In Gaddafi's hometown of Sirte, mixed feelings on 'free' Libya


Eight months after the final battle of the Libyan uprising, the scars of war are on display everywhere in Sirte. (Photo by Marine Olivesi.)

Libyans are still awaiting the results of last weekend’s historic elections.

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Turnout was high, and for the most part, the mood was celebratory.

In the city of Sirte, though, the picture was more complex. Sirte was the hometown of the former dictator, Muammar Gaddafi. It’s also where he met his death last October.

Today, on the streets of Sirte, even lampposts are marked by bullet holes. Eight months after the final, and possibly fiercest, battle of the Libyan uprising, the scars of war are on display everywhere — with heavily damaged buildings and gaping craters.

“This is the most destructed place in Sirte. They just bombed everything they could,” said Faraj Drui, a resident of Sirte’s infamous District Number 2 — the last pocket of pro-Gaddafi resistance back in October.

Gaddafi himself holed up here for weeks before his capture.

Drui, who cast his ballot at a primary school damaged by rockets, said he hopes the district’s participation in the elections can help wipe away the neighborhood’s image as a pro-Gaddafi enclave.

“They considered us all Gaddafi people, though we’re not,” Faraj said. “We’re Libyans like them, but some like to put us in the basket of Gaddafi.”

Other residents of District Number 2 point out that most civilians had already fled by the time Gaddafi and his guards took refuge here. Amna Faraj Emtair escaped to Tunisia with her newborn son months before fighting started in her hometown. Now she’s running at the top of the Muslim Brotherhood party’s local list.

Sirte went from a rural fishing village to a modern city during Gaddafi’s decades in power. Emtair said some people here still feel unhappy about the end of Gaddafi rule, but they’ll come around once the new authorities deliver on their promises, starting with rebuilding Sirte. Still, she noted, nothing’s happened yet.

“They want to see something, not only speech,” she said.

A man who asks to be called Abu Ahmed squatted in the shadow of the polling station. He displayed his ink-stained finger with a smile, but he said he voted without enthusiasm. He claimed to have no idea whom he cast his ballot for; he just checked the box next to the first name on the list. He said that he only voted because he didn’t want to feel sidelined in the new Libya.

Then he stopped for a moment, and said he’d rather continue the conversation in the privacy of his home, a few blocks away.

Five minutes later, three armed men from the local militia knocked on the door.

The men said they saw a journalist enter the house and just wanted to check in. Ahmed later said that’s just a pretext. He’s convinced they came to intimidate him so that he wouldn’t speak his mind.

Other residents say the militias who are now running Sirte often go beyond threats and intimidation.

Some young men smoking on a stoop in Sirte complain they’ve been harassed, beaten and randomly arrested simply because they belong to the Gaddafa, the tribal group of Libya’s former ruler.

The men say they didn’t vote; they don’t feel safe going outside by themselves, so how could they feel safe enough to vote?

They say whatever happens next, the newly elected assembly won’t represent them; their candidates were banned from running because of their ties to the old regime.

“All Libya is free, except for us," one of the men said.