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A reporter in Libya wonders about lessons of war

TRIPOLI, Libya — Before I left for Libya to cover Moammar Gadhafi's flight from Tripoli and its aftermath, my roommate in Cairo remarked that I didn't look excited to be going.

"I'm not sure what else I can learn about war," I said.

I wanted to believe the narrative I had been getting from news coverage of the Libyan revolution — that this revolution was spotless, clean, was a replacement for the murderous dictatorship that came before. But too many years of war disabuses any rational observer of such romanticism. I had covered the war in Iraq and the violence in Lebanon and I knew: Violence has its own logic, and political catharsis frequently confuses freedom and democracy with mob rule.

When I arrived in Libya, it was easy to believe the narrative. The rebels, now revolutionaries, shouted "Allahu Akbar" — God is great — to one another at checkpoints, as a greeting coming and going, and as an affirmation of anything they think is good.

During my first week or two in Libya I found it an affable salutation, and an inclusive one — Libyans are (almost all) Muslims. Encouraged, I participated, heartily adopting it at checkpoints and in response to questions about "what I thought" of the Libyan revolution.

Identifying myself as an American journalist elicited smiles and handshakes, thumbs up and "Thank you!" — as though I had somehow been personally involved in NATO's decision to support the rebellion. I smiled and reciprocated. The last time I had experienced anything similar in the Middle East was in 2003, after the fall of Baghdad to U.S. troops.

Then skepticism kicked in. Enjoy this honeymoon, I told myself. It took Iraqis about six months to go from shaking hands to shooting.

The revolutionaries are students, teachers, engineers, graphic designers. It was impossible not to be impressed by the people. There are undeniably positive aspects of the Libyan revolution. Perhaps most impressive is the way in which Libyans have managed to keep many aspects of daily life running, volunteering to continue their work in the absence of the government that legislated or controlled various aspects of daily life.

Young Libyans had been thrown into the deep end. They learned to swim, so fast that at first I didn't realize this was all new for them. Gadhafi's rule, though politically violent and at times tumultuous, had provided a sort of stability, nearly 42 years of it. The vast majority of the people who drove him from Tripoli didn't have any actual experience of a Libya without him, only a solid conviction that it would be a better place with him gone.

I'd gotten used to working in Iraq, where people half my age have experienced lifetimes' worth of violence. I'd gotten used to Lebanon, where the national psyche, brought on by decades of war, could be described as a constant state of readiness and a joie de vivre that comes with knowing that life can be very, very short. It took me a while to realize that whatever violence Gadhafi had used against his opponents, the idea of Libyans drawing their weapons on one another was far more unusual than it had been in other places I had covered.

The first driver I hired in Tripoli, a 21-year-old dental student, quit after the first day. We'd spent it trying to determine the fate of more than 100 bodies left to rot in a square near Gadhafi's palace and a nearby hospital. By the end of the day, the driver was weeping. He had seen enough of the war. He had no memory of Gadhafi's disastrous military campaigns in Africa in the 1980s and '90s.

But in other parts of Libya, the violence touched everyone.

"Even the gay men fought," one young man in Misrata told me, in explaining how thoroughly the city had been affected and how everyone had pitched in. "I couldn't believe it. They fought and they killed like everyone else."

The joy of the revolutionaries and their supporters after they took Tripoli was infectious. For the first week, celebratory fire was ubiquitous, especially at night, when fighters rallied by the seaside and paraded through Martyr's Square, encouraged by tens of thousands of people from all over the country who came to the square each day. Cartoons of the former leader and revolutionary slogans filled nearly every available wall in some parts of Tripoli. It looked like most of the cartoonists had spent some time practicing, or at least some time giving their work serious forethought.

But the jubilation at Gadhafi's departure belied the seriousness of what is happening beneath the surface.

I was admiring a piece of anti-Gadhafi artwork underneath a highway overpass when I became aware that rebels at a nearby checkpoint were questioning someone. The only identification he carried identified him as a citizen of Guinea Bissau. It was clear the rebels suspected him of being a pro-Gadhafi mercenary. They demanded to know where his passport was. The man looked scared.

"It's at my grandfather's house," the man, whose name was Ibraima Djalo, said, pointing to the other side of the checkpoint where he had been stopped.

Xenophobia quickly consumed the rebel forces, fueled by rumors that many of Gadhafi's soldiers were "mortezaka," foreign mercenaries paid to fight. There's no evidence that this happened, at least not on the scale that many Libyans think. But many revolutionary militiamen believe any black African without proper documentation is potentially mortezaka.

