Colonel Gaddafi’s dictatorship cost me – and every Libyan – dearly. Now we have a new start.
By Mohamed Mesrati
One day, when I was 13 years old, I was picked up by the Libyan police while walking down the street. After I had spent a night in the station, alone in a darkened room, my father came to try to get me released. When he gave them his name, they informed him that, as an actor, he was a member of the opposition. So rather than releasing me, they would leave me there for a little while longer, just to teach him a lesson.
It was at that moment that my father realised we would never have a normal life under the Gaddafi regime. Two years later, we took a taxi to the airport, each clutching a small bag containing a few sets of clothes. My father bundled us on to a flight to Manchester – the only one to Britain that day. On landing, we immediately sought asylum.
I knew that I had been living under a repressive regime – how could I not? But I did not realise the full extent of Gaddafi’s dictatorship, the way he had stamped himself on to our country, until I visited an internet cafe in Manchester and looked up my homeland. I chanced upon a website with a green and red flag that I’d never seen before, and thought it was about another country. On realising that it was an anti-Gaddafi site, I immediately closed the page: even in Britain, the terror stayed with you.
A few minutes later, I dared to open that site again. At that moment, I discovered that I did not even know my own nation’s history. We had always been taught that Libya was an Italian colony, ruled by bloodthirsty Europeans responsible for the deaths of 200,000 of our countrymen, until Gaddafi suddenly arrived to liberate us. The idea that Libya had been an independent state for almost 20 years beforehand was completely bizarre.
Growing up in Tripoli, Gaddafi was everywhere and everything. It was often said that you could criticise God, but you could never criticise Gaddafi. When he made a speech, it was on every channel. In the five-minute walk from my parents’ flat to my primary school, you’d pass more than 100 pictures of him – and his image was the first thing you saw when you opened the classroom door.
Every day at school, we would study Gaddafi’s Green Book. It was Brother Leader this, Brother Leader that – except that you weren’t allowed to call him “Brother Leader” until you reached the age of 18. Before that, you had to call him “Father Muammar”. There were also three classes a week on how to use a Kalashnikov: it’s one of the great ironies of the revolution that the only reason the freedom fighters knew how to use their weapons was because Gaddafi had taught them.
For those in the West, it can be difficult to understand just exactly what dictatorship means. It’s a state where you don’t just have no rights – you have no knowledge, either. From the age of two, a friend of mine went with his mother every month to the Abu Salim prison, hoping in vain to see his father, who was imprisoned there. It wasn’t until 2001 that they learned he had died in 1996, during the notorious massacre in which a reported 1,200 inmates were slaughtered. That same friend died on February 20 this year, shot in the head while fighting with the revolutionaries against the regime that had murdered his father.
For those of us in exile in the West, the past few months have been something like a dream. During the Egyptian revolution, I hardly slept at all – I remember saying to friends, almost as a joke, “Imagine if we could stand up to Gaddafi like that!” At the time, we all laughed: before the revolution, we Libyans thought of ourselves as rats. Once the revolution actually started, we thought of ourselves as lions.
During the fighting, I lost many of my family and friends: virtually all of my cousins had joined the uprising. But when I call my aunts and uncles, they tell me not to mourn – that they didn’t waste their blood, that they died for a good cause.
I heard yesterday from my father that one cousin, who is only two years older than me, was one of the people who killed Gaddafi. Words cannot express how proud I am. Some in the West will say that Gaddafi should have faced justice in court. But Libya has suffered for 42 years – if he had been captured, the trial would have gone on for three years, four years, until everyone was exhausted. The book of Libyan history is full of blood and killing. We don’t need this man any more. Just close the page. For Libya, today is year zero, a new start. It will be a long journey to create a democracy. But even if it takes 10 years, or 20 years, we will do it. There must never be a dictator again.
Mohamed Mesrati is a Libyan writer living in London