babelmed - 22/03/2011
Some 80 kilometres outside of Tripoli, a vast mishmash of mountains, valleys and cliffs in the middle of nowhere hide a freak of nature very few know about. So little is known about it, that since my Libyan friends took me to see it eight years ago I have only recounted the story to a handful of people with whom I don’t risk my reputation.
So here is my Libyan secret, now that everything in Libya is being turned upside down: In the valley of Al Riyayna, the forces of gravity do not work. Literally. I saw it with my own eyes – a car, turned off, left on free gear at the bottom of the slope, going suddenly upwards, on its own; an empty can of Coke rolling upwards; water poured on the tarmac defying the laws of gravity.
“This goes to prove everything in Libya is upside down,” I had told my friends, otherwise speechless, admitting I had just witnessed the unbelievable.
I am sure there is some scientific explanation to this bizarre geographic phenomenon, but my secretive research about this particular region proved futile. Not even one page turns up on Google. If only it was in the United States, it would be one big amusement park, a prime tourist attraction, Freakland. This was Libya.
Smashing the Green wall of silence
My Libyan friends in Tripoli would not talk to me in front of others about politics. Gaddafi was not even mentionable – some spy mic might be registering our conversation. You could smell and touch the fear. The little deep discussions I had with them about the regime would happen in my hotel room, door locked, one-on-one, whispering our questions and answers. Even the angriest would admit defeatedly that we were crossing a red line, and that little could be done to change things.
“This is our system, if we don’t like it, we can leave,” they would say at the end of their conversation, almost apologetically. “That’s our reality, and I guess that’s everyone else’s.”
Indeed many of them left, many of them have studied and settled abroad, some of them sent by Gaddafi himself on some state scholarship and never to return. But many others wanted to stay, despite the oppression, because despite everything they loved their country. Libya is not Gaddafi, they kept repeating, even though his iron grip has crippled the country for 42 years
Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the man who still deludes himself with his self-given title of Leader of the Revolution and sports all sorts of medals on his chest – including the Maltese highest national honour, Gieh ir-Repubblika – has been so far one of the greatest survivors of history.
Since his coup with a revolutionary command council of army officers in 1969 in which they ousted King Idris, Gaddafi has managed to reshape Libya in his own warped idea of nationhood through terror and grandiose lunacy. From the anti-colonialist who earned initial respect from his peers in the region for embodying the Third World’s struggle against the legacies of former empires, the Libyan leader moved on to become the unpredictable maverick to a downright monster ready to kill his own people without a moment’s hesitation.
When prisoners at Abu Sleem protested, he killed them all, 1,200 of them. When students revolted, he hanged them on campus. When Libya was indicted on the Lockerbie bombing, he kept bluffing despite Libya’s innocence, till he pitted his nation into a nine-year embargo. When he saw Saddam Hussein hounded out of his palace and hanged at the gallows, he became best friends with George Bush and Tony Blair.
His spectacular rehabilitation in December 2003, when he reportedly renounced weapons of mass destruction, was in reality only skin deep; an interval in his freak show. At the time, the engineering department at Al Fateh University did not even have electricity to run its laboratories – and this in the premium oil-producing country. American multinationals, and European ones, were quick to befriend the man once dubbed as the “mad dog of the Middle East” by former US President Ronald Reagan.
Many Libyans were sceptical Gaddafi even had weapons of mass destruction in the first place, except for chemical weapons that require no spectacular expertise to produce. Not even Saddam Hussein had the WMDs after all, so what could one expect of an ageing, decaying regime armed with rusty soviet weapons? So superficial was his much-lauded rehabilitation, that his unpredictable, maverick style remained constant, be it insisting on erecting his ridiculous tent in New York or blackmailing Europe with flooding it with immigrants.
All along, the world has refused to see Gaddafi at his bloodiest, his looniest. On the land of oil, Libyans were tortured, executed and others just “disappeared” for the simple reason that they were critical of the regime. Individuals, defectors, activists, journalists and organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been ringing the alarm for decades, but nobody listened.
Yes, I told you so
When then Maltese President Eddie Fenech Adami visited Gaddafi in July 2008, I had asked him whether the Libyan leader’s ambitions to develop nuclear energy with Russian and French investment was discussed at all in the tent in Bab Al Aziziya. At the time, three French reactors we leaking radioactive material, so Malta’s national interest was clearly at stake if Tripoli started experimenting with nuclear.
“We didn’t think it was a question to go into at this point in time,” Fenech Adami replied in his typical dismissive manner.
Even less tactfully, then Maltese health minister John Dalli and now European Commissioner, who also had business interests and consultancies in the Jamahiriya, had chastised me in front of all the other journalists at the press conference at the Maltese embassy.
“You keep writing the same old stupidities,” he told me. To him, questioning Gaddafi and his motives was just useless chatter that would only undermine Malta’s efforts to keep good business relations with Libya. So blinded and off the mark was the Maltese government’s reading of the situation, that only a couple of weeks ago Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi was hugging the tyrant in what was a genius of timing – making you wonder whether the foreign ministry is run by Gaddafi’s camels.
Now, cornered by his own people, Gaddafi is threatening to explode Libya’s oil wells. Thank God he hasn’t had the time and the expertise to develop nuclear reactors.
As the Libyans, inspired by their Tunisian and Egyptian neighbours, defy decades-old assumptions, the latest pictures coming out of Libya make us all witnesses to a widespread massacre. The regime keeps losing one general after the other – the Libyan delegations to the UN and to the Arab League have defected, as have the two heroic pilots who landed in Malta. The Libyan deputy ambassador to the UN called Gaddafi’s measures, “a genocide”.
From the looks of it, Gaddafi will stay on until he is killed or forcibly removed. And it will be a great irony of sorts, that the self-styled revolutionary leader of the masses would have been ousted by the angriest revolutionaries in Libya’s history.