That's made the past weeks difficult, at best, for the thousands of foreign Africans working in Libya who entered the country illegally and have no documentation from the government. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of black Libyans and non-Libyans have been arrested by revolutionary forces on very little evidence and crowded into packed jails.

Djalo begged to be forgiven and allowed to simply pass. He had been living in Libya for three years, he said, cleaning houses. He hadn't had work for the last month because of the Ramadan holiday and the fighting in and around Tripoli.

"I am a Muslim," he said. "We are all Muslims."

"We are all Muslims," is something many Libyans told me when I asked them what would prevent post-revolution violence from engulfing their country.

Djalo, unfortunately, probably wasn't interested in the irony. The militiamen did not believe his story. It did not help that he spoke little Arabic and was forced to communicate with his interlocutors in broken English and French.

A sedan pulled up to the checkpoint, with three armed militiamen inside. The fourth seat was for Djalo, who would be taken, they said, to get his passport. If the document proved satisfactory, the militiamen said, they would let him go. If not, he would be taken to a military base for further "investigation." I never learned his fate.

Libyans scoff at the idea that their country could become "like Iraq," but one of the first things Iraqi militants did after the invasion was to prey upon minority groups. Later they turned on one another. With Saddam Hussein gone, factions once united in a common cause fought over power and resources.

Already, factions are emerging in Libya, with political leaders arguing that one area of the country is less represented than another. A dictatorship often creates a system of bureaucratic patrimony, and Gadhafi's appears to have been no different. The tribe of Gen. Abdulfattah Younes, the rebel military leader assassinated in July, has complained openly that it had been sidelined in the new power structure. So have the rebel fighters from Misrata.

Libya now boasts perhaps the most heavily armed populace in the world, thanks to Qatar and other rebel backers, who showered the rebels with weapons in the final months of their campaign, even as the rebels took more and more materiel from Gadfhafi's well-stocked storehouses. An unknown amount of munitions are simply missing.

Will the rebels put down their guns, favoring ballots instead of bullets? When the last outposts of Gadhafi supporters finally fall under rebel control, we will have our answer. But graffiti celebrating Gadhafi's departure is not the only writing on the wall.

In Tawergha, a village of black Libyans that has been "cleansed" by the rebels, someone had scrawled the word "abeed" — a slur for blacks that means "slave." Some of the residents of Tawergha, a historically black city on the coast 25 miles south of Misrata, were descended from slaves. Others come from Libya's southern cities. With blacks being coded as supporters of Gadhafi, the rebel rhetoric of cleansing began months before the actual act. The people of Misrata have even developed a victim's narrative for it. They began by driving out many of the residents of Goshi, a predominantly black neighborhood in Misrata.

Out of the violence against Misrata came violence against Tawergha. Crushed, feeling weak, the people of a ruined city took revenge on those of another. Coupled with the violent manifestation of feelings toward black Africans, it was chilling.

I was also told stories of heroism and solidarity — many Libyans protected blacks from the violence that took place in the months before Tripoli fell. But when my driver shouted "Allahu Akbar" as we passed a checkpoint on the way back to Misrata from Tawergha, I couldn't do it. God again had fled the war zone, if he had ever been here in the first place.

The revolutionaries in Tripoli told me that they would be better than Gadhafi, but already the prisons are filling. Perhaps I am being too harsh on people who are still at war. But with Tripoli fallen, the clock is ticking. A vacuum is a dangerous thing.

Iraqis told me, over and over, that a civil war was impossible. They listed the reasons it wouldn't happen. Many were logical and reasonable. I believed them, and I don't think it was simply because I wanted to believe them.

I want to believe it when Libyans tell me the same. But with six months of civil war building toward bloody showdowns in Gadhafi's last strongholds, I am still waiting for Libya to teach me something new about war.

(David Enders, 30, is a freelance journalist and videographer who reported for McClatchy from Tripoli for 30 days after rebel forces seized Libya's capital. Born in Grand Rapids, Mich., he lived fulltime in Iraq from 2003 to 2006 and returned frequently afterward on special assignments. His work has appeared in The Nation, The Washington Times, the Christian Science Monitor, The Independent, the Virginia Quarterly Review and Men's Journal, in addition to other outlets. His video has appeared on Al Jazeera and PBS in the United States. He is currently completing a book on the U.S. occupation of Iraq that is scheduled for publication next year by the University of Michigan Press.)


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