By Ben Gilbert
The city of Benghazi is now the de facto capitol of rebel held eastern Libya. Libyan leader Col. Muammar Gaddafi never completely trusted the citizens of Libya's second largest city. A long history of rebellion, and a few failed assassination attempts in the town, always made it a stronghold of possible dissent.
So, he installed an enormous military base in the middle of the city, called the Katiba. Katiba means "battalion" in Arabic, but it came to mean "the Garrison." And it occupied prime real estate in Benghazi.
The Katiba is a sprawling complex of bunkers, barracks, fancy guest houses and opulent meeting rooms surrounded by high walls and watch towers. On February 17, the Katiba became the front line in the battle for the city. After a bloody battle, it became t the last Gaddafi stronghold to fall in the city. Now, it's become a place for reflection, and celebration.
"See all the bullet holes in the houses here, the main fight was here, this street," said Nasr, a young medical student who was here during the battle.
For three days, anti-Gaddafi protestors tried to storm the Katiba. Many were killed. The large, green gate at the entrance has been blasted to pieces.
"This used to be gate, the big one, the main gate, snipers were in that big tower now," Nasr said. "So a man named Mehdi Zeyo, he's married and got two daughters, he went to his house and said goodbye. So he got gas bottles in his car, and they were shooting at him and it exploded. He killed two guards here. That was the day the people entered the Katiba."
Entering the Katiba
On February 20, Zeyo blasted a hole in the gate we just drove through, killing himself in the process. Now, his picture is on the Benghazi courthouse. Most Benghazi residents had never voluntarily entered the Katiba before. To come here meant you were in deep trouble with Gaddafi's security men, and likely wouldn't be seen again.
Now, Libyans bring their families to marvel, or mourn, at the looted remains. 35 year old Raja Mohamad Raja, an accountant, brought his sisters to see the Katiba.
"It's a good feeling to be able to come in here, nobody ever imagined we'd be able to come into the Katiba, these houses," he said. "It's amazing, I've been everywhere: the police station, the secret police building, at last we can enter anywhere we want to."
Raja speaks near a military viewing stand in the green colors of Gaddafi's Libya. Its aluminum roof is now bent and broken, the seating area charred by fire. A burned car sits at the top of some steps.
Regular Libyans now stomp through the burnt remains of what were once VIP villas for Gaddafi's guests. Rebel graffiti coats the once-pristine, 10 foot high white walls. "Free Libya" it reads. And, "Gaddafi, you dog!"
Naji Misbah Hussein, a former policeman from the nearby town of Ajdabiya, said this is his second visit.
"The Katiba is half of Benghazi, a big area, and the Libyan people live in small houses. We were not living at all," Hussein said. He called Gaddafi "a killer." Even now, he said he's scared to be here. 42 years of fear is hard to erase.
Nasr, the medical student, points to the holes dug into the concrete all around us.
"In the first days when people came in, people were using trucks to dig up the holes, they knew there were big holes in here, digging up everywhere. Looking for the holes where the prisons are," Nasr said.
Nasr said he was here in February when a man was pulled from one of the subterranean cells. Nasr said the man asked what year it was. We descend down steep steps into a concrete bunker with a single opening at the top of a 15 foot ceiling, lined with iron bars. Nasr said it's a former jail cell. On the walls someone has spray painted the names of those who died here.
A man who came to see the Katiba suddenly regrets it.
"I wish I didn't come here in the first place," said Mohammad Mansour Majdi, a mechanic at an oil company. "A lot of people were killed here. It's sad."
In the distance, gunfire breaks out. But it's not the sound of fighting, it's celebratory. Residents of Benghazi are still celebrating the end of the Gaddafi's stranglehold on eastern Libya some two months ago.