emotions over the edge. I could accept the bloody truth of the war, but not the truth of its impression on my family members. The fight for freedom had released another reality, that war stops the hearts of the losers and taints the hearts of the victors.
In the corner, a large screen TV rolled videos of the fighting. The curator had the remote in his hand and was anxiously queing up the video of Gaddafi’s death. My uncle gathered the younger members of the family to watch. My three-year old cousin, who had shot me repeatedly with a fake handgun the night before, squirmed behind her mother, using her mother’s leg as a shield from the gruesome images flashing on the screen. I had seen it many times before. Arab news channels had played it proclaiming Gaddafi’s death. US channels had played it under the guise of news, but with the subtext of Libyan barbarity, and was received as porn for the curious westerner, hungry for images of a revolting east.
The newscasters back in the US had been unable to sympathize with the population that had spent their entire life watching their family members murdered by the colonel bleeding at their feet. The soldiers now enacted their revenge in kicks and pistol whips. I had distracted myself from the video in the past with critiques of the broadcasting and how emphasizing and demonizing the violence used against Gaddafi ignored the systemic violence, the barbarism, in drone attacks and occupations their own nation participated in. The newscasters in the west had always reported the death of Gaddafi with a strong implied conclusion that Libyans were irrational and violent, and therefore inferior in their behaviors. In the museum, my family watched, unrepentant, at the leaders final moments.
“He was a terrible man” they had told me each time I raised an objection. “He deserved to die”. Yes, I understand for the rebels to succeed, Gaddafi would have had to die, but must this death be celebrated instead of mourned as a necessary evil of war? If we cannot extend our morality to Gaddafi himself, then at least to his soldiers who were either socialized to support the fallen leader or so economically limited they sought a soldiers pay. Do their mangled bodies deserve to be broadcast as the inevitable justice for those who opposed the revolution? Could the nationwide mourning not include all the victims in its prayers? Or was there only faith enough for the rebel victims whose faces lined the walls inside of the museum.
In coping with the war, the dominant narrative in Libya has clinched relentlessly to an understanding of the war biblically entrenched in good and evil. The rebels cannot be comprehended outside of angelic perfection. As often done in war, the rebels and citizens of Libya had diluted the brutal reality of death and war by dehumanizing those at the other end of their 17 year-old soldier’s gun. Those dressed in green, often from the neighboring town, were repeatedly described as not Libyan and not Muslim through the duration of the war. The same justification echoes now. They weren’t like us and they wanted to kill us. Do they seek to convince me, or themselves?
My hope for Libya is contingent on destroying the boundaries between the good and bad in the narrative of the revolution and post revolution politics. In order to move on from war and into creating a new state, Libyans must accept the limitations of all new leadership and their own potential for corruption. Accepting the imperfections of the military, and thus the fallibility of the rebels’ side of the conflict, would open up the opportunity to understand that Gaddafi forces were composed of humans, their neighbors and family, capable of logic, emotion, and even good. Rehumanizing the ‘enemy’ is the emotional cost of rediscovering our own humanity, that is the nuances and contradictions that make us less than perfect. They must recognize the rebel faults from during the revolution, including the massacre of surrendering or captured opposition, lynching of non-Libyans suspected of fighting with Gaddafi, and other impulsive actions unjustifiable even in the midst of war. Perhaps even recognize that all aspects of Gaddafi’s existence were not dripping in Satanism. It is, of course, recognizing the complexities of the individual that allow us to understand the corrupting abilities of power and the power of the structures that lead some people to act beyond our own rationalization and comprehension.
Without accepting and acknowledging the humanity of all the characters in the current war narrative and the resulting government, a humanity that includes a susceptibility to corruption and vengeance, Libyans will leave the most powerful agencies in the nation vulnerable to unregulated abuse, flourishing within a false belief in Libyan Rebel exceptionalism. The people must be cognizant of their leader’s capability to behave against their will, against their morals, to keep history from repeating itself. After all, Gaddafi’s 42 year presidency started with a revolution.
Breaking down the binary framing will allow for another crucial realization: The enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend. Third party influence, even if accepted should be heavily scrutinized. People here are already wary of US involvement and NATO’s role in the revolution. But the USA will exploit hesitancy. A stronger stance is necessary if the nation is to maintain any of its sovereignty in a mostly US dominated international scene.
These hopes live in the little part of me that believes, or needs to believe, in any agency for Libyans and Libya. Are the only roads to nationhood strictly routed like the guiding rails at a slaughterhouse by impeding capitalism, lust for oil, and other factors, dictating a determined, unknown but likely unfavorable, outcome?