Africa

Eyewitness: Whispers and propaganda in Libyan capital

A Libyan man sits by his house along one of the narrow streets in the old city of Tripoli, 6 April 2011.
Image caption The city of Tripoli - Col Gaddafi's stronghold - has witnessed an uneasy quiet

As rebel groups continue their offensive in Libya, one resident in Tripoli - who does not want to be identified for his own safety - explains what it is like to live in a city full of mistrust and whispers.

In recent weeks I have found myself straining my neck and an ear in an effort to find out what is on the minds of a population that has largely gone silent, unless you are someone they trust and have known for eternity.

Few people are openly voicing their opinions, while state propaganda has been relentless and widespread.

State TV is not only beamed through television sets in people's homes but, incredibly, also in public.

'Dogs and traitors'

Driving around the city this week, there were instances where it appeared as though a mass brainwashing session was in full view to the public.

The state satellite channel al-Libiyah, run by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, was transmitting live through at least two extra-large billboards I came across; one in the business district of the Dat al-Emad building complex and another in the garden area parallel to Green Square in the centre of town.

This is the medium that the regime is flagging as an example of the much-declared future vision of reforms in areas like freedom of the press.

The presenters - it seems - are free to refer to the opposition in Libya as "the rats, the dogs, the traitors, the murderers who have sold the nation" to name just a few of the colourful terms used.

They are also free to bring up an image of man they claim is a known Libyan opposition figure they call a traitor, speaking with what looks like a badly doctored logo of the CIA behind him and a statement being read where he "confesses" his ways.

The only other obvious discrepancy is that the lip movement does not match the audio, and the image looks like a poorly dubbed foreign language television series.

Playground talk

There is not much to learn from overheard snippets of ordinary people.

Image caption Tripoli has seen regular protests in support of Col Muammar Gaddafi

One elderly man tells his friend "I laughed and told him, but there are no more flights... [inaudible]… hard… [inaudible]… money".

It is what children say that is probably the most striking.

Earlier this week, I "accidentally" overheard the neighbourhood children chatting on the other side of our concrete fence.

There must have been at least three of them and one was particularly enraged as he spoke on a mobile phone.

"Allo!... LISTEN… If he says ANYTHING!… what?... Ah… you tell him to shut his mouth!... and Allah, Muammar and Libya!" he said.

A few minutes later his friend asks: "What were you saying? Who were you talking to?"

The boy laughs and replies: "I was teaching him! Allah, Muammar, and Libya! The people want Colonel Muammar!"

I soon heard the others join in on the chanting, which faded within seconds as they walked back to their homes.

I was unsure of what to make of this exchange, knowing that some children are being taught by their parents to only say these words in public to avoid trouble.

But what if there is more to it than meets the eye? Or ear in this case. There are - for example - growing accounts, by parents and teachers alike of children from the eastern part of the country being slandered and intimidated by their peers on school grounds.

Many believe that the seeds of hatred have been planted by the regime to fulfil the prophesised "civil war" declared by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in February.

Secret revolution?

Meanwhile, in the past week, something has been taking place in the dead hours of the night and well into the crack of dawn in several parts of the capital, mainly in central and eastern Tripoli.

The crackling sound of heavy gunfire and what often sounds like very small explosions - similar to petrol bombs - have been heard in different parts of the city.

Image caption State TV refers to the rebel groups fighting in eastern parts as "rats" and "dogs"

Many believe there have been small sporadic battles being fought in some of Tripoli's districts like Souk al-Juma.

The word around town is that some of Tripoli's residents have managed to get a hold of some arms illegally sold on the black market; it could explain last week's rumour that the government was collecting all the weapons it distributed to its supporters.

The explanation was that they realised several items were getting reported as "stolen" by their new owners, which raised the alarm bells.

It also comes amidst another account making the rounds; on Tuesday night the police station in Souk al-Juma district was raided by opponents to the regime there, where they looted weapons and ammunition.

All things considered, this may possibly be the beginning of a city that is preparing itself for a battle it feels it cannot face without arms.

Between the lines

I have been told of what some people believe are indirect calls for anti-government protests by some in Tripoli's brigade force.

Here is how the theory came about; this is the account as relayed by a friend of a friend.

"I was at the station when a fight broke out between two grown men in the middle of the queue. Several people intervened and resolved it as the brigade men stationed there idly stood by and watched.

"I was near one of the military men who had been walking up and down and he started making small-talk with me; he's from Tripoli.

"As he watched the fight he said, 'they [the quarrelling duo] are taking out their anger here at the station, they should be taking the fight to the streets, we would support them,' he told me.

"He kept walking. I think he was trying to say that some - like him - would support an anti-government protest."

Now in my mind, I would have had to witness this exchange before passing judgement on intent.

My friend agrees with his mate - and told me as much when I challenged him: "What if he meant they simply shouldn't be fighting in a petrol station? Or maybe he was testing your friend's loyalties?" I asked.

"No!" is what he insisted.

I was left wondering whether this truly was a scenario which required the intended audience to read between the lines, or whether it was simply wishful thinking that prompted some of Tripoli's residents to translate the event the way they did.

In times of the rampant unknown, it could be one or the other. Who knows?