Libyans find freedom in ruins of Gaddafi compound

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Media captionOut of the ruins of Col Muammar Gaddafi's former compound in Tripoli, a sense of civic activism is emerging

Libyans are due to vote in elections in June, but after 42 years of rule by one man, they inhabit a country with virtually no experience of party politics.

Nevertheless, many Libyans are emerging from the shadow of dictatorship and actively taking back control of their own destiny.

In the new Libya, Fridays are a day of protest. Veterans of the revolution come out to demand more medical care. Secularists compete with Islamists in noisy demonstrations, sometimes on the same square simultaneously.

But nowhere, perhaps, is the victory of the individual over the state as eye-catching than among the ruins of Col Gaddafi's former compound in Tripoli.

Bab al-Aziziya had once been one of the most impregnable fortresses of the Gaddafi regime. Unless you worked there or were a member of Gaddafi's inner circle, you would be unlikely ever to see inside.

Now, on a Friday morning, the place is transformed into a thriving market. Next to a giant pile of rubble that was once a palace, old men and young boys haggle over the price of chickens.

Traders arrive in their cars or minivans selling everything from revolutionary memorabilia to flip-flops, to car parts to live canaries.

"This is my first time here," said Fareed, a middle aged man brandishing his new purchase, a book on philosophy.

"A year ago, you could not even see this place. It was a dream to be here. And that's why I have come, to have a look around and to be with the people."

For some, the people's takeover of Gaddafi's old compound has brought far more than just mercantile opportunity.

When Majda's husband left her for another woman, she and her five children were reduced to living all together in one, cramped room.

But when the walls of Bab al-Aziziya came tumbling down, she seized her opportunity.

Her new home is a five-bedroomed villa left vacant by some of Gaddafi's cronies as they fled the advancing revolution.

She doesn't have the keys to her own front door, so she has to give her daughter, Khansa, a leg-up over the garden gate, so she can let her in from the inside.

Image caption Majda and her family have taken over a half-built villa in Bab al-Aziziya

Majda's new abode was clearly still under construction when its owners fled. And so it boasts two bathrooms but no doors or windows. In the middle of winter, Majda says, it's pretty chilly.

But she doesn't mind the cold.

"I'm very happy now," she says, beaming at a wall she's recently painted blue.

"Gaddafi treated us like slaves while they lived in villas and castles. This revolution was about taking back out rights."

In all, 68 families have moved into vacant properties in the Bab al-Aziziya compound. Not all are as spacious as Majda's. Many are little more than military bunkers with slits for windows.

There is talk of bulldozing the whole area and turning it into a park.

Image caption The seizure of Col Gaddafi's compound was one of the defining moments of the uprising

The new residents may not have the deeds to their new properties, but they do believe in their rights. So they have organised themselves into an association.

"We'd be happy for this place to become a park for children," says Ali Jabber, a man with a pronounced limp who appears to be the group's spokesman.

"We're happy to stay here only as a temporary measure, so long as the government finds some other solution for us. Because under Gaddafi we never had a chance to own our own home."

So Ali and his fellow residents are petitioning the government.

Libya is a country fast growing adept at direct civic activism. The road to multi-party democracy will doubtless be a long one. But in a country used to top-down rule by a super-wealthy elite, the Bab al-Aziziya Residents' Association could be the start of something much bigger.