Watching events unfold in Tunisia and Egypt last month, the Libyan dictatorship became nervous. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s regime promised no-interest loans and free housing, and released several political prisoners, including my two uncles and two cousins, who had been held for 21 years.
They had been arrested in March 1990, in the same week that my father, the political dissident Jaballa Matar, was kidnapped from his home in Cairo and taken to Libya. Like him, they were tortured and wrongfully imprisoned without trial. In 1996, my father was moved; news of him stopped. To this day, he is among the “disappeared” who have vanished into Colonel Qaddafi’s prison system.
I spoke to Uncle Mahmoud, my father’s youngest brother, minutes after his release. He was being driven home to Ajdabiya, my paternal family’s hometown. He was keen to demonstrate that, regardless of what the regime had done to him, he was still very present.
“So what’s this I hear about you being short-listed for the Booker Prize?” was one of the first things he said. We laughed. “And do you remember an interview you gave once, four or five years ago, to a woman at the BBC Arabic World Service? Well, I heard that. I was beside a radio and listened to every word.”
Then he began to tease me. “When are we going to see another novel? Come on, stop being lazy.” For a few minutes, every sentence he spoke started with, “Do you remember?”
Shortly after we hung up I began to miss his voice all over again. I waited half an hour and called him back.
Fourteen days later Libya erupted. People did what was never before possible: they gathered on the streets and spoke their minds. The mobile phone networks were disrupted and I was unable to contact my uncle. I knew that Ajdabiya was among the first, if not the first, to liberate itself from government forces. The flag that was displayed in my father’s old study — the red, black and green of the pre-Qaddafi Libya — was flying high in Ajdabiya.
It was reported that Colonel Qaddafi’s forces had, on more than one occasion, tried to recapture the town. Intense battles were fought, and every time the rebels seemed to prevail. But I was still unable to reach my relatives there.
A couple of days ago I finally got through to one of my cousins.
“We are all O.K.,” he said. Then he told me what I feared but expected: “I am fighting with the rebels. All the young of the family are fighting. Mum is worried sick and doesn’t want us to go outside. But how are we to win our freedom if we stay at home?”
Relatives, some as young as 16, who only days ago ran businesses or held jobs, attended high school or college, are now facing a well-equipped army made up mainly of foreign mercenaries. The Qaddafi forces have tanks and airplanes. All that my cousins have are old hunting rifles and captured artillery. Some rebels are using slingshots, knives and sticks.
After the people of Ajdabiya secured the city, they sent men to help nearby towns. My cousin was involved in the heavy fighting that has taken place in Ras Lanuf, a few hours west.
“Treachery, cousin, treachery,” he said when I asked what he had seen. “Qaddafi’s army forced the women and children out into the streets and placed snipers on the rooftops. Whenever we tried to approach, they shot at the civilians.”
He went on to describe the horror of seeing a child shot in the head with a 14.5-millimeter round: “The skull exploded like a pomegranate.”
Then bombs fell from the sky.
Amazingly, the rebels have held on to some parts of Ras Lanuf, although fighting there remains fierce. And the courage and humanity of Libyans has been extraordinary: I’ve been told of foreign mercenaries captured in Benghazi who were fed and given access to doctors, then taken to the courthouse, with their passports in their hands, asked to choose a lawyer and told they were going to be put on trial.
I am convinced the rebels will win. But there are practical things the international community can and must do to help.
I have been talking to doctors, fighters, men and women all over the country: in Zawiya, Zintan and Misrata in the west, and Benghazi, Bayda and Ajdabiya in the east. They have all told me of severe shortages of medical supplies and essential foods like flour and baby formula. We must get these materials to rebel-held territories.
The rebels also hope that the international community will soon set up a no-flight zone to prevent Colonel Qaddafi from bombing his own people and importing mercenaries from abroad.
Nonetheless, fighters are adamant they can win this themselves. They don’t need or want foreign troops on the ground. They do, however, need better weapons. And Philippe Sands, a law professor at University College London, told me that the recently adopted United Nations Security Council resolution that imposes an arms embargo on Libya needs to be amended so that the rebels can get the equipment they need to “level the playing field” and “properly protect themselves.”
Throughout the uprisings, protesters have been carrying the pictures of those Libyans who, over nearly half a century of Colonel Qaddafi’s rule, have disappeared or died calling for justice. The men in these photos, like my father, were carving with their bare hands the early steps to this revolution, while countries like Britain, Italy and the United States were treating Colonel Qaddafi with the respect due an international statesman.
Libyans will have their own revolution. But the international community, which helped fortify Colonel Qaddafi’s dictatorship and now has a great moral responsibility to our new nation, must act to assist the uprising and limit the soaring loss of innocent life.
By Hisham Matar, the author of the novel In the Country of Men.