Africa

Tripoli eyewitness: Trapped in the Libyan whirlwind

Image caption Forces loyal to Col Gaddafi are still in control of Tripoli

As the Gaddafi regime mounts a show of strength in the Libyan capital, one Tripoli resident - who did not want to be identified for his own safety - described the latest scenes to the BBC.

I drove around the capital today to visit friends and stock up on more food for my family. We seem to have made a daily ritual of shopping for enough bread and staples to feed a small village.

"Just in case…," I'm told by family members. Just in case something happens and the supermarkets and vegetable stalls shut down indefinitely, that is.

It's quite evident we're not the only ones who are worried - the supermarket shelves are half empty during the day, although everyone knows that goods are abundant in the market this week.

There are quick, often muted exchanges of pleasantries between customers and shop owners.

Image caption Tripoli residents have been stocking up on bread and basics

People stare at each other with uncertainty. Although staring has long been a national pastime here, it comes with an air of distrust these days.

"Are you for or against? Are you armed or not?" Or, as I have found myself asking: "Where did all these young teenage men get all these new cars from?"

Things are far from normal here.

It appears that at least 80% of private businesses remain closed. People are either afraid of what each day might bring, or they have heeded calls by the grand cleric Sadeq Elgheriani, who appeared on al-Jazeera, telling residents to stay home in protest.

The only crowds you encounter are outside bakeries or banks, where people are collecting the 500-dinar ($400; £250) state giveaway to each family.

As I drove past one branch of BNP Paribas, a long queue outside its doors, a young skinny man in civilian clothes stood tall at the back of a pick-up truck, nonchalantly holding an assault rifle.

A few metres away, scorch marks blackened the concrete road. It's where anti-government protesters burnt things when they took to the streets.

Almost every main road that has any long stretch of wall bore the remains of graffiti in red or black with anti-government or anti-Gaddafi slurs.

They have been clumsily white-washed - what you see is a horizontal line of rather transparent white paint covering them - or at least trying to.

State schools are slowly re-opening, but several teachers say they are only going to work because they have to, and no pupils are turning up.

Wishful thinking?

Image caption Residents are rejoicing in "liberated" cities

It's the eve of 2 March, an annual public holiday marking Gaddafi's 1977 declaration of the so-called "people's power" system of government. Paradoxically, it was this declaration that many Libyans came to view over the years as the day they lost all power.

An infinite number of Libyan pundits based abroad have appeared on satellite news channels claiming there will be large anti-government protests all over the country; it remains unclear whether this forecast is based on tangible knowledge or wishful thinking.

Though this is likely to take place in what is now known amongst locals as the "liberated east" and parts of the western region, the capital still faces a challenge - the armed might of the regime's forces besieging it.

Libyan officials and state media have described the eastern part of the country as troubled, suffering, and taken hostage by al-Qaeda operatives.

However, events there are no longer under the dubious banner of "cannot be independently verified" or "amateur videos posted on YouTube purported to show".

Images beamed into most Libyan households in the past week have shown the tens of thousands - if not more - on the streets of Benghazi and other eastern towns, rejoicing in their newly-found yet fragile freedoms.

Brutal crackdown

Back in Tripoli, the scenario is starkly different.

There is a silent agony gripping some of Tripoli's families who have lost loved ones recently, or those injured by live gunfire who have refused to be taken to state hospitals, or those who have "disappeared" after detainment or death or injury.

I received a call from a dear friend the other day. Weary of the strict surveillance on the ground, online and on the phone, he only spoke of "minor" incidents in his lower middle-class neighbourhood on the night of Sunday, 20 February.

"In our street, two young men - brothers - both were taken away. They released one of them the next day, but the other one is gone," he said.

"Our neighbour at the end of the street was shot, but he's alive," he added.

That is arguably "minor" compared to the killings in the capital on the first day of protests - killings which people cautiously speak of only when they meet in person.

The government is still denying that there were protests in the capital.

Image caption Tanks are stationed across Tripoli

The second time protests erupted in Tripoli was on Friday 26 February after prayers. It was small pockets of protests put down within a couple of hours. Shots rang out throughout the city.

A friend of mine told me of an incident in Arada Street, where a protestor was shot. As an elderly man attempted to help him, he was fatally shot in the head.

"Then a young teenager, not more than 17 years old, appeared from his building with a gun and started randomly shooting at the brigade forces, seemingly in an attempt to provide cover for the protesters as they dispersed," he said.

"The security forces quickly ran away, and so did the young man soon after," he added. "But within a few minutes, five vehicles with armed men appeared and started shooting into the air and at the tops of buildings there."

Another friend tells me he was sitting in a tiny cafe having coffee a few days ago, when a young man in his 20s turned up, pale and shaken.

He told the cafe owner that he went home to find that his mother and sisters were locked in a bedroom and his father forced to kneel on the ground as security forces raided their home.

The man lives in Souk el-Joumha, the scene of two anti-government protests here.

Residents in the Libyan capital remain uncertain of what's to come, caught in a whirlwind of change that hinges on events in Tripoli, where the so-called "final battle" is meant to occur.