When Libya Grew Wings

On Monday, we heard rumors that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s son Seif al-Islam, who we thought had been captured, was on the loose. This news about Seif — the would-be heir who had the gall to gloat at the murder of Libyans trying to strike the diamond crown off his bald, smooth head — shocked all of us. But the young rebels, who had no option left but to advance, shouted: “So what? God is on our side!”

The shock dissipated and a quickening excitement took over, along with an intense desire to end our country’s chronic pain, once and for all. I could hear the cries and cheers of women as they welcomed the young men who had settled in the neighborhood and camped out in some of its school buildings.

At night, another rumor spread, that Qaddafi loyalists in the southern district of Abu Salim were moving toward Zanata, near downtown, to attack. My friend, the Benghazi opposition writer Mohamed Sohaim, who had helped instigate the revolution, stayed calm, reading from a Koran. I called my brothers, who live in Abu Salim. My brother Hakim climbed onto the roof to check, and told me that the highway was empty and that neighborhood strongmen had bombed a mosque because it was broadcasting “God is great” — now a call to arms. A short while later, we found out that the Qaddafi die-hards were not attacking, so we relaxed.

Near dawn on Tuesday, the rebels ate dates and drank water before the daily Ramadan fast. Through the morning, the shelling downtown continued, as NATO warplanes bombarded the Qaddafi holdouts. At 10 a.m., I watched pillars of smoke rise behind the tall buildings downtown, where Colonel Qaddafi’s fortified compound sits.

I saw cars filled with families from the surrounding areas stream thickly toward the Souq al-Juma area and the Tajoura neighborhood east of it, over which the rebels’ flag of independence had been raised. Rebels had flocked there from Misurata, the western mountains and other liberated towns. Around noon, a convoy of Red Cross cars drove through the city, their flags raised.

I settled into an apartment in one of the buildings, to make sure that a sniper could not come in and get up to the roof. The night before last, young men had discovered a sniper in a recently abandoned apartment in the building across the street. He hadn’t hit anyone, but they made out where he was, then climbed up there. They locked the large iron safety door, with its chains and giant locks, and left him to his fate.

Around 1 p.m., I watched pickup trucks loaded with young men as they cradled the body of a martyr — God bless his soul — and called on people to pray for him. They headed toward the Sidi Buker cemetery, or maybe the Hani one. Those cemeteries used to be monopolized by Colonel Qaddafi and his dead; now they have been put to a different use.

Just as the rebels of Tripoli have broken the Qaddafi hold on the city, they have also broken the chains of the past. Our martyrs’ names will be written in bright letters on the record book of Libya’s unbroken history.

I heard the chants of “God is great” from children and women in the mosques as I flipped between radio stations like Radio Free Misurata and Radio Free Tripoli, now in our hands after fierce fighting. I was looking for the state-controlled station, which poisoned the minds of a generation that graduated not from college, but from the nightclubs of Bab al-Aziziya, the Qaddafi compound, to sing the blasphemous praises of that unholy exterminator of his people.

The shelling continued. I heard voices and saw plumes of smoke. I heard the planes high above, and some artillery from a direction I couldn’t identify. I heard that Al Sarim Street was full of the bodies of the dead, including women and children who had fallen to snipers’ bullets and were left in the street because no one dared approach.

One of the revolutionaries rode around to the checkpoints on his bike, warning of snipers in cars who were shooting at people, then driving away. They’d used this tactic before. A few days ago, we were almost killed by one of these snipers who shot at us and then sped off. I found myself prostrate, then crawling until my glasses broke. This is how Colonel Qaddafi wants us to be: crawling. But no more: We have grown wings.

Pickup trucks carrying huge spools of electric cables — used to block the paths of these murderous cars — drove by. Rebels rode around with 14.5-millimeter antiaircraft guns.

Around 2 p.m., the shelling of Bab al-Aziziya was confirmed. I heard the loud calls to prayer, and cheers and chants of praise: God is great; God’s victory draws near. Then we heard that rebels had entered the heart of the compound.

It was the fall of Libya’s Bastille.

At that point I left the apartment and headed to the central neighborhood of Fashloum, near downtown, carrying my camera. I saw young men communicating with walkie-talkies. I found everyone in a state of anticipatory joy. Rebels had gathered food and blankets to help families who had fled the fighting. They took the names of the people and families who had sought refuge with them, in case someone asked about them.

The rebels darkened Fashloum’s sky with heavy smoke from firing into the air. The free men of Tripoli cried for joy. Girls ran barefoot into the street, forgetting to put on their shoes, some forgetting to cover their hair, as they raised their hands to their mouths and sounded ululations that pierced the sky — the free sky.

My son Mohammad waved our new flag of independence in one hand and held a martyr’s picture in the other as he chanted, “The blood of martyrs is not spilled in vain.”

Khaled Darwish, a poet and writer. This essay was translated from the Arabic by Ghenwa Hayek.

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