Benghazi: Home of the Brave
When I was in Libya in 2011 the Arab Spring caught up with me. It arrived as I was roaming in the sweltering heat, my feet up to my ankles in the hot sands of the Sahara. But I figured that if the revolution was going on now it would certainly still be on when I returned to civilisation.
And indeed it was.
Back in Tripoli following the craziness of the Ghadaffi loyalists, my subsequent arrest, the interrogations, and the killing of 300 people the following night, I reluctantly agreed to be evacuated. All restaurants and affordable hotels closed which made staying on impossible anyway.
Back home in the Netherlands, it quickly dawned on me I should have gone to Benghazi instead, the cradle and birthplace of the Libyan revolution. Every day, on TV, I watched in awe as the brave rebels made their way to Tripoli. The common dream of being free from the delusional tyrant that ruled them with an iron fist for 42 years spurred them on into near impossible battles. I knew if anyone could make a success of the Arab Spring it would be the Libyans. So I bit my nails and cursed at the television images for a month while Sarkozy and Cameron worked the NATO representatives. I cheered when finally the French planes made their way to Benghazi with state of the art weaponry to assist the freedom fighters, who were dying in vast numbers,.
It was the 19th of March 2011.
On the 19th of March 2012 I finally set foot on the ‘Freedom Square’ at the seafront of Benghazi city. The scene was familiar to me as the stage of the news reports I’d watched, mesmerised, on TV as the Libyan Revolution unfolded.
The square is next to the “Makema’ (regional court house) known as the ‘Freedom Building’, the heart of the revolution, the nerve centre from where the coordination of all battles against Ghadaffi’s army took place.
On this particular evening thousands of people assembled here, singing the new national anthem again and again with tears in their eyes and repeatedly shouting ‘Libya Hurra’ (Libya Free) in unison. But the emotional and historical context was different and difficult. Democracy was within reach but the wounds of the price they paid were still fresh. This massive party couldn’t wash away the pain of losing a father, brother or son. I tried to understand what that must feel like and searched the eyes of all those people who welcomed me with cakes and food and soft drinks and love because I was the closest thing around to Sarkozy, their undisputed and adored hero. He, after all, voiced their plea at the UN to intervene and the French were the first to arrive with coalition airstrikes.
It was all too much to take in and I hid behind my cameras. The teary women were all clustered together in front of the Makema holding portraits of their beloved deceased, seeking comfort with each other. NTC chairman Mustafa Abdel Jalil arrived unexpectedly to speak on the stage. The deafening cheers of welcome spoke for themselves.
At night lots of videos of the battles were shown on the big outdoor screen next to the stage. People were silent or cheered victory depending on which visuals flashed by; slowly they left one by one, lost in their own thoughts or in little groups talking quietly amongst each other. But what moved me the most that evening was when I set foot inside the Freedom Building. The long, cavernous corridors were wallpapered with larger than life portraits of the martyrs. A confronting reminder of the heroes who gave their lives so that others could be free. Free to elect their government and free to make choices and thus shape their lives to become who they choose to be. The place was packed with people – young, old, crippled revolutionaries, orphaned babies. It was a makeshift museum honouring the martyrs. This was too much for me; I felt like an intruder, and decided to return the next day.
That’s what I did, and I met the people who still run the place. Lawyers, judges and others who were the freedom fighters and who stood at the birthplace of the Libyan Revolution on this exact spot, this building of justice. That’s why it’s now aptly called ‘The Freedom Building’.
The Makema became the base I worked from for the next three months. Together with Oxi, my 85-year-old friend, guide, minder and translator, I visited the houses of the martyrs (the ‘Sueda’) to take photos in their homes. I felt the energy in the places where the brave yet now deceased men of Benghazi had been full of life at the time they caught the freedom virus. I met their families. They never refused my requests to take pictures, they poured out their hearts, cried, and insisted on making me lunch, dinner or coffee. They welcomed me with open arms and treated me like a long lost friend.