MISRATA, Libya — The streets of Libya erupted in celebration as the nation celebrated the death of Col. Muammar Gaddafi, who ruled the country for 42 years through fear and capital punishment.
To the end, in his public broadcasts, he remained adamant that his people loved him. So his death at the hands of his own citizens on Thursday brought an ironic end to the rule of a colorful, eccentric and tyrannical leader. While the circumstances of his death remain shrouded in mystery, Libyans are looking to a new and brighter future.
“This is the marking of a new era for Libya — free, democratic and prosperous,” said high-profile Libyan activist Hassan Alamin. “There are a lot of challenges ahead, but the great Libyan people who made this victory shall be able to make a great future for their country.”
In the streets of Misrata, women screamed from car windows, waving the flags of the new government. Children chanted in the streets “Gaddafi is over!” In a rare break from cultural taboos, friends hugged each other publicly. Crowds shouted “boo shuf shoofa is finished” — a nickname roughly translated as “mop head” — in reference to Gaddafi’s wild hair.
Traffic throughout the city barely moved as everyone poured into the streets. The body of both Gaddafi and his son Muttasim were rotated among the homes of local families. Huge lines formed outside as people huddled to catch a glimpse of the dead leader.
As reporters and activists struggle to piece together his last moments before death, public opinion is split as to whether his death — rather than capture — was the best outcome. Gaddafi's burial was delayed on Friday pending an inquiry into just how he was killed. Different factions of the new government also appear to be sparring over where and when to hold a funeral for their former leader. Divisions among the conquering rebels have long led to fears of a possible post-Gaddafi civil war.
Many, like Lufty Alamin, a prominent freedom fighter, feel his death was the only way to close the chapter and allow Libya to move on from the atrocities of the past. Fears that a lengthy trial would spur continued support from Gaddafi loyalists, possibly drawing out the conflict for years to come, were high.
Slideshow: Gaddafi's fashion through the years
“If you cut off the head the whole body will fall,” Alamin said after returning to Misrata from the Sirte frontline on Thursday. “It’s a new Libya. No one can support him now. 42 years, it’s finally over!”
This sudden and swift end has lifted a huge weight from the shoulders of those who have risked their lives for the chance to build a new nation. Alamin said he believed that as long as Gaddafi remained alive, the conflict would have continued. For the father of three, Gaddafi’s death means he can now put down his weapons and go home.
“In those last days, all of us, even me, were fed up,” he said. “We’d had enough. We just wanted it over. All I could think of was finishing this so I could spend time with my family.”
For one mother, the image of Gaddafi’s lifeless body on the television was a welcome sight.
“Thank God! Thanks to God. Now my sons can come back to me,” she said.
Others, like Jamal Bennor, the justice coordinator for the National Transitional Council, or NTC, saw the death of Gaddafi as a missed opportunity.
“His death was the easiest way,” Bennor said. “But I think we missed the chance to give our people the knowledge about their history and the real truth of a major part of our lives.”
Bennor said he was disturbed by the lack of involvement of the NTC in the events of the past few days. He also expressed concern over internal conflicts within the NTC and a “division of authority.”
“Until this moment I was so optimistic,” Bennor said. “But we missed a lot of time to manage ourselves and our plans in our struggle just to be united. Our people are still very worried about their future.”
Adding to concerns is the amount of weapons in the hands of civilians. Scattered reports of the execution of prisoners from groups like Human Rights Watch and
Amnesty International call into question just how much the system has changed from that of the former regime.
“The youth will not leave their guns in this period or for next few years,” Bennor said. “They need to secure their revolution and we still can’t trust each other enough.”
Bennor said the priority right now should not be rushing elections, but rather the forming of police departments and a national army from among the revolutionary youth. Emergency laws must be issued to hand control back to the internal security ministers. Transitional justice laws must also be developed.
“We don’t need to change the NTC at this stage, not until we issue our constitution,” Bennor added. “We don’t need any new body until we can settle our situation.”
For those who shared in the victory, the celebrations continue, but the adjustment to normal life may be a difficult one.
“I really don’t know what we’ll do now,” said Mohammed Rojbani, beaming a massive smile after hearing the news of Gaddafi’s capture on Thursday. “We came here to finish Gaddafi because, if he remained, the problems would never end. I guess now we’re going to get back to our normal lives. Live like normal people. It’s really different now. It’s all finished.”
Rumors that the dead man may in fact be a look-a-like rather than the dictator himself have circulated as the official death certificate is yet to be released.
For Bennor, there were no doubts.
“I believe that Gaddafi has been dead since Feb. 17,” he said. “But this quick end of Gaddafi and his criminal son seems the result of revenge more than anything else. Either way, the game is over now.”