Africa

Tripoli eyewitness: city of fear and silent protests

  • 10 March 2011
  • From the section Africa
Schoolchildren in class, during a government-organised trip for foreign media to the Zaharet al-Fateh middle school, Tripoli, Libya, 10 March 2011
Many Tripoli schools have re-opened, although student attendance is low and some teachers are absent - many of them were foreigners who have fled

While Col Gaddafi's forces make advances on rebel-held territory, the capital is reported to be quiet but tense. One Tripoli resident - who did not want to be identified for his own safety - described the latest scenes to the BBC.

In recent weeks, the mobile phone service that allows users to check their credit has stopped working.

You now get a message saying "Unknown application" instead of the usual "Your credit balance is…"

Several people had already noticed that phone calls appear to be free - despite endless conversations, the credit never runs out.

It is being topped up by the government - but to no avail now.

In Tripoli, most are terrified to say anything on the phone that could be construed as resentment towards the regime.

Conversations are quick, short and of little substance.

So too are the lectures in schools, many of which have re-opened, although student attendance remains a trickle.

Private schools are facing a shortage of teachers - posts that were, until last month, occupied by foreign teachers, most of whom - if not all - have fled the country.

One of my family members - a 17-year-old who has returned to school - says she is not learning anything.

"We go to class, it's more than half-empty, and the teachers are secretly not teaching in protest".

Detentions and disappearances

But protesting in Tripoli is a dangerous business - the two times people dared to take to the streets here, they were gunned down into submission.

And ever since, there has been a sustained campaign of detentions by security forces who go knocking on doors.

Libyans stand outside a bank in Tripoli, Libya, Thursday March 10, 2011
The Libyan government appears to be paying for mobile phone calls

Many detainees are released within two days, but - as one friend told me - "only after they take a beating and have enough fear in their eyes".

Others simply disappear.

In one area of Souk al-Juma district, I heard that 120 men were taken last week.

Some young men now hide in safe houses offered by friends or acquaintances because "security people came and asked for me in my family home", they say.

Even residents who have family abroad, who spoke out on foreign news channels, have been arrested.

In the past three days, relatives and friends who have tried to leave the country tell me that they were asked by airport officials to present a legal document that states that they are "on vacation from work".

Those who claim to be unemployed will presumably be required to show an official document that proves they have registered "in search of work" with the labour office and that they have received the 150 Libyan dinars ($121; £75) in state aid that came into effect last week.

The limits on movement are tightening.

As flights out of Tripoli airport steadily decrease, many here believe that they will soon only be able to travel by boat or ferry - as they did back in the 80s and 90s.

New pastime

Not far away, in the town of Zawiya, residents and rebels have seemingly been bombed into submission.

Residents of the capital hold their breath in horror as they speak to relatives there - an increasingly difficult task.

Watching the news has become the new national pastime, as people venture out on a needs-only basis.

But the news is a source of increasing stress, bringing with it a sustained sense of frustration and helplessness.

"Why is it being described as a civil war when people are united, and the government and its hired forces are killing us?" people wonder.

But the capital is not united.

Libyan men walk past the lowered iron shutters of shops at the market of Tripoli, 9 March 2011
Many shops and stalls remain closed in Tripoli

The city centre's Green Square has been occupied by pro-Gaddafi supporters - who opponents call the "paid traitors of the people's revolution".

Most are likely to be secret police, or members of the revolutionary guards and their families.

But, to the best of my knowledge, the price of fresh allegiance from average citizens came at a hefty sum of 17,000 dinars in cash, a new car and a lethal weapon - provided they pass some test proving their loyalty to the Gaddafi regime.

That aside, the media campaign being run by state television is gradually winning over the poorly educated.

They have expressed their belief in TV claims, such as: "The yoghurt brand, al-Naseem, is drugged."

This particular brand is owned by a family from Misrata, the port city under rebel control.

Or reports that: "The rebels are all al-Qaeda. Have you seen how they slaughtered our soldiers? We saw the pictures!"

"We just want to live in peace," another Gaddafi supporter says.

"Gaddafi is old now and he has been here for as long as we have been alive," an elderly neighbour complained. "The situation is breaking my heart."

Opponents of the regime would say the same, but for completely different reasons.

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