Saturday, June 11, 2011

In Tripoli, War Against North African State Feels Far Away

DiManno: In Tripoli, war feels far away

June 11, 2011
Rosie DiManno
toronto star

TRIPOLI—There are pony rides and children playing on monkey bars. Somebody in a Mickey Mouse costume steers a festively adorned horse-carriage around the pathway. Couples walk hand in hand, enjoying the sunshine. A street vendor peddles key chains embossed with images of Moammar Gadhafi.

A passel of young school kids is picking up litter.

On the big-screen television, Libya’s military marches in parade formation, saluting sharply. The soundtrack is martial music. But nobody in Green Square is paying any attention.

This is downtown Tripoli, gleaming white and tranquil after Friday prayers as residents emerge to stroll, sip coffee at sidewalk tables, poke around in the few shops that have opened on a day of rest.

True, it is remarkably quiet for a sprawling metropolis. The crowds are small and some public plazas completely devoid of human presence. Along the narrow streets of the Medina Maze — the old city — a lethargic hush has settled.

Does such silence signify anything? Do those who won’t offer words actually speak volumes?

When a smashingly beautiful lady soldier — .45 pistol holstered on her hip, long raven tresses held back with a camouflage bandana — throws back her head and laughs at a colleague’s joke, the sound practically cannonades around the square.

The war feels very far away.

In fact, the closest front is less than 100 kilometres south and west, where Berber rebels have put loyalist troops on their heels, seizing several towns and villages in advancing through the Nafusa Mountains. And in the approaches to poor, benighted Misurata, fierce fighting yesterday claimed the lives of at least two dozen rebels.

Tripoli, though, can apparently withstand the pressures of a NATO assault bombing its extremities. A late spring languor permeates the atmosphere and civilians go sluggishly about their business, complaining about long gasoline line-ups yet otherwise not unduly discomfited. Perhaps that’s why there is no aura of urgency in the capital.

Store shelves are filled with food. Parents clearly don’t fret about unloosing their kids in public playgrounds. And there is, so far as an outsider can tell, little sense of impending peril.

Libya’s civil war — and make no mistake, that’s what this has become — continues to stoke tremendous bitterness on both sides and to harden attitudes. Yet the daily onslaught of NATO firepower from the air, which frequently rattles windows in Tripoli’s residential neighbourhoods, has not greatly rattled its citizens’ nerves, the evidence — albeit anecdotal — suggests.

Maybe the citizenry is made of sterner stuff, or it has become inured to violence creeping closer. Or, having endured more than four decades of Gadhafi’s rule, they can’t imagine their leader exposed as a military midget and humiliated into exile.

But the fact is this: Those 10,500 strike sorties flown by NATO bombers are mere pinpricks in a country almost twice the size of British Columbia. All the talk from Naples-based Operation Unified Protector about degrading Gadhafi’s war-making capacity must be largely taken on faith.

Rebel cities such as Benghazi in the east were undoubtedly rescued from imminent massacre by loyalist forces back in March when western might intervened. But the regime hasn’t folded. Some front lines are volatile, kinetic with shelling, while others are at dead calm stalemate.

At the heart of the nation, with the sun dappling off the Mediterranean, Tripoli feels cocooned from the forces pulling Libya apart, despite this past week’s fierce assault on targets around the city, 66 strikes in one 24-hour period.

“NATO has seen its most intense precision air strikes on targets in Tripoli,’’ Wing Commander Mike Bracken told an operational briefing in Naples on Friday. “However, orders are still coming out from the capital, which is why we continue to hit Gadhafi’s command and control, military equipment, intelligence structures and other military facilities in and around the city that are actively engaged in brutal suppression of the civilian population.’’

Put another way: However cornered Gadhafi may be, scooting from one hiding place to another in Tripoli (not that his presence in this vicinity can be confirmed), the regime continues to function in combat posture, despite the recent defection of five more generals.

In the capital, at least, there is no end-of-days atmosphere. A dozen button-hole interviews yesterday elicited nothing beyond rah-rah-Gadhafi declarations and some plaintive entreaties for NATO to knock it off.

“Bombs, bombs, all the time bombs,’’ complained one man, Omar, as he sat with friends at a patio table. “But they haven’t fallen anywhere near me. What is the purpose of these attacks against Libyan people? I don’t understand what NATO is trying to do. They say they are protecting civilians from Gadhafi but he is not the one attacking civilians.’’

Neither is NATO, but that point is ignored.

A cab driver pounds on his steering wheel in frustration. “You, the foreign media, should be telling the truth instead of writing lies.’’ He points out a banner chiding the BBC for misrepresentation. “You only tell stories that support what your governments want to hear.’’

Admittedly, man-on-the-street interviews in Tripoli are no proper gauge for public sentiment. This may all be a chimera, the false front of indignation from a populace that has learned to hold its tongue within the all-encompassing surveillance of a state where zero dissent has been tolerated. Leeriness of strangers is understandable. Few will expose themselves when Libya’s future hangs in the balance. They’re anxious about stepping the wrong way.

Yet those who can’t speak, or won’t speak, should not necessarily be entirely spoken for. It can’t be assumed that Gadhafi is without support in his capital, a city that, by many indices, has done well by the repugnant regime.

At some point — and it feels nowhere close to happening — a liberated Tripoli might see dancing in the streets, the facade dropped.

On a warm June night, there is simply pleasure in the silence of bombs not bursting nearby.

No comments: