Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Gaddafi 'Gave Us Digntiy,' A Captured Loyalist Says

August 29, 2011

Qaddafi ‘Gave Us Dignity,’ a Captured Loyalist

New York Times

TRIPOLI, Libya — Faraj Mohamed cast his eyes across the hospital room with the furtive anxiety Tripoli residents used to display when they spoke ill of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

“I myself would die a thousand times for Qaddafi, even now,” said Mr. Mohamed, a 20-year-old soldier, lying in a hospital as a prisoner of the rebels who ousted the Libyan leader. “I love him because he gave us dignity, and he is a symbol for the patriotism of the country.”

A week after rebels breached Colonel Qaddafi’s Tripoli stronghold, Mr. Mohamed offered a bracing reminder of the obstacles confronting the new provisional government still taking shape. Surt, Mr. Mohamed’s hometown as well as Colonel Qaddafi’s, remains under the control of forces loyal to the ousted Libyan leader, and so do Sabha in the south and Bani Walid in the central west.

At moments when his guards were out of earshot, Mr. Mohamed expressed the special combination of allegiance to Colonel Qaddafi and fear of chaos without him that still inspired fighters to rally around his lost cause, even after his authority had collapsed.

As Mr. Mohamed spoke of defending the Libyan leader, Colonel Qaddafi had vanished into hiding, while his wife Safiya, daughter Aisha and sons Mohammed and Hannibal fled to Algeria on Monday. The spouses of Colonel Qaddafi’s children and their offspring arrived there as well.

But Mr. Mohamed said he fought on, fearful of a future without Colonel Qaddafi.

“This war will happen again, and Libya will experience the same thing that is happening in Egypt,” Mr. Mohamed warned, repeating the series of imagined woes that Colonel Qaddafi’s supporters said had followed the ouster of that country’s strongman, Hosni Mubarak: “Murder and killing and stealing and chaos.”

“What is happening now is because of the rebels, not Qaddafi,” Mr. Mohamed said.

Mr. Mohamed, his leg in a cast and a wound on his back, lay with five other captives in a prison unit of the Mitiga air base hospital, with an armed guard in the hall. Libya’s provisional government calls them prisoners of war, but Mr. Mohamed was the only one who admitted to fighting for Colonel Qaddafi. Two fellow patients said they were migrant workers, from Niger and Somalia, who had been falsely accused of being mercenaries. Another patient, a Libyan, said he had simply been shot in the street. “I am innocent,” he said. Another was handcuffed to his bedrail.

All said they were well treated. During recent visits, hospital staff members brought them special meals just before sunset to break the daylong Ramadan fast, though the seriously sick are not typically expected to keep the fast.

When the rebel captors entered, Mr. Mohamed often abruptly switched the tone of his comments. “Now I think that all Libya is more united,” he volunteered at one point, temporarily contradicting his previous statements for the benefit of his captors.

In another apparent attempt to mollify his captors, he at times blamed Colonel Qaddafi’s propaganda for his plight. Until he was captured, he said, he had believed the reports on state- run television that the rebels were foreigners, bearded Islamic radicals, or bloodthirsty monsters who ripped out the hearts of Qaddafi loyalists.

“I didn’t watch Al Jazeera or Al Arabiya,” he maintained, referring to the two pan-Arab satellite news networks. “I didn’t know the rebels were Libyans.”

Equally uncertain was his claim that in his four months of service, he had not harmed or killed anyone.

But other comments echoed more widespread sentiments among those who support the Brother Leader, as Colonel Qaddafi liked to be called. Many remember that when Colonel Qaddafi took power in 1969 Libya was a poor and almost entirely undeveloped nation of Bedouin herders whose oil wealth appeared to enrich mainly the foreign companies that exploited it. Riding the tide of soaring oil prices over the following decades, he pursued development programs that — though hobbled by corruption and inefficiency — helped turn Libya into a primarily urban country.

Its citizens lacked basic freedoms, but thanks to oil wealth, they believed they enjoyed a relatively higher standard of living than their regional neighbors.

Mr. Mohamed, a sixth-grade dropout and son of a doorman, said Colonel Qaddafi had brought Libyans self-respect by kicking out foreign colonialists; under Colonel Qaddafi, Libyans celebrated a national holiday every year on the day the United States evacuated the air base that included the hospital where Mr. Mohamed was held.

Then there was the special patronage — buildings, roads, schools, hospitals, jobs — lavished on Colonel Qaddafi’s two former hometowns, Surt and Sabha. Surt flourished as Colonel Qaddafi’s favorite place to hold conferences, Mr. Mohamed said of the Mediterranean port city that is his hometown as well.

“Surt really loves Qaddafi,” he said. “And they will fight for him.”

But he also professed a high-minded fear that without Colonel Qaddafi’s strong hand to preserve order, the rebels would drag Libya into chaos, a faint echo of the justification used by many Middle Eastern dictators who portray their iron-fisted rule as a bulwark against lawlessness.

In a Tripoli neighborhood supportive of Colonel Qaddafi, Mr. Mohamed recalled, he met residents who “said they were scared the rebels would rape the women and kill the men.” Residents of some loyalist neighborhoods fought for the colonel even after rebels were inside his compound.

Having worked a series of low-paying odd jobs since childhood, Mr. Mohamed said, he was drawn to the promise of a soldier’s training and paycheck as well. He said he had seen a television commercial promising a good salary and training for young men who enlisted in Colonel Qaddafi’s defense. So he signed up.

He was shipped to Tripoli with barely a lesson on cleaning his Kalashnikov. Mr. Mohamed said he was housed in a large barracks and provided insufficient food and water, so he and his fellow soldiers turned to their neighbors for handouts.

Even so, he stayed loyal, he said. Other soldiers shed their uniforms and quietly slipped away after Colonel Qaddafi’s compound fell. But Mr. Mohamed fought on until the next day, when his militia was in a battle.

His comrades turned to flee, and so did Mr. Mohamed, he said, until rebels shot him in the foot.

“For God’s sake, don’t kill me!” he said he pleaded.

A moment after recalling that scene, though, his quixotic courage returned. “I would sacrifice myself, I would sacrifice my family,” he said. “I would sell myself for Qaddafi.”

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