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Legacy of Suspicion, Betrayal Haunts Libya

  • Elizabeth Arrott

A man passes graffiti caricatures related to Moammar Gadhafi and Brega, during a funeral in Benghazi, April 19, 2011

A man passes graffiti caricatures related to Moammar Gadhafi and Brega, during a funeral in Benghazi, April 19, 2011

One of the defining characteristics of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's era has been the crafty network of secret police and government informers. Decades of living with the fear of betrayal have taken their toll on ordinary citizens. The trouble is not over, even in the rebel-held areas.

Intelligence gathering

A former diplomat is giving an interview in a semi-public part of a Benghazi hotel. The elevator doors open, a man walks out, stays for a moment, then leaves. A few minutes later, he returns, uses a shoe shine machine in the corner, hovers for a bit longer, then leaves again.

"This one is - was - working in our intelligence," noted the ex-diplomat. "I know him. He's my colleague. Our offices were facing each other. So maybe they will write reports. I don't know. To whom I don't know. To this new council, or the old regime, I don't know."

Across the east, where people have thrown off Colonel Gadhafi's government, old habits die hard.

Watch your back

In Ras al Hilal, at a vacation house of Colonel Gadhafi's sons, a worker hesitates over a question. A man standing next to him asks "Why are you scared? Libya is free now." The worker shakes his head. "You don't know who's with you and who's against you."

In Qasr al Jady, a man from Tripoli grants an interview and, moments later at a checkpoint, a self-styled policeman demands to see the video, suspicious of what a potential spy from the capital might have said.

Amina, 33, a working mother and graduate student in Benghazi, says it has been this way all her life.

"Sometimes if you are talking, sometimes at the university, or at work, if you are talking about Moammar Gadhafi, if you've got real friends they will say, 'Shh. Someone will hear you.' So all of us are afraid," she noted.

Amina says the fear of being caught by the secret police is ever present. The consequences, well documented cases of torture and death, led some to join in the spying rather than risk being the victim.

Psychological toll

The former diplomat says the suspicions and the twisted allegiances forced on nearly everyone have left a high psychological toll.

"This is kind of our sickness, in their brain. We have to refresh the brain and the way how to treat, how to work, how to be clean, to be clear, not to be damaged like before," the ex-diplomat added.

Shaking off the suspicion and the damage is a long process, but it has been done before. South Africa and the former East Germany offer two templates of overcoming trauma. But it takes years, perhaps decades, and in Libya, it would likely only begin in a post-Gadhafi era.

In the meantime, Amina says, people must live with the fact of Gadhafi supporters, and enforcers, remaining in their midst.

"It's hard because there are still some people who believe in Moammar's regime," Amina noted.

Amina recounts how last month a government push to retake Benghazi emboldened Gadhafi supporters in the rebel stronghold. She was coming home around noon with her youngest child in her arms.

"We are going to enter our house - not from the main door, from the back one, but you can see the main street, see the cars," recalled Amina. "So we've been stopping there, trying to enter the house, and the car came and as soon as they saw us they started shooting. Because they've got orders to shoot all civilians - women, kids, men - all civilians, whatever. Just shoot. Just kill."

Amina and her family were unharmed, but deeply shaken. She doesn't know who the assailants were, but they could have been anybody - a local shopkeeper, a former policeman, even a neighbor.

Given Libya's past, and the continuing danger, Amina is proud of what many Libyans have done.

"How the revolution happens, I don't know," Amina said. "All of us were saying, 'No, the Libyan people can't do it.' But fortunately it happens."

And, in amazement, she laughs.

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