'Don't trust anyone'

At night, the city of Benghazi transforms into a dangerous world of gun battles, paranoia and mistrust

'Don't trust anyone'

ED OU/The New York Times/Redux

In the graffiti-covered buildings and faded hotels of Benghazi, the hallways are filled with the lexicon of government. Foreign envoys mingle in serious conversation with rebel leaders, bandying “constitutions,” “elections,” ceasefire, oil, and no-fly zones with their new diplomatic partners. In less than two months, anti-regime rebels have institutionalized their revolution. While their fight against the forces of Col. Moammar Gadhafi may have stalled, regular citizens here now find themselves in the upper echelons of officialdom with such titles as “minister,” “chairman,” and “president.” They are the leaders of the rebel east: “Free Libya.”

Outside, Benghazi residents continue to gather, singing, waving the revolutionary flag and firing into the air in a perpetual carnival. Caught in a snapshot, Benghazi, the centre of the revolution, looks to have given itself wholeheartedly to the rebels’ cause. But behind the scenes, often at night, this city, the second largest in Libya, becomes a murky, dangerous world of gun battles, suspicion, paranoia and mistrust.

There remains a great fear that “pro-Gadhafi” citizens in Benghazi are acting as spies for the regime in Tripoli, seeking to corrode the revolution from the inside. “Don’t trust anyone,” this correspondent is repeatedly warned. This mistrust among the rebels was highlighted on a journey to an exploded ammunitions dump on the outskirts of town. Slipping the safety catch off on his rifle, a rebel soldier said: “In these parts, there are a lot of armed people and you don’t know which side they are on until they start shooting.” Moments later, two men with guns demanded that we follow them down darkened alleys to see the corpses of people killed in the blast—and then threatened to shoot us when we refused. Our group was more heavily armed, and the standoff was resolved.

There are small but frequent incidents that suggest Gadhafi has some continuing support. Hospital security guards recall an incident in which two men, wearing their old Gadhafi Revolutionary Guard uniforms, were caught attempting to shoot an opposition council member. “I recognized them—they had been spotted before at the courthouse, attempting to replace the revolutionary flag with Gadhafi’s Libya flag,” says one of the guards. A table in an office at the courthouse—which is the heart of the opposition movement—is strewn with the weapons found on infiltrating attackers: Kalashnikov assault rifles, TNT. “There have been five attempts at attacking the courthouse in the last two weeks,” say Ibrahim Gheriani, a lawyer and activist in charge of security.

The enemies, the rebels say, are members of the Ligan Thauria: Gadhafi’s infamous “revolutionary committees.” These fanatical supporters of the colonel were his eyes and ears in every Libyan city, spying on dissidents and crushing signs of political opposition. “We have full lists of their names. There are about 560 [in Benghazi]. They are just as dangerous as Gadhafi,” says Interim Transitional National Council member Issam Giriani.

As weeks pass, and new realities sink in—not the least of which is Gadhafi’s continuing fire power—the innocence of the revolution is beginning to wane. Along with the rhetoric about freedom, democracy and human rights, there are signs of less liberal leanings. “We sent a message out on our Free Libya radio that any pro-Gadhafi forces with guns, or those found disrupting the revolution, will be shot on sight,” said one press representative for the council. Others deny this claim. But there is a concerted effort to wipe Benghazi clean of pro-Gadhafi elements. Under cover of darkness, squads are dispatched on nightly “crackdowns” on potential regime collaborators.

“Get in the car, don’t walk around,” comes the order. “There are drive-by shootings here.” Outside the secret base, point men speak in muted, nervous tones as the squad gathers.

In a swift, quiet convoy, they drive to a farm just outside Benghazi that they suspect houses Gadhafi sympathizers. The 15 armed men wait tensely, fingers on the triggers of the loaded guns. Pulling up, muffling the closing of car doors, they set up their positions: machine guns pointed sniper-like through holes in the outside wall. Half of the squad sneaks through the front gate until they surround the farm. The only noise to be heard under the clear moonlit sky is the barking of a guard dog.

