Where Gaddafi Is Revered: With Libyan Refugees In Tunisia
Hundreds of thousands of Libyans fled to Tunisia after the 2011 revolution that toppled Muammar Gaddafi. A visit with those who mourn the fallen dictator, including his relatives.
*EDITOR'S NOTE: A correction appended June 23, 2014
TUNIS — He has the same curly mid-length hair, the same matte skin, the same sharp-eyed look. The likeness is unsettling. He says his name with a husky voice: "Saadi Muammar Gaddafi." Sitting here on the terrace of a Tunis cafe is a 39-year-old relative of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi.
Like thousands of men and women, he fled his country three years ago and is now among those essentially turning Tunisia into a giant refugee camp.
"I understood all was lost when Hillary Clinton landed in Tripoli on October 18, 2011," he says somberly. Two days later when Colonel Gaddafi was killed, this younger cousin of the Libyan leader fled the country.
Now here in the Tunisian capital, there are no tents and no humanitarian organizations. But Libyan families, growing in number every day, are occupying entire buildings in several Tunis areas, or in cities such as Hammamet, Sousse, Nabeul and Gabès. And their situation is deteriorating.
There are between 600,000 and a million of these migrants, the Tunisian Interior secretary estimates. Taking into account Libyans who have fled to Egypt, there are some two million Libyan citizens living outside the country's borders. It's an astounding figure considering that the entire population of Libya numbers only about six million.
Recognizing this phenomenon, the Libyan government financed the opening of five schools in Tunisia this year. "They are free, and we are trying to integrate as many Libyan children as we can," explains Fathi Buchaala, cultural attaché at the Libyan Embassy in Tunis.
It's not always easy. For example, at the nice little school in the Mutuelleville area of Tunis, there are 300 students, many of whom refuse to sing the new Libyan national anthem. Some turn their heads away from the large banner celebrating the 2011 conflict that ousted Muammar Gaddafi. It reads, "Revolution February 17."
Almost all the refugee families support the fallen dictator, or are part of former partisan regime tribes from Sirte, Bani Waled or Warshefana. "At the beginning, lots of fights broke out, and it was hard," teacher Amel Benayed acknowledges. "They have to learn how to live for a country and not for a man. But Gaddafi is still there."
Gone but not forgotten
Gaddafi is certainly everywhere at Chahd's house. Around her neck as a locket, on a poster in the living room, on the pro-Gaddafi satellite channel that continuously broadcasts war scenes, rebel exactions, and speeches by the former Libyan leader. Chahd, 32, fled Tripoli. "I didn't think that I would survive," the young lady whispers.
After "pacifist" protests for the former regime, she finally joined the army before being captured by rebels on Aug. 28, 2011.
"I was in several prisons over about three months," she explains. "The first, Tajoura, was the worst." She recounts how a militia leader raped her repeatedly over the course of five days, and she describes being hit with pipes. If the jailed leader's son and heir apparent Saïf Al-Islam were to somehow return, that could heal some wounds. "If not, I cannot imagine the hatred of those who still are in jails," she says.
Hamid, 50, left Libya in August 2011 and lived in Egypt for nearly two years. "For us, it's not a revolution but a destruction. There, it is worse than here," he says of Egypt. "We used to be four in a single room, and people were also sleeping in the cemeteries." He says his brothers are still in Egypt, "and it is a catastrophe."
Thirty-two-year-old Atef, who is from Zenten, Libya, says he used to work for a "humanitarian association" with Saïf Al-Islam Gaddafi, and his brothers had "highly placed jobs in companies" under the former regime.
Atef says he paid 50,000 Tunisian dinars (around $31,500) to cross the Tunisian border in Ras Jdir. He ultimately sent his wife and three children back to Libya five months ago. "I could not assure them a good way of life," Atef says. "I am not the only one. I even know a cafe where Libyan women prostitute themselves to survive. Now, we Libyans, we don't have any value in any country. Everything is Sarkozy's fault," he says, referring to former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is believed to have given orders to the French secret agent who killed the dictator.
In Tunisia, rental prices have exploded, in part because of so many Libyan refugees. Without official papers, residence cards or work permits, they are simply tolerated. Over the course of three years, just 1,000 resident cards have been delivered, mostly for business company owners, says Mohamed Ali Aroui, spokesman for Tunisian Ministry of the Interior.
Gaddafi's hometown is now a "living hell," as it has become the stronghold for the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, says a Gaddafi tribe member named Abdelmonaïm who arrived in Tunis in May.
He was arrested in Tripoli and jailed for two months at the end of the war. "Every day, kids turned up with electric wires and hit us," he recalls.
Other Gaddafi relatives are not resigned. One of them, who had fled through Niger, has now returned to fight in south Libya. "If within two years nothing happens, I would go back to Niger or Sahara," he says. "There, with the inhabitants, even the extremists, we could find a compromise. In three months, you understand? In only three months, we will take power."
*Because of an error in the English translation, an earlier version of this article misidentified Saadi Muammar Gaddafi cited in the opening paragraph as the former leader's son. It also failed to include the quote referring to Hillary Clinton. Our apologies.