Africa

Tripoli witness: Covert protests and black humour

The shadow of flags waved by supporters of Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi in Tripoli
Image caption While flags are waved in public, some Tripoli residents find subtle ways of expressing opposition

As coalition air strikes continue to hit Tripoli and fighting continues elsewhere, one Tripoli resident - who did not want his name to be used for security reasons - described the mood there.

Thursday is the eve of the two-month anniversary of the Libyan uprising that kick-started in Benghazi on 15 February.

Someone, somewhere has called on residents here to fast on Thursday as a sign of solidarity and protest against the regime.

Looking at the pictures of what is now an armed struggle and full-scale war between the government's forces and the improvised rebel army, it is easy to forget that this revolution started peacefully - albeit for the first three days.

The way of the gun here is not so easily forgotten, however, and there was on Wednesday night an incident which was a reminder of why and how this became transformed into an armed struggle.

"Arada district is in an uproar," a short phone call reveals - this is code for "people have taken to the streets and are being shot at".

For now we do not know exactly what happened there on Wednesday night and are unlikely to find out for another 48 hours. Over about half an hour, we frequently heard gunfire - and it was no ordinary firepower being used.

There was a sudden burst of gunfire close by. Peering outside the gates of our home, we saw many in the neighbourhood doing the same; we silently mouthed to a young man across the street, "Where is that sound coming from?"

Much to our horror, he shouted back, pointing to a street behind us: "It's coming from that dog from the revolutionary committee movement [the regime's security and ideological arm] who lives down there! He's shooting into the air!"

Wide-eyed and shocked at the attention-grabbing response, we gestured for him to be quiet and swiftly went back behind closed doors, eventually to be engulfed by the silence of night once more.

'Out of paint'

There is a fine line between humour and reality these days. There are a couple of bleak examples of black humour making the rounds in Tripoli that are probably inspired by real-life accounts.

The first goes like this: "Some of those being detained here by security forces are being driven around for hours then abandoned on a road because there's no more space in the jails and detention centres."

The story, which is told with a baleful smile, is likely to remind some people of their own experiences. One of my friends detained last month can probably relate.

Image caption In rebel-held Benghazi anti-regime graffiti is overt - but in fearful Tripoli some residents keep it indoors

He told me: "When I was taken, the vehicle they transported me in made the first stop, but the people in the car were told by a voice outside: 'There is no space here, take him to Abu-Slim [prison]'. We must have driven there because the next exchange was 'No, no it's full here; go to Ein Zara [prison]!' We got off at the next stop and I was dragged in."

Though he was blindfolded the entire time, it was these stops and exchanges that shed light on where he was being taken.

The other grim gag is slightly more colourful: "Tripoli has run out of paint - the regime has used up the last of its reserves in its repeated attempts to whitewash the anti-government slogans across the city's walls."

This was probably inspired by the cat-and-mouse game evidently still being played by opponents of the regime and security forces. It's not quite Banksy, but let us call it artistic urban warfare.

In fact, some Libyans unable to write on walls outside are now doing it inside.

The latest trend was demonstrated in a public school for girls - the Quortoba High School in Hay el-Andalus district. Word quickly spread about what happened - "it's the talk of the entire neighbourhood", a friend tells me.

You would be forgiven for thinking this next illustration of artistic expression is a joke, but it is not.

Red, black and green helium-filled balloons have been spotted rising into the capital's skyline on several occasions in different parts of the city.

The colours represent the original post-colonial flag of Libya that has become a symbol for opposition-held territories here. Reports suggest that when they can, security forces shoot the balloons down.

'Property of the enemy'

Back in the 1980s and mid-1990s, when the regime identified its opponents, it was common knowledge that on some rare occasions their homes would be demolished; a sign to residents in the area that an opponent had been rooted out.

Old habits die hard and it appears this particular one has reappeared in the year 2011. A house was knocked down in the up-scale residential area of Ben Ashour, somewhere behind the Souk el-Mourjan, a friend tells me.

The rumour is that it was "housing the enemy".

Meanwhile, in the commercial and residential district of Gergaresh, I'm told an oil service company residence - owned by a man who is apparently out of the country and appeared on a news channel condemning the regime - was raided, ransacked and wrecked.

Although crimes like theft have been on the rise in recent years it appears as though their incidence is now widespread.

A large number of foreign companies have been the target of looting in the past month. The foreigners - who made a quick exit from the country at the start of the uprising - left behind offices, and quite often their civilian security guards at the gates to keep an eye on their properties.

The guards speak of how security forces accompanied by armed men in civilian clothes are leading the raids on these assets; when that happens, company cars, computers and anything remotely valuable are taken along with them.

Some abandoned Arab embassies - including, last week, the UAE embassy - have also recently suffered a similar fate. For added measure their flag was taken down and replaced with the green flag to declare it government property.

Colour - it seems - is of the essence these days in both sides of this conflict.

This article was written by BBC Tripoli correspondent Rana Jawad, whose identity was disguised for her safety. You can read her account of reporting undercover from Tripoli here.

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