Tripoli witness: Humour amid the fear

Residents of Tripoli demonstrating in support of Col Muammar Gaddafi - 31 March 2011
Image caption These residents of Tripoli are demonstrating in support of Col Gaddafi, but not everyone in the Libyan capital is behind the Libyan leader

As coalition air strikes continue to hit Libya, fear and uncertainty linger in the capital, Tripoli. A resident of the city, who did not want his name to be used for security reasons, describes the mood there.

It rained in Tripoli for much of the day on Wednesday, which not only dampened the dust and sand of this city, but also - it seemed - the mood of many people here.

They are feeling increasing pressure from shortages of fuel, money and bread.

But as night fell the news of Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa's defection to the United Kingdom left many here breathless.

For those who have been nervously watching scenes on their televisions of the rebels advancing then retreating over and over again, the sense of a stalemate that could prolong the conflict has been gradually sinking in - rather depressingly.

For those opposed to the regime, Mr Koussa's escape from the country seems to have instilled fresh hopes; they believe that the regime is on the brink of internal collapse.

One friend likened the foreign minister's departure to "the colonel losing his spinal column".

This resignation is unlike any of those witnessed since the uprising began six weeks ago - it is the most significant yet.

He was not merely a minister; he is one of the most feared personalities in the country - the "man of death" as he is locally known - and one of the most trusted figures in Col Gaddafi's inner circle.

Some would argue that the Libyan leader trusted this man more than he did his own sons.

The now ex-foreign minister of Libya was the chief of the country's notorious external intelligence service for 15 years.

'Mentally ill'

Before the civilian uprising here, the handful of anti-government dissidents who dared speak out publicly against the regime were immediately branded by officials as mentally ill and subsequently detained indefinitely. It's a tale that Libyans are familiar with.

Image caption Coalition air strikes have continued to hit targets in Tripoli and other cities under Col Gaddafi's control

It is therefore not surprising to many that Iman al-Obeidi was immediately described by officials as mentally ill last week after she stormed the hotel where the foreign media have been confined and said she had been raped.

The images of her being dragged away by security and silenced as journalists trying to defend her were beaten has struck yet another fearful chord amongst residents here.

What is new in this instance perhaps is the claim by officials that she was intoxicated.

She is not the first case of rape we have heard of here.

I have heard of two other cases in recent weeks. One of them was of a Moroccan housekeeper who was left behind by her employers as they fled to a safe house because half their family members had been detained.

The story that circulated through word-of-mouth was that security forces stormed the house she was staying in with the intention of detaining the rest of the family. Finding her alone there instead, they raped her.

The news reports we have seen say that Ms al-Obeidi said she was targeted because she was from Benghazi - a revenge attack by pro-Gaddafi forces.

That too is not the first case to be heard of here among Tripoli's residents.

There have been several incidents in different parts of the capital branded as revenge attacks, where prominent families originally from Benghazi have apparently been targeted, their homes raided, searched, and their laptops and mobile phones taken.

In one instance, a security officer told a family: "You Easterners, 'hay aleikon hey [a local expression to convey a warning]'."


My friend recounted what could be regarded as an amusing scene he witnessed from his balcony in downtown Tripoli more than a week ago.

"It was late at night and an elderly man wobbled his way down the street shouting 'Allah [God], Muammar [the colonel], and Libya!' He paused for a moment and turned to a group of men standing on the street and added: "But he [Muammar Gaddafi] IS taking long isn't he? He said it will be over in days, no?' It was quite a sight!".

There were fits of laughter - I'm told - from the group of men listening to him as they gently urged the drunkard to go home. What is odd in this scenario is that up until a month ago, no man in Libya publicly displayed intoxication - not least because alcohol is illegal here.

Libyan inspired 'Possible Scenarios'

Every day analysts abroad - both Libyan and foreign - have been spinning possible scenarios for Libya's future.

Residents of Tripoli have come up with a set of their own fictitious and humour/terror-based outcomes that are far from the traditional outlook. These are just a few of what I've come across in recent weeks.

  • If the coalition air strikes overtly go after the leader himself, Col Gaddafi will press a secret button in his bunker which will detonate bombs across the country and wipe it off the map.
  • If the regime regains control of all of Libya it will dig a very large hole, put all the opposition in it and burn everyone alive.
  • The leaders of the opposition in Benghazi are secretly regime loyalists. They will reveal themselves soon and we will discover this was all a big lie.
  • The Libyan leader and his sons will face the public and the world, apologise for all their wrongdoings and ask for forgiveness.

That last one usually draws a roar of laughter in small circles. It may seem impossible to find humour in times of war and fear - but it happens.

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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