Letter from Tripoli: An eyewitness account

Yesterday evening (21 February) I was able to speak via Skype for about 20 minutes with a friend who lives in Sarraj, a suburb of Tripoli that is located 10 kilometers west of the city’s center. He agreed to my publishing a summary of the main points of our conversation; and he also answered some follow-up questions via email. Ali, which is not his real name, speaks fluent American English; his background, which I will not specify, makes him qualified to give reliable information about certain military matters

The atmosphere in Sarraj is fearful and tense, but otherwise calm. There is no violence on the streets, but everyone can hear loud caliber rounds fired every few seconds. “This proves that sniping is taking place,” writes Ali in his email. “It means, actually, that someone is aiming and shooting at something and apparently not wasting his ammo too much with careful firing. It is an eerie feeling to stand outside and hear this.”

He also saw three Chinook helicopters flying over his neighborhood, heading north toward the center of the city. More details about that below. Ali and his neighbors take turns patrolling the neighborhood around the clock, to protect it from roaming mercenary soldiers; but otherwise they stay at home. Since Qaddafi’s regime enforced a strict ban on civilians owning firearms, they are using makeshift weapons to protect themselves. Ali said he is armed with a crowbar. The mercenaries, Ali said, are everywhere. They come mostly from Chad and Darfur.

The government briefly blocked access to Aljazeera and other satellite television stations, but then stopped. Libyans are now able to watch satellite television, and they do have access to the internet, although the connection is unstable and capricious. There was quite a lot of interference during our conversation via Skype, with Ali’s voice breaking up several times. He said that he can access his Gmail account from his laptop computer, but not from his iPhone. In terms of infrastructure, water and electricity are fine. His family stocked up on food and supplies before the current troubles began, and are not worried about shortages.

Ali confirmed readily that he was afraid. He said that neither he nor his friends have any sense of how the situation in Libya would play out. “On the one hand I cannot believe that things can go back to the way they were before all this,” he said. “But on the other hand, Qaddafi obviously does not have any limits. We knew he was crazy, but it’s still a terrible shock to see him turning mercenaries on his own people and just mowing down unarmed demonstrators. So yeah, we knew he was crazy. But maybe we did not realize he was that crazy. It’s a scary and devastating feeling to be here now.” Ali said that he knew for a confirmed fact that civilian airplanes were being used to fly soldiers and weapons to Benghazi.

He also heard from several sources that officers in Benghazi, including air force officers, had been executed for refusing orders to kill the anti-government demonstrators. The same sources described a mass grave near Benghazi, containing the bodies of more than 100 executed officers.

Below are Ali’s answers to questions submitted by some people who follow me on Twitter. I’ve edited them for spelling, grammar and typos.

Q: What is the situation with the army? Are Libyan soldiers attacking demonstrators, helping or staying neutral? Do you know if soldiers are defecting to the opposition? If yes, are they doing so in significant numbers?

A: The Libyan army is one of the poorest and most neglected security sectors in the government. They are poorly fed , equipped, trained and paid. They are mostly ceremonial and Qaddafi does not trust them. So what we have here are private battalions with each of his sons owning the one named for him. So for example his son Khamees has a battalion belonging to him calling it “Kateebit Khamees.” Each is placed in private super huge barracks situated strategically around Tripoli for situations like these. These battalions are well-equipped, trained and paid and are extremely loyal not to the country but to the leader of their battalion.

So to answer your question the regular army is non-compliant and has mostly sided with the people. Remember they are poorly-equipped and so can be of only limited help. However, the battalions belonging to the regime itself are very much in the fight and are killing people wholesale. Still their numbers are not so great to cover this huge country so it seems they are complemented by mercenaries.

Q: How bad are the air strikes? What are they targeting?

I am not sure about the results of the air strikes since just before the assault started in Tripoli all the mobile phone lines were cut and no one standing outside can communicate anymore with anyone from a distance. I started to hear fighter jets roaring but not so loud because they were actually making sharp turns from a distance several times it seems over the same area . Then the TV confirmed what I did not even want to imagine. TV channels including Aljazeera, Al Hurra and others were talking about protesters being attacked by fixed-wing aircraft. What confirmed this was the footage of two Libyan Mirage F1 fighters defecting to Malta with their pilots announcing that they refuse to kill their people! (Click here to see photos of the Mirage fighter planes in Malta).

Q: To what extent are you (Libyans, in general) aware of world reaction to events in Libya? What do you (personally) think about world reaction? What would you like the world to do?

A: Libyans are disappointed and consider the world reaction as a very weak one. From the TV official announcements the US and the EU, for example, tried to be very careful with their condemnation. It was quite clear that they were weighing their options and the consequences of either angering a surviving Qaddafi and the shame of being silent towards this carnage. Oil contracts and work opportunities for their locals seem to have a higher priority than even frowning at a tyrant going berserk on his people. Only when Qaddafi’s chances proved to be weak did they take a bolder stance; that is when they started to actually condemn the killings – but a bit too late.

Q: Can you confirm that you saw Chinook helicopters flying over central Tripoli several times, and you hear what sounds like mortar or rocket fire (single shots) quite frequently?

A: Yes, I saw three Chinook helicopters over flying my neighborhood north bound. They either were going to drop off their load in Miteega airbase north of Tripoli or drop mercenaries in the middle of the city. These are large helicopters with a 20,000 pound load capability or 40 troopers with full gear. They passed almost 30 minutes before fixed wing jets started flying and the helis made several passes traveling southbound and north bound again. Clearly they were busy dropping off something and loading up again.

Again as soon as I went to see the TV people were wailing, saying foreign mercenaries were taking positions in the city and had 4X4 trucks and were calling people on megaphones not to leave their homes.  And firing in the air to scare people.   When paroling our neighborhood we hear from a distance loud high caliber rounds being fired once every few seconds, proving that sniping is taking place – that actually someone is aiming and shooting at something and apparently not wasting his ammo too much with careful firing. An eerie feeling when standing outside.

Q: What can you tell us about the tribal rivalries in Libya, and how these are affecting reactions to Qaddafi during this crisis?

A: Libya is a tribal community and although it’s a dying notion, Qaddafi made sure to keep the people aware of their tribal divisions, winning the alliance of larger ones and hence keeping the population under control. Although the larger ones like the Werfalees and the Megrahees were privileged with power and money, his recent actions angered these tribes and for the first time in decades tribal barriers have withered away. People are uniting with other formerly rival tribes or even different ethnicities like the Amazeegh or Berbers.

Q: You said Qaddafi was believed to be hiding in a bunker. Can you say where that bunker is located?

A: It is believed that this ferocious campaign in Tripoli is due to the fact that the planned million man march today was aimed to go to the last uncalibrated and hugely symbolic fortified bunker in the heart of Tripoli called “Bab al Azeezeeya.” It is a huge area surrounded by at least three  thick walls and is known to be where Qaddafi spends most of his time and receives diplomats and delegates and make announcements. It seems he and his children are still there. Since the announcement to march to this place was announced yesterday evening people got shot wholesale in Tripoli and today the situation further escalated with the mercenaries, helicopters and fixed wing attack combination. At least that is what I think. Yesterday Saif al Islam [Qaddafi’s son] gave Libyans 48 hours to think it over. Well, things picked up pace less than three hours after his announcement.