Inside Gadhafi’s Libya: A first-hand glimpse of life under siege during those final days

By Scott Taylor

(Editor’s Note: This article ran in September 2011 in Esprit de Corps Volume 18, Issue 8).

The streets in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Tripoli are lined with rubble after a NATO air strike. A poster of President Moammar Gadhafi is used in a poor attempt to hide some of the damage. (photo by scott taylor and daniel heald, esprit de corps)

The streets in front of the Foreign Ministry building in Tripoli are lined with rubble after a NATO air strike. A poster of President Moammar Gadhafi is used in a poor attempt to hide some of the damage. (photo by scott taylor and daniel heald, esprit de corps)

Since March 19, 2011 Canada has taken a lead role in the NATO enforcement of the UN-authorized no-fly zone in the skies over wartorn Libya. Canadian Lieutenant-General Charles Bouchard commands the allied air operations, and seven Canadian CF-18s are committed to the bombing campaign aimed at downgrading the battle readiness of Moammar Gadhafi’s government forces.

By the end of July, after four and a half months of air interdiction, NATO planes had flown more than 20,000 sorties over Libya and conducted more than 7,000 bomb attacks against Gadhafi-held sectors. Despite the massive support from international air forces, to date the Libyan rebels had made only minor advances against the Gadhafi loyalist forces.

To better ascertain just what damage has been done by the NATO attacks, and to gauge what impact this has had on the morale of the Libyan people, publisher Scott Taylor and cameraman Daniel Heald ventured into Gadhafi’s stronghold on a fact-finding mission from August 1 to 7, 2011. What follows is a brief account of that trip.

(Editor’s note: This trip took place prior to the sudden capture of Tripoli on the night of August 21. The observations detail what conditions were like inside the Libyan capital on the eve of its capitulation.)

With a no-fly zone in effect over Libya, and the rebels controlling all eastern land approaches, there remained only one entrance into Gadhafi’s Libya and that is via a coastal corridor through Tunisia. There was a second Tunisian border crossing further south, but it is now firmly in the possession of the rebels.


The closest airport to the Libyan border is at the Tunisian beach resort town of Djerba, which is where Daniel and I met our two protocol agents who escorted us into Tripoli. The Libyans wore dark suits and drove a black Mercedes sedan, complete with official government license plate. This ominous image ran in stark contrast to the horde of scantily-clad German holidaymakers at the Djerba airport arrival gates.

In total, it takes about four hours to drive from Djerba to Tripoli and this includes processing visas at the border. Our arrival at dusk on August 1 coincided with the first day of Ramadan, which meant that the usually crowded border checkpoint was virtually deserted. On the Tunisian side of the border, we noticed that the numerous, sprawling tent cities erected to house expected Libyan refugees were veritable ghost towns. It seemed a tragic waste of resources to have fully equipped camps sit empty while news reports continue to describe the desperate need for such facilities in drought-stricken Somalia.

By the time we entered the Libyan frontier, it was completely dark and the main highway was hauntingly deserted. Many of the towns we passed showed only glimmers of light through mostly shuttered windows. One glowing exception to this was a massive oil refinery at Zawiya that was lit up like a Christmas tree and clearly visible even over the horizon. How NATO had not targeted this facility only became more perplexing throughout our trip, especially as we began to realize just how crippling the gasoline shortage had become for Gadhafi’s Libya.

(Editor’s note: At time of writing, both Zawiya and the oil refinery were under attack by rebel forces.)

With reduced shipments of crude oil and a shortage of international workers (most of whom fled during the initial days of this crisis), the lone refinery is able to produce only a trickle of gasoline. However, without that limited supply, Gadhafi’s loyalists would quickly devour all remaining fuel reserves. As it was, enraged customers waited up to 48 hours in kilometres-long lines for gas, and the price per litre had soared from a subsidized pre-war price of 25 cents to a fast-climbing 4 dollars a litre.

We soon learned that our protocol (intelligence) escorts had plenty of clout with Libyan police and security forces, racing well above the speed limit and jumping all queues at the numerous checkpoints. But even they dared not risk exerting their authority to allow us to film the lengthy gas line-ups or the several fistfights we witnessed as we drove past them. It has even been reported that gunfights between frustrated customers are not uncommon. However, the sight of two Canadians setting up tripods to film that despair — when Canadian war ships are enforcing the embargo — would probably have resulted in similar violence and the protocol agents were not too convinced of their ability to protect us.

