Libya: the losers

Max Rodenbeck writes:

Compared to the office of his intelligence counterpart in Cairo, a luxury suite featuring plasma screens, crystal vases, and a jacuzzi, Tuhami Khaled’s was modest. For protection from aerial bombing, the head of Colonel Qaddafi’s internal security service did his business on the ground floor of its headquarters, an ungainly, antenna-studded tower on busy Sikka Street in central Tripoli. But like the chief of Egypt’s Mukhabarat, Khaled enjoyed a separate entrance and an attached bedroom where he was reputed to cavort with women seeking favors from the regime.

The bedroom’s occupants one day recently were two elderly men shuffling about in slippers and house robes, taking their meals seated on the tiled floor. Hadi Mbairish and Muhammad Abdu were being kept in custody here by revolutionary Libya’s new rulers. The captives were both generals, comrades of Qaddafi since before the 1969 coup that brought him to power. As members of a six-man operations control room for state security, they ranked among the top commanders of the fallen regime, responsible for seeing the Brother Leader’s orders executed on the ground.

Frail and ashen in complexion, General Mbairish chaired the group. During Libya’s revolution he is known to have issued handwritten instructions to “burn the vermin,” meaning the rebels. General Abdu, his ebony face chinless and spectrally gaunt like an African mask, headed Qaddafi’s military police. This was the force formally in charge of Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, notorious for the 1996 massacre by machine gun of some 1,200 inmates, and more recently a holding pen for thousands of Tripoli’s ordinary citizens suspected of rebel sympathies. The massacre was covered up for years; members of the victims’ families traveled monthly to the prison from the far corners of the country in order to deposit gifts they assumed would reach the men inside. The arrest of the Benghazi lawyer who bravely championed these families proved the immediate spark for the revolution.

The generals insist that their captors have treated them kindly, and think they will be vindicated in court. “They will understand that we only followed orders,” says Mbairish hopefully. “This is just a summer cloud.” His colleague mumbles that whenever any prisoner in his charge was sick, it was he who made sure they went to the hospital. The generals give no sign of contrition or even awareness of the magnitude of the crimes for which they certainly bear some responsibility. They tried to resign, they say, but were refused. They could have slipped away abroad, as some others did to escape capture. But why should they, as Libyan patriots?

The generals complain that for the final months of fighting they never saw their families, since the operations room moved from one site to another to escape NATO bombs, ending on the twenty-sixth floor of Tripoli’s plush new Marriott Hotel.

As for Qaddafi himself, the generals say they rarely met with him in recent years. Their instructions were delivered by phone. Seif al-Islam, the second of Qaddafi’s seven sons and the most media-hungry, did make an appearance at the Marriott HQ in the last weeks before Tripoli’s fall on August 21. Overriding the generals’ warnings, he assured them that Libya’s masses would defend the Brother Leader to the end.

General Mbairish turns stone-faced when asked what Qaddafi’s intentions are today. “My opinion is that Qaddafi will never stop. He will accept that thousands die. He will fire rockets on cities if he gets any chance.” The general pauses and toys with his Rolex watch before adding softly, “He’s gotten used to killing.”

The contrast between the sallow, whispering prisoners and their ebullient captors could scarcely be more striking. Behind the desk in Tuhami Khaled’s former office, with a trim black beard and a pistol holstered over desert combat fatigues, sits thirty-six-year-old Khaled Garabulli. The fellow revolutionaries who saunter nonchalantly in and out, sporting motley bandanas, shades, and firearms, treat him with jovial deference. When the call to prayer sounds it is Garabulli who leads the fighters who choose to pray. No one seems to mind that some of them don’t.

Garabulli is one of Libya’s new heroes. He joined the revolution soon after it began on February 17, returning from Morocco, where he had moved to get away from Qaddafi, back to his family seat in a fishing village east of Tripoli. From there he and his brothers smuggled thousands of guns and rocket-propelled grenades to rebels in the capital, sending divers to locate where they had been dropped offshore by NATO planes, then lifting the crates by pumping air into flotation parachutes.

Just two weeks before Tripoli’s fall, only minutes after loading and dispatching a truck with a final consignment of two thousand FAL rifles, Garabulli himself was arrested by Qaddafi’s police. The three satellite phones and thirty SIM cards he was carrying made it clear what he was up to, and the purple crisscross of welts that still marks his back leaves no doubt what Qaddafi’s men thought of it. Garabulli was freed from Abu Salim prison on August 21 to find that his was one of a thousand names on a list of prisoners scheduled to be executed on the first of September, the anniversary of Qaddafi’s coup.

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