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In Benghazi, A Revolt 33 Years In The Making. And Plans To Finish The Job

As locals search for corpses at the Ground Zero of the Feb. 17 Revolution, military and civilians map out a final assault on Muammar Gadaffi.

Opposition poster (mshamma)

BENGHAZI - Osama is rotating in his hand a new Belgian-made 9-mm Parabellum cartridge. He took it after the assault on Al Fadil, a major Libyan police base in Benghazi's suburbs, and the scene of the most serious fighting between police forces and anti-government protesters in these early weeks of the Revolution of Feb. 17.

Osama is chubby and bold. He is 40 years old, but looks younger. He is a Libyan Olympic Committee employee, and has a friendly demeanor. But he is originally from Saika, Benghazi's toughest neighborhood. "Our local ‘bad guys' were crucial during the assault," he says. "They had explosives. We had tried to break the perimeter fence in every way. We tried with an excavator and sand pallet trucks. Then, we just blew it off. It was the end for the policemen."

Osama shows the individual bullets, labeled with the name of a famous Belgian manufacturer. They are his war chest from Al Fadil's armory. It was Gaddafi's stronghold, in the middle of a city that was destined to fall to the revolutionaries. Benghazi is said to have being in revolt since 1977, when for the first time there was a bloody crackdown by Muammar Gaddafi's forces that culminated in the public hanging of students. The repression became more severe over the years, with the bloodiest massacre in June 1996.

The February 17 revolution can trace its origins to these past uprisings. For 15 years, Benghazi's people have looked for the corpses of the victims. They thought they were buried in Al Fadil, a labyrinth made of prisons, barracks, stages for Gaddafi's speeches, and underground cells, which were used as torture rooms -- and to bury dissidents alive. Residents are still digging and looking for the victims of the 1996 massacre, and others that followed.

Friday morning, they found the corpses of nine soldiers, who had refused Gaddafi's orders to shoot at the Libyan people. They were lashed, killed, burned alive, and buried under the sand. The 1.5 meter-high, 3-by-4-meter wide cells are horrifying. A white plastic tube was the sole conduit for air to enter. "They promised us houses and schools. And this is where they put our sons. They killed them as rats," cries a mother.

Injured people are still arriving at the city's main hospital, which has been renamed "Martyrs' Hospital." In the villages of the southern region Sirte, fighting persists between the revolutionaries and Gaddafi's tribal militia. Those most seriously injured on February 17 are still dying. More than 300 have been killed, according to Imed Al Jouif, a 32 year-old surgeon. "On the first day, 10 people died. On the second day, 45. Last Sunday, more than 100 people died," he says.

Since February 15th, Imed has not left the hospital ward. He sleeps just a few hours a night on a cot. Nearby, in a big room, there are 10 critically injured people. Ahmed was wounded in the stomach. He tries to smile, to make a ‘Victory" sign with two fingers, but it is too painful. His smile becomes a grimace. He is 27 years old. He was shot in front of Al Fadil during the last assault.

"They attacked with hard weapons," says Al Jouif. "We have seen crashed skulls, huge holes in the chests, and broken limbs." He shows the documentation on his computer. Many radiographies show that the injuries were caused by major assault weapons, machine guns from helicopters and grenades. "In the worst days, 250 people worked in the hospital. Many of them were just students. Some colleagues who studied in Germany and are more expert on these kind of injuries were priceless."

The air force, which is still loyal to Gaddafi, worked hard in Benghazi. It is the most serious issue for the new Republic of Free Libya's army. This would be the name of a post-Gaddafi Libya. At the air base in Benghazi, a new air force is being created, putting together retired officials, exiles, and former jailed dissidents. They are tearing down a sign with Gaddafi's revolution slogan "September 1 Forever."

"That was not a revolution, it was a military coup d'etat," says General Fatih Al Kaidani, who is the commander-in-chief of the base. "We instead feel close to the people. Gaddafi answered with repression to people's rightful claims. He has become a traitor to Libya. It is wrong to kill your own youth. He is just a traitor." The general stresses the point that this is a "republican," not Islamic or military revolution. This is the new, free Libya.

Many years ago, Lt. Atia Mansouri used to dream about such freedom. He is now 60. Rail thin with a sunken face and wild eyes, he is wearing his old uniform. He spent 13 years in one of Gaddafi's prisons, where he was tortured and kept in solitary confinement for three years. "In 1975 it was already obvious that Gaddafi would have never kept his word. He has always spoken and promised. That's all. We were more than 200 young officials preparing a military coup d'etat. I don't hide it. They discovered us."

At the base, military personnel and civilians are discussing the situation. There is not a common line yet. Lt. Mansouri admits that there are one or two Mirages, the jet fighter he learned to pilot in Dijon. They are hidden in underground bunkers, out of sight. Some planes of the national Libyan airline are on the runway. They are stuck here because the airport is closed, the radar busted.

According to rumors, there should be a new offensive from Misurata to Tripoli. It could happen in two or three days, maybe with helicopters and, possibly, planes. However, it is necessary to make sure the coast along Sirte's Gulf is safe, an area traditionally loyal to Gaddafi. Osama – the man who with the Parabellum cartridge – says he is ready to leave with the expedition. Currently, he is giving away sandwiches at his cousin's restaurant. They give them away for free, for the revolution. "Now my people are happy. Gaddafi will die or we will die. But we cannot go back."

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