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Libyans Mark Holiday by Touring Gadhafi's Former Compound

A Libyan woman holding the rebellion's flag tours with her daughters Moamer Kadhafi's destroyed headquarters of Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli, August 31, 2011
A Libyan woman holding the rebellion's flag tours with her daughters Moamer Kadhafi's destroyed headquarters of Bab al-Aziziya in Tripoli, August 31, 2011
James Brooke

Families in Tripoli are celebrating the festival marking the end of Ramadan without the visible presence of ex-strongman Moammar Gadhafi, now in hiding.

Families bundled kids into their cars Wednesday and set off to tour Tripoli’s top new attraction - the 6-kilometer square compound that was the secretive heart of Gadhafi's regime.

Driving through once forbidden gates, they drove slowly past shell-blasted sentry boxes, graffiti covered walls, and the burnt remains of Gadhafi’s famous Bedouin tent.

Rebel fighters sang “Where is he? Where is he?” referring to Libya’s runaway leader.  Visitors climbed down into tunnels, half hoping to find him.

On the second floor balcony of Gadhafi’s bomb-blasted residence, a teenager in a "Free Libya" hat set the crowd laughing with comedy versions of the ex-dictator’s speeches.

Even celebratory spurts of automatic weapons fire into the air did not deter families climbing of their cars with babies and children.

Khalid, an engineer, explains that living in Tripoli during the last months of Gadhafi's dictatorship was like living in a prison.

“We were in prison, six months," he said. 

Nale, his daughter, remembers when guns were fired at cars that drove too slowly past the compound.

“If you stop even the car, they might shoot you, it’s so dangerous. But now we are so free, finally, finally,” said Nale, a dentistry student, who remembers watching Gadhafi ranting a few weeks ago that Libyans who do not love him do not deserve to live.

“If you don’t love him, you should die, you don’t even deserve to die," said Nale. "It’s so hard to hear that. You cry, and you don’t know what to do. But now, thank God. It is like a dream. It’s one day and everything come up.”

As a pickup truck drove a figure-eight pattern on Gadhafi’s former lawn, soldiers and civilians joined in joyous song.

Upstairs, another Khalid, visiting the compound with his younger brother, was still in shock that they were walking freely on this once-forbidden ground.

“I can’t believe myself," said Khalid. "This is incredible. Look at the people. This place was out of bounds for five million people, except for his cronies.”

Families posed for cell phone photos, often holding the new black, red and green flag of Libya. Many, like Mustafa, were stunned at the novelty of free speech.

“I am 34 years old," said Mustafa. "This is the first time I am free. I can say anything."

The feeling of liberty was contagious. The most popular rebel invited to pose in family snapshots wore a T-shirt that proclaimed: “For a Libya Free and Democratic.”

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