As we approached Tripoli, the manned checkpoints became more numerous and far more diligent. Some were no more than 400 metres apart. The security forces staffing these roadblocks wore a variety of civilian and paramilitary attire, and their standard weapons were the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifles.

Present in their ranks were a surprising number of young teen­age boy soldiers and an even more astonishing number of female soldiers, complete with traditional hijab head coverings. The majority of these civilian soldiers were volunteers who mobilized into pro-Gadhafi militia following the start of the crisis. Their presence in Tripoli freed up the regular Libyan army forces for deployment to the front lines around Zlitan, outside Misrata in northwestern Libya.

Oil tankers and freighters in Tripoli harbour are riding high, revealing their empty cargo holds, and the jetty sits abandoned as a result of the UN-imposed embargo. (scott taylor, esprit de corps)

Oil tankers and freighters in Tripoli harbour are riding high, revealing their empty cargo holds, and the jetty sits abandoned as a result of the UN-imposed embargo. (scott taylor, esprit de corps)

The number of random gunshots heard throughout the city at all hours of the day indicated that weapon handling and discipline remained a challenge for the Libyan volunteers. One Tripoli-based foreign diplomat recounted one of his experiences. When he asked for directions at a checkpoint, a Libyan soldier gesticulated with his Kalashnikov and unintentionally fired a burst of rounds into the tarmac. Both the ambassador and the shooter were shaken by the sudden accidental gunfire, but unharmed.

The assessment of the regular Libyan forces is far more favourable. One international observer, who is based in Libya and considered a Middle East expert, ranked the Libyan army on par with the Jordanian military, and therefore among the best in the Arab world.

While Canada was quick to recall our ambassador to Libya in the early days of the crisis, and has recently expelled the last of the Libyan diplomats from Ottawa, a great number of countries continue to maintain a diplomatic mission in Tripoli. The most prominent of those embassies that are still open are the Russian and Chinese, while most African countries still maintain close ties with Gadhafi officials.

Following the April 13 bomb attack that killed Saif al-Arab, Gadhafi’s youngest son, Libyan mobs vandalized the embassies of Italy and France, the two of the countries they hold most responsible for the international intervention. The only European NATO member nation operating an embassy in Tripoli at the time was Hungary. As such, the Hungarian diplomats provided consular services for all European and North American passport holders. Given the tension, violence, and uncertain circumstances, Daniel and I made every effort to keep the Hungarians posted as to our whereabouts. They were incredibly professional and courteous in return.

Despite five months of NATO air attacks, life in the Libyan capital of Tripoli continues at a normal pace in the old city marketplace, including the selling of hijabs in markets just like this one. (scott taylor, esprit de corps)

Despite five months of NATO air attacks, life in the Libyan capital of Tripoli continues at a normal pace in the old city marketplace, including the selling of hijabs in markets just like this one. (scott taylor, esprit de corps)

Throughout our week-long stay in Libya, there were numerous occasions where, by virtue of the sound of their jet engines, we became aware of NATO aircraft patrolling the skies above. We also witnessed several incidents of distant bomb strikes. What was surreal about this was that Tripoli did not possess any air raid siren system, nor did they engage in any anti-aircraft fire at the unseen planes heard overhead. Lit up like any modern city during the night and bustling with crowded markets during the day, the people of Tripoli simply absorbed the bombing and carried on.

We were taken to several different bomb sites to photograph the damage; in most cases they were either government ministry offices or houses of Libyan leaders. In each case, whether it was the demolished foreign ministry or Gadhafi’s private home, the limited yet complete destruction was a grim testimony to the pinpoint accuracy of NATO weaponry.

That said, it is impossible to bomb a crowded city of one million inhabitants for five months and not create what NATO spokespersons call “collateral damage” or “regrettable accidents.” Our Libyan handlers ensured that we were taken to several sites where families and children had been killed, and yet there was no visible evidence that they were the intended military targets.

