Unpainting Benghazi green

BENGHAZI: “Welcome to Benghazi. Thank you for flying with us. We hope to see you again.” We had just landed in the capital of Free Libya and the captain’s words sounded reassuringly normal.The flight had been anything but normal. Until a couple of days earlier, the only way to Benghazi was overland from Egypt. Then just over a week ago, the UN started its own flights from Cairo, Malta and Djerba but the journey took three hours instead of the normal one and a half; military activity meant the plane had to fly up to Crete and then back down to Benghazi in a NATO-designated corridor.The journey was uneventful except that, as it approached Benina airport, the aircraft turned and dropped steeply, swooping down to the runway in a maneuver designed to minimize the risk from ground fire. The possibility of Qaddafi fifth columnists trying to shoot down a civilian plane could not be ignored.Libya may be in revolution but that did not mean that formalities had been done away with; passports had to be stamped. In the past, clearing immigration procedures in Libya could be an arduous affair. Not now. There were only five of us getting off at Benghazi — a group from the Egyptian Foreign Ministry, come to discuss relations with the Transitional National Council (TNC). The rest of the passengers were flying on to Malta or Tunisia. The Egyptian VIPs were whisked off by officials; that left just two of us to find someone to stamp our passports and then head into town.The old red, black and green flag with a crescent and star that served as the Libyan flag from independence in 1951 until Muammar Qaddafi’s coup in 1969 is everywhere. It flies from official looking buildings. It hangs from lampposts. It is in shop windows. It adorns the gates of private houses. Trees and street lights are painted in its colors, people wear it on sweatshirts, on caps on their heads. Some can be seen walking apparently aimlessly with a flag in hand. There are pictures too on lampposts of Omar Mukhtar, the commander of the Senussi forces that fought the colonizing Italians in the 1920s and who was executed by them in 1931. Anti-Qaddafi graffiti, in English as well as Arabic, adorns wall after wall. There is no mistaking public support for the revolution and hatred for Qaddafi.

Here and there are more dramatic manifestations of the Feb. 17 revolution — although the uprising in fact started a couple of days earlier. There are burned-out buildings, the offices of the bodies that Qaddafi used to repress the Libyan people for so long — the feared security services and the courts that administered injustice. Prisons too were attacked, as was a museum of Qaddafi’s writings. Some have already been put to new use by the revolutionaries. However, the Qatiba complex, the bastion of Qaddafi’s forces in the city, remains a ruin.If it were not for the flags, the graffiti and these occasional signs of battle, a visitor might initially think life is normal in Benghazi. There is plenty of traffic on the streets, no queues at the petrol stations, the shops are full of goods, and people are out shopping or sitting in cafes smoking shisha. It is not a city in crisis — unlike Tripoli where petrol queues can be over three kilometers long and the UN now says food is running out. But it is a city in ferment. There is a festive, even ecstatic mood across town. The sense of liberation is almost tangible, indeed infective.

The first topic of conversation with anyone is invariably the latest military and political developments in the country, and which foreign state is going to be the next to recognize the TNC as Libya’s legitimate government. So far it is France, Qatar, Italy, Kuwait, Gambia, Jordan and Senegal but many other countries effectively do so, including the US and the UK, with diplomatic missions in the city and support for the TNC. Germany, Greece and Spain are among the growing number of states that have set up missions in Benghazi in recent days. So has the EU.Turkey has dropped Qaddafi and said that the TNC is the “credible” representative of the Libyan people. Russia too is widely expected to do the same. Even China, which until now has been the least sympathetic of the major powers to the revolution, is seen to be weighing its options. There are three Chinese TV teams in Benghazi, filming everything that moves. According to a Libyan official, reports are being sent back to Beijing by a coordinator in charge of the three teams.

Change in Benghazi can be seen in the number of newspapers. New ones appear daily. Last Wednesday, the figure was put at 65. A few days later, head of the TNC’s media liaison committee, Zuheir Al-Barasi, said that he had to contact 80 newspapers. When it was pointed out that there were reportedly 65, his response was “that was last week’s figure!”The area outside the old Criminal Courthouse opposite the port is the emotional heart of the revolution. Every evening it is crowded. It is a cross between a mosque, a fairground and a memorial to the revolution’s martyrs. The walls of the burned-out courthouse are plastered with pictures of young Libyan men — and the occasional woman — who were either tortured and murdered by Qaddafi’s security forces or killed in fighting with them. The number is beyond counting.There is a large open prayer area next to the building. Here the spiritual and the political overlap. Friday prayers draw thousands. At Isha prayers every night, there are around 800 men there; the imam prays for the people of Misrata, of Yefran and Nalut in the Western mountains, of Brega and Ajdabiyah and of Tripoli. Prayers are followed by speeches. It is now a rally. The new anthem, which is the old anthem of the Kingdom of Libya, with its appropriate words about fighting for the country’s freedom, is sung with gusto by men too young to remember anything before Qaddafi — and his schools made sure they learned nothing about it.

That is followed by readings from the Qur’an. But all around are stalls selling Libyan flags, stickers, badges, posters, books and other revolutionary memorabilia, as well as kebabs, ice cream and soft drinks. There are hundreds of others milling around, buying or just looking. No one considers any difference between the sacred and the secular. In Benghazi, both mass prayer and anti-Qaddafi views are a novelty to be appreciated.Benghaziites say Qaddafi left their city to rot. It certainly looks run down. Many of the buildings in the once beautiful Italian center of town are decayed and everywhere roads are in desperate state, full of holes unfilled for years. “That’s just another thing Qaddafi did to us,” said the driver. Locals point to the 1,000-bed Benghazi Medical Center as a sign of Qaddafi’s hatred of the city that has been home to rumbling opposition to his regime over the years. Although opened recently, it has been 41 years in the planning and building and is still not finished.The city is shockingly full of rubbish that clearly has been mounting up over a very long time; it is not just the result of the Bangladeshi and Egyptian street cleaners fleeing the country. But now there is new pride. Groups of volunteers are clearing up the place. They can be seen across town, brushes in hand, sweeping the rubbish into piles and putting it in garbage trucks.

With schools closed, children too are helping.At a downtown intersection, a traffic policeman blows his whistle, orders our car to stop then signals to traffic from the street to our right to move. Nothing unusual about that, except that the policeman is a boy. Ahmed, 15 years old, and immaculate in his white police costume clearly made for his small size, does his job perfectly, albeit under the observing eye of an adult officer on the other side of the street. The traffic flows. He like other youngsters has been given a job to do to keep him occupied. On another street, a group of 12- to 13-year-olds, dressed in new bright red boiler suits, repaints the curbstones orange and black. The new authorities clearly intend that Benghazi will again be a decently run city, that, in this instance, there will be places where vehicles will not be allowed to park.The paintbrush and spray can are proving a powerful political instrument in the new Libya. It is not just graffiti and curbstones. Across Benghazi, people are busy unpainting the city green. Qaddafi had ordered shopkeepers to paint their shutters green, the regime’s color. Many official buildings are similarly painted green. Now, shopkeepers are out with brush and paint pot in hand, stating their support for the revolution and their hatred of Qaddafi. Sometimes it is the tricolor flag, but any color will do, so long as it is not green. – Arabnews