As rebel troops launch what appears to be a final assault on the famously fortified compound on the outskirts of Tripoli, an Italian reporter recounts the legends and his own personal experience within the gates of Bab-el Aziza.
Back when Muammar Gaddafi was still in full control of Libya, only those formally invited or members of an official delegation were admitted to his main bunker headquarters, Bab al-Aziziya. Once there, everyone had to go through invasive controls. There was a passage in front of the sentry boxes. Then, at the first checkpoint, everyone had to leave the cell phone. Photo and video cameras were searched. Finally, there were body searches and a walk through metal detectors.
The walls surrounding the base were made of reinforced concrete, and disposed in three concentric circles. After each circle, there was a labyrinth of several corridors running in zigzags to the next level. It was a claustrophobic experience. At the end, people exited onto a field, surrounded by some buildings and a big white tent. Sometimes, there were quietly pasturing camels around. It was Gaddafi's world: Bab al-Aziziya, his Bedouin tent and metropolitan fortress.
This was that famous collapsed compound, which had been turned into a sort of museum. The Colonel enjoyed humiliating his Western visitors. Before being admitted to his presence, ambassadors and personalities from around the world were forced to enter in the compound.
The building had been bombed in 1986 by order of then U.S. President Ronald Reagan, in response to a Berlin discotheque bombing that killed American soldiers. The visitors' expiation walk led them through a ruin where everything had been kept as it was at the time of the attack. There were ruins, dust, and residue of bombs. Outside, posters and pictures told the story of those events.
The regime's version of the story tells that the Italian prime minister at the time, Bettino Craxi, had forewarned Gaddafi of the air strike, which saved his life. But Gaddafi's adopted daughter, Hana, was killed in the attack. According to sources of the opposition groups that may be soon the new country's government, Hana did not die. They say that she is alive and works as a doctor.
Bab al-Aziziya has been Gaddafi's main base until the end. An air of mystery surrounded it. There are many mysteries in all Gaddafi's bloody epic.
Since UN Security Council passed Resolution 1973 for a Libyan no-fly zone, NATO's bombs have hit the base, aiming to destroy the main headquarter of the regime, Gaddafi and his family. The Colonel's response has been to gather young people and civilians in the base as human shields. He called meetings and rallies there, to refrain NATO from bombing.
"What is hidden under the grass and the building?" is a mystery about to be solved. For years, there were reports of three or four-kilometer-long underground tunnels lead to escape routes towards the sea or the center of Tripoli. In recent weeks, NATO planes are said to have launched bunker-busting bombs to penetrate the cement below.
Bab al-Aziziya literally means the Door Leading to the Village of Aziziya, which was founded by the Turk pasha Aziz. This old story today is easily forgotten. Bab al-Aziziya and the prison Abu Salim are currently symbols of all the suffering of the 40-year-long Gaddafi regime.
Until the end, Gaddafi used his compound as an international stage, a symbol of the Western attacks. He called in the foreign press to document the effect of the airstrikes, though he never gave evidence of the numbers of alleged victims. He has missed one point, though. He did not see how the compound had become a symbol against him. The images Gaddafi has shown during these long six months, have told to the world the story of the slow but inescapable end of his regime.
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