Global Politics

Hope and fear in Benghazi

by Ben Gilbert

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Residents of Benghazi, a city now protected by NATO airstrikes and a UN resolution, say they hope to eventually build a democratic state on the ruins of colonel Muammar Gaddafi's dictatorship. But with the country divided, and the rebels and Gaddafi's forces pushing back and forth over a two hundred mile swath of desert, the city is tense.

There are often demonstrations full of revolutionary zeal. But soon after the streets will empty because of fear. Gaddafi's forces and rebels are battling less than three hours away — some days it's a little more, some days less.

24-year old university student Abdel Fattah al Agory says the situation is agonizing.

"I was scared, but I had to stay," Agory said. "Whoever has family or sisters, you send them away, to Egypt or another place, because we know what happens to the families with girls — rape and everything — but everything is ok now. We have to stay here."

A Koranic reading blares out in Benghazi's main square, which has been the epicenter of the uprising. Benghazi's young men die every day in the war against Gaddafi's troops. You can see photos of these "martyrs" hanging on the courthouse walls. And more men are going to fight, like Younis Ayad Brezeega.

"I've got three brothers, two go to front line, and other one stays home," he said. "Then one comes back and stays and the other two go fight."

The once near-constant gunfire, some of it celebratory and some unexplained, has quieted recently. That's thanks to requests from imams and the rebel's Transitional National Council. The gunfire kept people on edge, especially at night. But Abdel Fattah al Agory, the university student, said it isn't necessarily the shooting or even the fighting that scares people.

"There are always lots of rumors going around," said Agory. "That's why people are constantly coming and going."

Agory says late last week a rumor spread that Gaddafi agents were driving around shooting people at random. It was false, but the streets were empty for several nights. A small police force has returned to the streets, but residents still block roads with makeshift barriers of tree trunks or concrete blocks. Mohammad al Ajnaf said it just doesn't seem right to carry on with "real life."

"I've got a shop that sells clothes, and no one is buying. It's psychological — people are dying on the front line, and people don't have time to buy clothes when there are people dying," al Ajnaf said.

Al Ajnaf says he is surviving on his savings. His employees, he said, are being helped by the transitional council. He says everyone is being taken care of but it's clear that not all of Benghazi's residents are doing so well.

Here at the gold souq in Benghazi's old city, most of the shops are locked up behind big green steel doors. The owner said a lot of customers are desperate to get some cash. The display cases here are more or less bare, but that's an improvement over most places, where the shelves are empty.

"All the gold is hidden in the house," said gold shop proprietor Yasser Kablan. "There's no security. We can't keep anything here because of all the guns and everything on the street. Everybody is afraid that somebody might come and take their gold."

Kablan gets by these days working as a money changer. He says he can tell the fortunes of the city by the exchange rate, which fluctuates wildly depending on the location of the front line.

"Most of the people buy dollars when they're fleeing the country, and they flee when the front line gets close to Benghazi," Kablan said. "That's when the value of the US dollar goes up compared to the Libyan Dinar. When the front line moves away, the value of the dollar goes down, and the dinar goes up in value because fewer people are leaving."

Today, the seesaw continued both with people's security, and their wallets. The rebels were again pushed back from the oil town of Brega, about 150 miles away.