Page last updated at 12:03 GMT, Saturday, 5 March 2011

Habit of fear taints Benghazi's promise of freedom

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Libya

While forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi tighten their grip on the capital, Tripoli, people in "liberated" eastern Libya still struggle with a lingering fear of his violent regime.

Libyan anti-government protesters wave the old national flag they have adopted to symbolise their revolt
The fear of disappearance and death may haunt Libyans for generations

There are evenings in Benghazi when the darkness of the dust storms rolling north out of the desert gets to town before the night edging south towards the land from the wintry Mediterranean.

Then the grey dust thickens and slowly erases the detail of daytime from view - the advertising hoarding with the poster of Col Gaddafi torn down to reveal another, older poster of him underneath, or the faded elegance of the old Italian buildings around the port.

Just before darkness finally comes, some trick of the desert sky gives the sea an eerie phosphorescent glow, as though the light were rising up from within.

This is a country where fingernails are routinely ripped off, teeth smashed, lives ruined, hearts broken

It must have looked this way to generations of soldiers who slogged along this narrow coastal highway skirting the vast and forbidding distances of the deserts of North Africa.

The wind and the sand have long since rubbed out their tracks of course - the British and Australians along with the Romans and Phoenicians.

Every foreign ruler left a mark and a ghost of Italian culture survives in the way that instant coffee is proudly served with a crispy flourish of foamy milk as a cappuccino.

And you know the British were here because they left behind their chunky, clunky three-pin electrical plugs and the practice of topiary - that strange habit of clipping and reshaping bushes in public parks until they look a bit like something else.

Disappearing men

The rebel fighters of modern day Benghazi know the mark that they want to leave behind them.

They want their children to have the freedom to choose their own leaders and then be able to criticise them without fearing the secret policeman's knock on the door or his truncheon in the kidneys.

When I asked a group of young people how many knew of an immediate relative that had been arrested for political offences, 80% put their hands up, including their lecturers, who told me they were surprised it was not more.

One teacher told me she hoped each generation was becoming less fearful than the one which went before it

Brothers, fathers, cousins all disappeared, often for years, always without explanation, sometimes without ever coming back.

As they told their stories, I sensed their lecturers tensing a little in their seats behind me.

The students had been in the crowds who were fired on with live ammunition as they protested at the military barracks in Benghazi in recent weeks, and who had somehow prevailed, creating the spark for a sustained rebellion against Col Gaddafi.

Their teachers, though, were old enough to remember how a previous generation of student protesters had been dealt with here in a city which has always prided itself on its spirited independence.

Gaddafi had the leaders hanged from the lampposts in the city centre and left the bodies dangling there.

Dangers of defiance

One teacher told me she hoped each generation was becoming less fearful than the one which went before it.

Her own elderly mother, she said, had wanted to be taken downtown to see the celebrations that marked the birth of free Benghazi, but had been breathless with terror the whole time she was there.

Libyan opposition supporters demonstrate in Benghazi, Libya
Libyans are aware that Gaddafi's men may be watching and listening

She was filled with a kind of nameless dread that harm would somehow befall them just for being out on the streets.

Maybe, we agreed, autocracy was becoming less and less possible. In the modern world dictatorship relies on the darkness of ignorance and every text message, every e-mail and every satellite news broadcast was a pinprick of light.

I was encouraged. And then we spoke on the phone the following day. Would I mind, the teacher asked, not using her name?

It was not, she said, so much for herself. Her parents were anxious that in Tripoli, Gaddafi's men were still watching and listening, waiting to pay the rebels back for their audacity when the world's attention wandered from the confusing stalemate into which Libya might well descend.

This is a country where fingernails are routinely ripped off, teeth smashed, lives ruined, hearts broken, where anyone who breathes doubt or defiance simply disappears before their names can become known.

It is a powerful tool of dictatorship. There is no scope for heroic gestures of defiance, just the instant anonymity of disappearance and death.

So I would not be using her name.

Promise of freedom

Gaddafi's flare for eccentric buffoonery sometimes masks the darkness of his power, and his oil reserves blunted the inclination of the free world to ask difficult questions.

Do not be distracted by those newspaper photo galleries that show him morphing from white-suited droopy-moustached disco king to russet-robbed and hooded-eyed desert mystic.

Or by those amusing stories of how he once banned football because it seemed inequitable that 50,000 people had to stand and watch while only 22 people got to play with the ball.

Remember instead my teacher, annoyed with herself and embarrassed because she could not shake off the habit of fear it has taken her all her life to learn.

And think about the cruelty, arrogance and violence it takes to reduce a whole country to that state for 41 years.

We do not know if the rebels of Benghazi will ever be able to fight the government forces that still protect Col Gaddafi or what will happen to them if they do.

But this extraordinary Arab spring has brought the promise of freedom.

And the people of eastern Libya believe that if they seize the moment, they will still be enjoying that freedom when the desert winds and sands have once again erased the footsteps of fighting men.

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