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Libya: How An Exile In Britain Finds The Chinks In Gaddafi's Wall Of Silence


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Libya: How an Exile in Britain finds the Chinks in Gaddafi's Wall of Silence

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Author Hisham Matar's 'newsroom' in a small London flat feeds telephoned reports from protesters to world's media

Anticipating the pro-democracy protests in Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, his family and security forces built a wall of silence around the entire country: Libyan journalists and writers were arrested and beaten, and foreign journalists were not granted visas.

Several Libyans abroad set up ad hoc "newsrooms", gathering information from people inside the country and feeding it to the media. I was one of them. My small London flat has become a busy hub. Up to 50 calls are made every day to sources inside Benghazi, Tripoli, Darnah, al Bayda and Misurata.

We, those here pretending to be journalists, sometimes hug each other. This happens at odd moments and not necessarily out of a clear sense of jubilation or fear, but while standing silently waiting for the kettle to boil. We are all sleep-starved. I feel a strange detachment from my surroundings: the polite view from my window – the trees, the houses across the way – seems as remote as a faraway country. Yet I am not in Libya either.

The people I speak to in Libya have become more real than those in the room around me. The telephone suddenly seems the most intimate means of communication. Even though I am always playing the cruel one: the one who asks all the questions; the one who says things like, "What do you mean, 'they fired'?" and "What do you mean by 'large crowd'?" and "How do you know they were 'mercenaries'? What proof do you have?" I am the one pretending it is all about facts and figures, the one who goes silent when the voice at the other end starts crying; I am the one who thinks about one thing and one thing only – precise information.

I have heard of journalists becoming novelists, but not the other way around. I only broke down once. And it was at a most unlikely moment. Not when someone was relaying some awful account of a massacre, but when one man in the middle of a demonstration congratulated me. It is the good manners of people facing death that gets you. He said "Hello" in that tone that over the past few days has become familiar to me, which says everything you need to know about the struggle between fear and hope, optimism and the abyss. When I introduced myself he said, "Congratulations, Mr Hisham, I hear you have a new book coming out."

Doctors are now the ones I telephone most often. I tell myself it is because they can tell me how many are dead, and how many injured. The truth is different, of course. I call them because they assume the necessary detachment.

On Thursday I spoke to one of the demonstrators, an ex-diplomat, in Az Zawiyah, a town 50 miles from Tripoli. The day before, the demonstrators had flown the pre-Gaddafi red, black and green flag, now a symbol of the uprising, over one of the rooftops surrounding Martyrs' Square, the focal point of the small town. And there was further good news: they had heard that Mahdi al Arabi, one of those involved in Gaddafi's 1969 coup d'etat, had defected and joined the people.

But at 5am on Thursday that same Mahdi al Arabi arrived at the head of a savage brigade. Using light and heavy artillery, they fired at protesters for four straight hours. The protesters defended themselves with a couple of kalashnikovs and a semi-automatic rifle, captured from the army, and some old hunting rifles. They captured six soldiers from the Mahdi al Arabi brigade: some Algerian, some from sub-Saharan Africa, the rest Libyan.

"We lost 100 men," the ex-diplomat told me. "We have just finished digging 20 graves in Martyrs' Square." He gave me his number. "Please ask journalists to call me," he said. Then, after a devastating silence, he added,"Soon, please." That "soon" said it all: his fear that he might not be alive to report one of the latest massacres in Libya.

Hisham Matar is the author of In the Country of Men




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