Conflict & Justice

Benghazi: a city controlled by the opposition


Opponents of Gaddafi drove through Benghazi waving the pre-Gaddafi flag.


Nichole Sobecki

BENGHAZI, Libya — A new newspaper is being passed around in Benghazi and it carries a bold slogan: "We will not give up. Victory or death."

That's hardly the only sign that the opposition is clearly in control in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the epicenter of the rebellion that has spread throughout eastern Libya.

Young men in uniforms direct traffic in the city center. Former soldiers who defected now guard the town and its surrounding checkpoints. Some of the city’s banks are open for business again. The only gunfire on the streets is celebratory.

Just last week Benghazi was a different world. The city fought a violent battle against Muammar Gaddafi’s forces on the Katiba base, pummeling the compound with everything from handmade bombs to rocks. The pro-Gaddafi forces fled, but not before more than 100 were killed.

Despite the sudden freedom, a sense of uncertainty remains. Gaddafi held on to power for these past 42 years by wielding a heavy hand and some in Benghazi worry that territory gained over the past week could once again be lost.

"I am so happy, so happy to be alive for this moment," said a protester on Friday, holding a flag of Libya's old monarchy that has come to represent freedom from the Gaddafi regime. "But no one knows what is coming," he finished.

Benghazi was the first city to fall to the opposition one week ago. The revolt spread through eastern Libya, and anti-government forces have now progressed to Zawiya, 30 miles west of Tripoli. By all reports, Gaddafi still holds the most of Tripoli, which is home to 2 million of Libya's 6.5 million people.

In the eastern Libyan town of Brega sits a colossal oil terminal, the second-largest hydrocarbon complex in the country. The sprawling compound appears largely deserted and production has been scaled back by almost 90 percent. Employees, many of them foreigners, have largely fled the country. Ships to collect oil, gas and petrochemicals have been few and far between since the turmoil began.

The towns littering the 125 miles of sand-dusted road between Brega and Benghazi appear equally desolate. In the town of Ajdabiya, many shops remain shuttered and the streets are largely empty. But a bare fountain in the center of town has gained a new icon — the wing of a downed fighter jet that crashed nearby on Wednesday.

The story has quickly become legend.

“The pilot was sent to bomb the oil fields in the east,” the manager at a Benghazi hotel explained enthusiastically. “But he crashed instead. He is a hero.”

The pilot, who survived the crash, is currently being cared for in a Benghazi hospital, while the jet’s gunner, who had been willing to attack the oil fields, sits in a nearby prison.

Listen to Nichole Sobecki's report from Benghazi: