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Optimism Turns To Fear In Libya's Rebel Stronghold

A Libyan rebel fires into the air while taking part in a military parade in Benghazi. Optimism in the rebel stronghold has turned to fear for some, as the crackle of shooting — celebratory, or to settle a score — has become a constant in the city.
Nasser Nasser
/
AP
A Libyan rebel fires into the air while taking part in a military parade in Benghazi. Optimism in the rebel stronghold has turned to fear for some, as the crackle of shooting — celebratory, or to settle a score — has become a constant in the city.

As the Libyan civil war drags on, optimism in the rebel camp for the speedy overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi has disappeared. The rebel stronghold of Benghazi is now in the grips of a different emotion — fear.

A rebel fighter's car blew up this week at a funeral. Across town, explosions and shootings are ripping through a neighborhood, but no one is exactly sure what the cause is. Families are hiding in their homes, afraid of the lawless streets.

Awad Mohammed was at his father's funeral when an explosion happened. It was crowded, and there were many mourners.

"We were sitting like I am now, and all of a sudden there was an explosion," he says. "And we saw my car blow up."

Someone had thrown a homemade bomb into the back of his pickup truck, destroying it. Mohammed says the attack was meant as a warning.

"That's what Gadhafi is trying to do now, pick us off one by one through his infiltrators," he says.

Libyan rebels gather around the remains of a car that exploded in Benghazi on Tuesday. There were no confirmed casualties, but the explosion — and others around the rebel stronghold — have unsettled nerves in the city.
Saeed Khan / AFP/Getty
/
AFP/Getty
Libyan rebels gather around the remains of a car that exploded in Benghazi on Tuesday. There were no confirmed casualties, but the explosion — and others around the rebel stronghold — have unsettled nerves in the city.

Shots Without Explanation

In Benghazi, rumor and fear are rife. People whisper of infiltrators — a fifth column of saboteurs intent on spreading chaos.

It's hard to separate fact from fiction. When asked why he would be targeted, Mohammed claims he's a famous rebel from the front lines of Ajdabiyah. Others say it's because he used to belong to Gadhafi's feared revolutionary committees, and rebel sympathizers are now getting even.

Whatever the truth, he's not alone: There has been a spate of similar attacks in recent weeks. Benghazi has been flooded with refugees from front-line cities, and many have refused to open their homes to them, fearing that they might be Gadhafi spies.

The pervasive sense of unease is not without reason: There are now guns and heavy weapons all over the city, in the hands of nearly everyone. The weapons were given to rebels in Benghazi to fight against Gadhafi's forces, but they are now also being used for other purposes. Unexplained shootings and explosions happen all the time; no one knows exactly who is shooting or why, but it can be heard everywhere.

Restaurant owner Imad Pala says that before the uprising, it was illegal to carry weapons.

"Before, people before used knives to settle their differences," he says. "You'd never hear the sound of gunfire."

But not anymore. The crackle of shooting and the thud of heavier weapons are now a constant in the city. Sometimes it's celebratory, but other times it's people settling scores, Pala says. In any case, he says it isn't safe here. Often, in the middle of the night, he hears gunfights and has no idea what's going on.

'Better Armed' Than The Police

There is no one to turn to if things get ugly. In central Benghazi, what's left of the police force gathers in a parking lot. The men have few weapons and almost no uniforms; they haven't been paid since the uprising, and the police station where they are meeting has been burned down.

They are trying to get back on track, but they face two main obstacles. First, the police were a particularly loathed institution in Libya, seen as the fist of Gadhafi. Second, they have no backing from the provisional authority here.

As a group of them stand in a huddle, their commander tells them that if they come face to face with a criminal stealing a car, for example, they should ask politely for him to stop what he's doing.

People are really upset at the police. We are trying to get our reputation back and gain people's trust.

"We can't force them anymore," he tells his men. "They are better armed than we are."

First Sgt. Akram Hamid says they have the community's best interests at heart.

"We need to provide security for the banks, for public buildings, for people in general," Hamid says. "We need to provide safety; people are missing that."

He acknowledges that when people see the police uniform, they don't react well.

"People are really upset at the police," Hamid says. "We are trying to get our reputation back and gain people's trust."

But trust is in short supply. Many families are keeping their women and children at home. Jamal Arabi is stuck in his house with his wife and their three children, two of whom are preteens. Schools are closed, and the streets are too dangerous to play in.

"We are suffering from this situation," Arabi says. "We live under stress 24 hours."

He says there is only so long people can live like this. As this goes on, he says, they feel increasingly disappointed with their revolution.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.