Drivers wait at the ready, engines running. “They are going to see if anyone is there,” mutters one. “Often they battle with guns. This is very, very dangerous.” The farm turns out to be empty. Disappointed, the squad returns to the cars. On to the next target. “They know we are looking for them,” says Hani, the leader of the squad. “They cannot stay in one place. Often they bribe neighbours not to give us information.”

Before going out, in the base where they gathered, youths joked, jumped and shouted—pumped for the night’s hunt. “Most of these guys have been my friends since school,” says Hani, 37. Hani is well-known in town, as his father is head of the drug interdiction unit for Benghazi. But Hani is not so disciplined. Excited, possibly power hungry, he dangerously wields his loaded Kalashnikov with a manic smile. His military training was cut short when he was expelled from the college. “I had a fight with the colonel—he swore at me, kicked me out.”

Often the raids Hani leads result in violence. Three of this gang have been killed in the last month. “On the first raid, we went to find Gadhafi people who were trading guns,” Hani says. During a 40-minute gun battle, the squad lost one of its men. “We captured four guys, and I killed one,” Hani says proudly. Captives are taken to a former Gadhafi training base.

Determining exactly where someone’s loyalties lie is a near impossible task. And to some, the night squad’s methods may seem dangerously loose. “This man is from Sirte,” says Hani in explanation of the raid on the farmhouse. It appears to be a case of guilt by association. “Most people from there are Ligan Thauria. His family is from there too.”

Hearsay can also send the squad out. “Some people volunteer information,” says one squad member. “They come and tell us about their friends who are pro-Gadhafi. We go check it out—to find out if it is true or not.” At times the squad indulges in their own spying game. “Sometimes we have women. They go inside houses, perhaps pretending they are poor and need something. There they see if the person has guns—she tries to find them. And sometimes we send his friend in to speak with him. Pro-Gadhafi members in town are warned that if they don’t join the revolution peacefully, they will be made to.”

Suspicions are rife. “I keep getting randomly interrogated—it has happened repeatedly,” says one American-Libyan translator who works for the Benghazi council. “Security forces appear from nowhere and ask me where I am from, what I am doing, why I am here.” There is no other choice, says the council’s Issam Giriani. “We are in a psychological war. Even now, I know some Gadhafi supporters are walking around us here, recording.”

Increasing numbers of people have been taken captive in these raids. One bizarre media tour takes a busful of journalists to a sensitive military location to “see the prisoners.” “This is a military site, please only take photos of the prisoners,” says Khaled Mohammed Bin Ali, the council spokesperson managing the visit. The Geneva Convention article on protecting prisoners from “public curiosity” was acknowledged only in the plea that photos not be taken “close up.”

In one closed cement courtyard lined by cells are rows of captives, among them foreign prisoners thought by the rebels to be mercenaries hired by Gadhafi to fight against them. They sit huddled but not handcuffed in the sunlight as the media gathers round.

One man, dubbed a “Gadhafi mercenary,” Gambian Alfusaney Kambi, 54, sports a Hawaiian shirt stained with dried blood. He has a thick bandage above his left eye and crusting wounds on his thinly haired skull. “One day someone came to my house, they beat, beat me hard,” he says, his hands quivering. He says his “woman” was raped by the intruders. “I am not a mercenary. I have been working for the Gambian embassy, living in Benghazi for 10 years.”

Still, Kambi goes out of his way to say that here, at the base, he has been treated fine. “Nobody beat me here,” he says of his captors. Other prisoners agree: although they were beaten before being brought to the base by the civilians who captured them, all say they have had good treatment at the compound.

As if on cue, halfway through the media visit, the defected military men running the base bring out food packs for the prisoners. “Look, look, they eat what we eat,” says a colonel. One by one, the rations are ceremoniously handed to the prisoners. It may be a show, but at a time when the rebels’ democratic instincts are being sorely tested by doubt and suspicion, it’s also a small but redemptive act of kindness.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.