One of the most repeatedly hit targets in Tripoli is the leader’s compound, the walled facility that housed Gadhafi’s offices and command centre. While it has long since been pounded to rubble, it seemed as though NATO was content to keep striking the long-vacant compound to demonstrate its unchallenged martial power while knowing that there would not be any chance of killing innocent civilians in the process.

Outside of the compound walls, a small Bedouin-style tent city had been erected. There, many of the Libyan tribal leaders had taken up residence to show solidarity with Gadhafi. After NATO began its bombing campaign on March 19, Gadhafi’s popularity and support rose to about 85 per cent by early August. Of the 2,335 tribes that constitute the Libyan population, barely 300 supported the rebels, unlike the remaining 2,000 who had pledged their renewed loyalty to Gadhafi at a massive meeting in Tripoli on April 5 – 6.

The defiance of the Gadhafi loyalists in the face of NATO’s overwhelming advantage in weaponry did not come without considerable cost. One of our escorted visits was to the El Khadra Hospital, where we were allowed to film crowded wards full of wounded men. The official line was that they had all been victims of NATO airstrikes, but my limited Arabic enabled me to confirm that the majority were soldiers wounded in front-line battle. The tiny Libyan military — the total population of the country is just six million — means that they do not have a separate hospital for soldiers. However, it was impressive to note the standard of health care available at these facilities, which would rival that of Western Europe. Both doctors and administrators claimed that, despite the huge influx of casualties, they had yet to run short of medicine and equipment.

Wounded fighters and civilians alike are treated at the El Khadra Hospital in Tripoli (above and left). Images of President Moammar Gadhafi adorn all the bed spaces. (scott taylor, esprit de corps)

Wounded fighters and civilians alike are treated at the El Khadra Hospital in Tripoli (above and left). Images of President Moammar Gadhafi adorn all the bed spaces. (scott taylor, esprit de corps)

Although the international news of the week was focused on the collapsing US stock market and street violence in the UK, inside Tripoli all eyes remained focused on the war close at hand. Every morning, the hotel lobby would be abuzz as people tried to discover whether the government forces were still holding in the besieged Mediterranean port of Brega, if the front line remained at Zlitan, and whether the rebels had advanced northwards from the western mountains. The retention of Brega by Gadhafi’s forces is arguably a key element in maintaining his regime’s power. Even though the rebels already control the oil fields in the east, it is not until they seize the port facilities in Brega that they will be able to export oil.

While western nations may be supplying the rebels with arms and NATO supplies the air force, until the rebels can start exporting oil they are not able to pay for the war materiel being loaned to them.

In the final days prior to our departure, the NATO air strikes had intensified against the power grid and communications systems. With satellite TV destroyed and internet service knocked out countrywide by air strikes, it will be increasingly difficult for the Gadhafi regime to make the plight of their people known to the outside world. When this destruction is added to the challenges faced as a result of the fuel shortage and the dwindling stockpiled food stores, there is a strong likelihood that Libyan civil society will degenerate into personal struggles simply to survive.

In the end, this strategy may indeed result in a civil uprising to oust Gadhafi, or he may choose to submit to NATO pressure in order to spare his people further suffering. If that does transpire, it will be interesting to see how history judges NATO’s military intervention in the name of humanity.

Postscript: In the days following Taylor’s and Heald’s visit, the Libyan rebels made a series of startling advances. First they captured the critical oil refinery at Zawiya and then began making probing attacks against Tripoli from the west. On the night of August 19, rebels infiltrated Tripoli from the eastern suburb of Tajoura, attacking several mosques during the evening prayers. Despite official dismissals of the rebel threat on state-run TV, by the afternoon of August 20, the regime leadership began losing its nerve. A number of armed Gadhafi loyalist intelligence officers entered the Rixos Hotel that housed all of the foreign media and announced they were now, essentially, hostages and that the fate of the regime was to become their fate. However, that threat quickly dissipated as rebel forces rapidly entered the city from all directions, including an amphibious assault on the Tripoli harbour. By August 21, the rebels claimed control of 80 per cent of the city, while Gadhafi loyalist resistance was sporadic and dispirited. At the time of writing, Moammar Gadhafi had still not been captured and his loyalist forces were still fighting in Tripoli and other cities, including Brega.