On Feb. 25, 2011, I had my first near-death experience. I was in the biggest protest in Tripoli’s history, calling for the overthrow of the Brother Leader’s brutal system, when I heard a bullet whistle past my ears. It passed me by and slammed into a 17-year-old boy just behind me.
I looked back but couldn’t recognize if the boy was dead or not. He was limp and covered in blood. Two men pulled him inside a building, and I turned back to my own ordeal. My eyes were burning from tear gas, my ears almost deaf from the sound of bullets, and I was desperately afraid, trying to take cover by the wall of the same building the boy had just been pulled into.
We were in the Suq Aljuma neighborhood, east of the capital, walking through the mud to our target destination, Martyr’s Square in the center of Tripoli. We were faced with police, bullets, tear gas and the threat of army vans waiting to scoop up protesters. Eventually, we turned back. I ran through narrow streets and alleys to find my friends, some of whom had taken refuge in the homes of people in the area. We had walked more than 5 miles from my town to the city; now, we walked twice that distance back home, taking longer routes through narrow streets to avoid the checkpoints, which had been set up to catch protesters.
For months after that protest, I had nightmares. The picture of the 17-year-old boy covered in blood never left me. In my mind, I saw it over and over.
That day, Feb. 25, saw the last major protests in the capital for months, until Libyan rebels stormed the city in August. During that time we lived under the iron fist of a regime that was fighting hard for its survival.
Normal life came to a stop. The internet was shut down and many shops closed. “Volunteers” — armed civilians who were committed to protecting the regime — patrolled the streets. With the help of the police, they investigated and imprisoned anyone who publicly supported the revolution.
My friends and I decided to stop going to university. We felt we couldn’t continue to study while the revolution was in danger. There was a risk that, if Gaddafi won the war, we could be expelled from our studies for having missed so many lectures. We could also be investigated for supporting the revolution. Yet we felt these risks were worth it.
For the first few months we met from time to time to talk about the revolution in one another’s houses. Then, feeling braver, we uploaded an anonymous video to YouTube supporting the historic February 17th manifesto calling for revolution and pasted the flag of that movement on the walls of our university halls. One early morning, in a display of naivete that still amazes me, a friend and I went to our university and glued posters to the wall calling on Gaddafi to leave. Many were killed for doing even less.
There was a lot of mistrust and suspicion, as Gaddafi’s intelligence agencies were determined to hunt out dissent. I trusted my friends, but I didn’t trust some of my neighbors who, we were sure, worked with Libya’s main intelligence agency. We called them “mosquitoes,” because you never knew how or when they would try to draw information out of you and pass it to their agency, and we never spoke of the revolution in their presence.
As the months went on these “civilian operations,” as we called the peaceful protests, stopped and were overtaken by those conducting real military operations. The protests were turning into an armed uprising. I started to hear about students, colleagues of mine, who escaped from Tripoli to Tunisia, only to return via the Wazin border crossing into the mountains to join the rebels. We could hear rockets in the distance. I did what I could do best and began to write political fiction, imagining publishing my writings after the revolution was victorious.
Daily life was hard and I felt hate growing inside me for the regime. We had power shutdowns for days at a time. People slept in their cars overnight while waiting in line to refill their gas tanks. Every day I waited for hours just to buy bread. Tempers flared. Boredom and desperation were sometimes my only friends. Strange as it seems, we looked forward to the continual bombing of the capital by NATO planes, as it was the only thing that seemed to offer hope.
When my side, the rebels and revolutionaries, won the civil war, I made sure to shield myself from the rumors of the horrible things they did in victory — the torture and bullying and extrajudicial killing. I didn’t want to believe the stories, which I would later learn were unfortunately true.
When I saw the rebels of Misurata on the night of Aug. 20 driving their Land Cruisers and tanks through our street, I waved and saluted them, and thanked God for their safe arrival and for the gift of liberation from Gaddafi. I volunteered and helped the rebels restore water supplies to parts of the capital after pro-Gaddafi forces in the south had cut them off. If I sound naive about the rebels, it’s because I was.
It should be noted that I might sound regretful in the next part of the story, but I am not. I regret that many resorted to violence, of course. I wish it never got to that. But I don’t regret our new Libya, and I would do the revolution all over again if I had to, including the part where I felt jubilation at the news of the death of The Colonel. I don’t condone what the rebels did to him after they captured him and the brutal way in which he was killed, but that was a different time for me.
I volunteered again, but this time with one of the rebel groups in Tajoura, as a civilian office assistant. The whole city was still in a state of flux — perhaps shock. On the first day of the job, while I was walking through the corridors of the headquarters, passing by young civilians carrying AK-47s, an open door drew my attention. Inside, I saw a black man with sub-Saharan facial features chained to the small window, a rebel sitting opposite him in a chair swearing at him. In those days, many young men who looked like they were from sub-Saharan Africa were picked up by the rebels, accused of being part of the mercenary forces that supported Gaddafi.
My eyes met those of the prisoner. His face was covered in blood. The rebel, sensing my presence, approached the door and closed it, saying to me “pardon me.” In the following days, the prisoner vanished and that room became my office. I would often look at the window and reconstruct the scene, wondering whether the man was guilty and what happened to him but telling myself that it was justice served to a member of Gaddafi’s foreign mercenaries. I was still in a state of revolutionary euphoria.
