When a repressive regime falls, there is a glorious moment when people are able to tell their stories for the first time. I was lucky enough to hit that moment last year when researching my book Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution.
For 42 years, Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya was pretty much closed to the outside world. Journalists got in occasionally, usually to interview the Brother Leader, but Libyans were banned from talking to foreigners. Media within the country were state controlled and severely restricted. So when Gaddafi was swept from power, Libyans were desperate to talk. In the Tripoli souk I came across 64 year old Mohammed Mustafa Saudi, crafting copper crescent moons to go on minarets. He told me how he loved Gaddafi when he came to power in 1969, but changed his mind in the 1970s when he saw people hanging from gibbets in the street, and when he was press-ganged into the army for 11 years. “All my life journalists have been asking me questions, because I’m the first guy you meet when you come into the metal-workers’ souk,” he said. “But I’ve never been able to tell my story before.” When I sat in the hotel lobby, people who had heard I was writing a book came up to ask if their stories could be included. “Do you want to hear my story of how MI6 and the CIA collaborated in my ‘extraordinary rendition’ back to Libya?” asked Sami al Saadi, one of two men who is suing the British government for delivering him into the hands of Gaddafi’s torturers.
Of course not everyone feels free. The dark-skinned Tawerga people, who fought for Gaddafi during the seige of the port of Misrata, have been driven from their village and now live in miserable camps. The Misrata brigades burnt down their homes, and they dare not rebuild not for fear of being merely silenced but of being killed. They talked to me, but only in the camp — there was no question of returning home. Many dark-skinned Libyans are accused by the militia who spear-headed the revolution of being mercenaries who fought for Gaddafi. Some have been detained and tortured, others are in hiding.
Yet this is nonetheless a time when most Libyans are talking as never before. Dozens of new newspapers and TV channels have started up. Some are the vanity projects of rich men, others are suspected of being a way of “image laundering”, enabling people who worked with Gaddafi to proclaim new, revolutionary credentials. Yet the fact that they are out there provides hope that freedom of speech may take hold in the new Libya.
In Sandstorm I quote a line from WH Auden: “They wept and quarrelled; freedom was so wild.” I think about that a lot. In Libya today they quarrel about everything — what kind of government they should have, the rules for political parties, whether the first elections can be held in June or not. It’s chaotic and dangerous. But it’s also glorious, because Libyans are speaking freely for the first time in 42 years.
Lindsey Hilsum is Channel 4 News International Editor and author of Sandstorm; Libya in the Time of Revolution