Tripoli witness: Fear and uncertainty

People queue outside a petrol station in Tripoli. Photo: 25 March 2011
Image caption Long queues have built up at petrol stations

The uncertainties and fear over what is to come and what is happening at present remain rife in Libya, as the coalition air strikes on military targets continue. One Tripoli resident - who did not want to be identified for security reasons - describes the mood in the capital.

Who ever thought that an oil-rich country like Libya could face fuel shortages?

That is exactly what is happening as I write these words. People - including myself - have been scrambling to fill up the tanks of their cars in anticipation of what appears to be a looming threat of fuel shortage - or even worse - no fuel at all.

It is one of the few reports on state television you can take at face value. It is also physically visible in the long queues at petrol stations across the capital.

My relative and I spent two hours waiting our turn on Thursday, and in the end we succeeded only because the manager is a friend of a friend of a neighbour. As instructed, we reversed into the petrol station from the exit end and shamelessly re-fuelled as others stared us down with visible disdain.

I never thought I would live to see the day where you needed "connections" to get petrol here. My friends in other parts of the city tell me many stations are closed for business, which fuelled even further panic.

Whistlers on roof

A new public talent is on display these days.

Every night in Tripoli, since the coalition air strikes began, people race to the rooftops of their buildings or houses at the first audible sound of anti-aircraft artillery shots or the rumble of an explosion.

A few minutes in, you will start hearing the men whistling, some are close, others from a distance, and - in the otherwise still and silent dead of night - the chorus of whistling echoes across the neighbourhoods and rises up.

No-one really knows what the whistling means - we're left privately assuming that there is an underlying tone of excitement in the choir and not of the type that would impress the regime.

Another new talent being enforced is stone-throwing. I have yet to see it for myself, but my friends excitedly tell me of the scenes they witnessed.

"Some people in Ben Ashour area and in Souk el-Jumaa district have been stoning the pro-Gaddafi, green flag-bearing cars that drivedown their streets; they throw the stones and sprint," they say.


However, it is not just opponents of the regime displaying new talents.

Some would argue that the country's state-owned television channels have recently lifted the "iron curtain" on directors and actors who have long been absent from the scene.

Image caption Col Gaddafi has vociferous supporters

They marvel at the footage being displayed claiming there have been civilian casualties in coalition air strikes in Tripoli.

There was one scenario on Wednesday night that seemed particularly suspicious. It showed one woman - with only her back in view shouting and screaming over the debris.

This was accompanied by other short scenes of security officials closing the doors of an ambulance and telling the driver to go. Look closer and you will notice the faintest of smirks edging across the face of one of the emergency personnel.

The scenes on television of the funerals have also come under scrutiny. What stands out the most perhaps is the absence of emotion - usually a key element of any funeral here.

"They are making a mockery out of death... this is like an inferior version of Hollywood. It's Lollywood!" one friend says in disbelief and anger as he watches the screen.

There is still no clear picture on whether there have been any civilian casualties as a result of the coalition strikes; but there certainly hasn't been any talk of any on the streets of Tripoli amongst the people.

Death is very public knowledge here: under normal circumstances, residents are not only told of people who have died in Tripoli - whom they have often never heard of - but even in cities farther afield.

The dozens of civilian casualties being claimed by the government would hardly go unnoticed.

'Group torture'

A friend of mine recently released from detention - where he was severely beaten - described the conditions in one prison facility, where he says hundreds of Libyans from Tripoli, Misrata, Zawiya and Zuwara were held.

"They have a tape that replays 24 hours a day in the cells on loud speakers - the audio of Col Gaddafi's first televised speech after the start of the uprising where he says he will 'sterilise' Libya house-by-house, street-by-street," he says.

He goes on to recount how security officers used what he believes were stun guns in one room where they carried out "group torture".

"We were all lined up against the wall and one security officer came in and shocked the detainees as he walked along - it was random, he somehow missed giving me a hit. I was still blindfolded and all I could hear was the sound of an electric shock and the men making a restrained painful sound through clenched teeth and falling to the floor.

"I kept praying in hushed tones. In the cell where I spent the night, there were countless men who told me they had been there for days or weeks, most were wearing pyjamas - which suggested they were dragged from their homes late at night - and many had urinated in their pants."

He saw families: one elderly man and his three grown sons for example, who were brought in because the fourth son had been grabbed during a protest in Tripoli on 22 February. They have not seen him ever since.

This article was written by BBC Tripoli correspondent Rana Jawad, whose identity was disguised for her safety. You can read her account of reporting undercover from Tripoli here.

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