It wouldn’t take me long to adjust to the new Libyan reality. Rebel groups came and went. New groups assembled and our group moved headquarters.
One of those headquarters belonged to Mansour Dhaw, Gaddafi’s ruthless security chief who was with the colonel when he was captured and killed. I used to pass the house on the way to my uncle’s house and always wanted to know what was inside. On that day I found out. The space, the trees, the size of the house startled me, as did the luxury that surrounded Dhaw. The second shock came the next day, when I saw a new group of young soldiers being trained, most of them just 15 years of age. What was the difference, I wondered, between us and the enemy?
One day, another 17-year-old “rebel” was visiting our office. Despite his age, he had quickly gained a reputation as a skilled interrogator. He told me how, the day before, he was interrogating one of Gaddafi’s alleged “volunteers” and described the beatings and torture he inflicted on the man. He laughed as he recounted how he threatened to rape his prisoner by shoving a glass bottle into his rectum so he would confess. I couldn’t take it. I was a civilian and I believed in the values fed to me by the “revolution’s elite.” Being part of the torture of prisoners wasn’t something I wanted. A week later, I left the rebels. The “new Libya” was only two months old.
If there was such a thing as a new normal, I was now living it. The rebels were becoming more brutal, unable to govern the cities. Fighting among rebel groups became common, to the extent you sometimes didn’t know who was in charge. I kept myself busy by writing for the student newspaper while university studies hadn’t resumed yet.
Around this time, with so much still in flux, I wrote my first real article. It was for a journal run by Badderdin Alwerfly, now a historian. I wrote it as a satire about the rule of the rebels and called it “The 14.5th World Order,” for the 14.5mm bullets fired by the machine guns the rebels often strapped to the back of pickup trucks. Alwerfly later told me he was threatened by someone close to the rebels, who warned that the writer — me — was committing “kufr” (blasphemy). The language of religion was being fast adopted by the rebels.
By November 2011 I resumed my studies, but the university was different. Many students whom I had previously known never returned. Some were dead. Others found a new calling and remained with the rebels. Some went to fight in Syria for a “greater cause.” And many were simply too damaged to return to normal life.
Years passed and the civil war grew, but apart from occasional brushes with gunfire the violence seemed far away, somehow unreal. One time I was in a café in the old town of Tripoli when I heard gunshots from the alley. People around me stood up and ran for cover. My friend and I were the only two to remain seated. We watched a man chase another with a gun and fire. The scene was surreal and made us laugh at the absurdity of it.
Another time, in the summer of 2014, during a siege of the capital by forces from Misurata, I crossed daily into the “red zone” even as shells fell in the distance, just to watch films with a friend. It seemed somehow more normal than staying at home.
I wasn’t untouched by the chaos. The instability made me paranoid, something I still deal with. In August 2017, I was a coauthor of an anthology of new literature by young Libyans called “Sun Over Closed Windows,” which featured writing that was critical of the rebels. It sparked an online campaign to punish, even kill, the writers, who according to the rebels were part of “a Masonic conspiracy to lure young Libyans into abandoning their religious and social beliefs.” The book was banned and a poet friend of mine was kidnapped and tortured by the same group that I had worked with at Mansur Dhaw’s house years earlier. Fortunately, he survived.
My cousin, who was part of a rebel group, warned me that my name, along with those of other writers, was on an arrest warrant issued by an Islamist militia. I immediately fled to Tunis and stayed there for months until the arrest warrant was somehow canceled. But I didn’t recover. The feeling of being watched, trailed and monitored haunted me everywhere I went.
In March 2018, I was on a business trip to the Netherlands. It wasn’t my first visit to Europe but it was my first alone, and I planned a week of tourism in Amsterdam. I wanted to experience the full Amsterdam experience: walking beside the Dam river alone at night, visiting the Rijksmuseum, the Amsterdam bars, food restaurants, shady and touristic alleys, and of course the coffeeshops.
I ate some brownies, got a little bit high and went back to my hotel room. There, I got paranoid, and the form that paranoia took was rooted in my experiences in Libya.
I believed there was a conspiracy to get me back to Libya, and I believed my fianceé was in on it with “them.” I texted her, furious, asking her why she would set me up, who sent her to entrap me and how much did they pay her. “Who are ‘they’ and what do they want from me?!” I wrote to her. I imagined a guy filming me from a tree in front of my room’s window. My heart was racing, waiting for the knock on the door by “them,” who would then deliver me in a coffin to Tripoli. My fiancée was worried but kept me talking and tried to calm me down. The next day, we laughed about it.
That night seemed like a work of fiction. But I now think that is what you’re going to get when you live in an unstable country for far too long. The dark stories you hear about, even more than those where you are a central character, lure you into living in a constant state of disbelief and paranoia. Too long in a state of instability makes you unstable.
What eventually helped me — saved me, really — was writing fiction. What keeps me connected to Libya are the stories, the tragedies and the happy endings. Writing fiction kept me alive in the midst of a civil war. I wrote under the sounds of shelling. I wrote when I was afraid of death and when I was bored. I wrote dark stories sometimes, but they were the products of a dark time.
But most of all, I wrote about ordinary people, whether rebels or the regime. I really hate it when the international media focuses only on the politicians and warlords, with only a casual mention of the civilians. For me, the stories of Libyans are what matters; it’s their lives that have been lost, their lives that have been rebuilt. I came close to losing mine once, but by living among Libyans and chronicling their stories, my life has been rebuilt.