By Borzou Daragahi
Don’t worry,” Abdul Latif Elyazghi assured his youngest boy. “There will be Nintendo and Wii in heaven.”
The oil engineer and two of his sons, aged 11 and 18, had been stopped at a checkpoint by Muammer Gaddafi’s men in late August, the final days of the regime’s rule in the Libyan capital Tripoli. They were tossed into a prison cell. Every few minutes came gunfire. Bodies were piled up along the side of the room. The three were sure they would be killed soon.
But a miracle happened. One of the guards ushered them to a side door. “Run!” he commanded.
It took Mr Elyazghi days to begin to tell the harrowing story to friends, including those who had taken part in the uprising against Gaddafi and were now at the head of various neighbourhood councils and militia groups.
But it was their response that shocked him most. “They told me I should say to the authorities that I was captured on March 20 instead of August 20,” he recalls with disgust. “That way I would get a nice big payment from the transitional government.”
Gaddafi and his family may be gone. But the culture of corruption and abuse they engendered remains, threatening Libya’s future economic growth and political stability. Not only do many steal; some even engage in torture, which Amnesty International describes as widespread, in the very name of the revolution that started a year ago. Transitional authorities estimate that at least $2bn has been pilfered by people falsely claiming they were wounded, fought in the uprising or paid for weapons out of their own pocket.
“If corruption was 100 per cent then, it’s now 110 per cent,” says Abdul Hamid el-Jadi, a Libyan-Swiss banker and anti-corruption crusader. “The family was arrested and killed but the opportunists are still there.”
Twelve months from when its February 17 revolution began, the giddy joy of having thrown off the colonel’s tyrannical rule still animates the young. Commerce is flickering back to life, foreign business people are returning and oil production is ramping up to near-prewar levels. Ahead of June elections, dozens of political parties are coalescing and many more independent candidates are emerging, Hundreds of civil society groups and media outlets have flowered.
But Libya remains deeply unstable. It lacks a rigorous judicial system and a coherent police force, making the enforcement of justice and the rule of law all but impossible, especially after more than four decades of erratic leadership by one man. It is a state of affairs that is likely to be of particular alarm to the French, British and US governments, which led Nato air strikes on Gaddafi’s forces and have given strong backing to the transitional authorities.
The entreaties for Mr Elyazghi to begin milking the system began as soon as he recovered from his ordeal. Not only did some urge him to exaggerate his time in captivity, they told him he should claim a son had post-traumatic stress disorder and needed treatment abroad, even though he was fine.
National Transitional Council officials estimate that the country is bleeding at least $3m a day in such phoney medical payments, totalling $350m so far. “If someone gets a bullet wound, they get treated for a bullet wound and a nose job,” says one.
The military brigades that continue to operate around the country are perhaps the biggest source of corruption in the name of the revolution. The NTC estimates that it has already shelled out $1.5bn in payments to about 250,000 men falsely claiming to be fighters. In fact, probably about 25,000 men took part in the war.
Mr Elyazghi’s friends tried to convince him to join a brigade, get an identification card as a thwar, or revolutionary, and collect up to $500 a month. “The number of people claiming to be revolutionaries or injured is way more than we recognise,” one insider says. “There’s a perception that money is disappearing.”
The anarchy has already begun to affect the fortunes of some of the few multinationals in Libya. Employees of one energy company demanded pay for days they did not show up to work during the war, accusing those who had reported for duty of being counter-revolutionaries and collaborators. At one point they threatened the company – an Italian joint venture – with a shutdown unless it paid them for the period. According to an executive, that is what it did.
“At the moment there’s no trust, just expectations – ‘what can you do for me?’” says Peter Cole, Libya analyst for the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organisation that works in conflict zones.
Those who made genuine sacrifices often find themselves disorientated by the turn of events. Abdullah Abu Shaiba, a high-school economics teacher, fled his pro-Gaddafi district on the outskirts of Tripoli on February 18, finding his way to the east of the country, where he fought in the battle over the oil-terminal city of Brega before making it by sea to Misurata and joining the battle for Sirte. Out of 600 men in his unit, nearly 40 died.
“I did this because I felt we had a corrupt system,” says Mr Shaiba, 33. “You couldn’t say what you think. But the price was so heavy. So many lives were lost.”
When he finally returned home, he found to his amazement that the same local bigwigs, whom he says drove him from his town and were supplying trucks for Gaddafi’s war effort, were wearing the official badges of the uprising, claiming to be revolutionaries and processing claims for compensation.
While Mr Abu Shaiba returned to civilian life, some of his fellow fighters continue to roam the land as self-described guardians of the revolution. They are out to make certain the old guard never returns to power. But their rule can be as vicious as that of the forces they ousted.
On January 19 one militia unit, called the Ten Martyrs Brigade, summoned a career diplomat named Omar Brebesh for a chat. By his family’s account, Mr Brebesh, 62, who served briefly as Libya’s envoy to France, was reluctant to go but figured he had nothing to hide. His son Mohammad drove him to the base and was told to collect him later that evening. When Mohammad returned, he was angrily told to come back the next morning. The family’s worries grew when they were told that day that Mr Brebesh had been taken overnight to the mountain city of Zintan, where the commander of the unit was from.
Mr Brebesh’s broken body was ultimately found at Zintan’s hospital, says Human Rights Watch, the New York-based NGO that first reported the case. The body had severe head trauma, bruises and fractured ribs. His nails had been pulled out.
The detention, torture and killing of the well-connected diplomat created an uproar. Under pressure from the authorities, other Zintan units arrested alleged perpetrators. But the authorities have since been playing down the killing and seeking to tarnish Mr Brebesh’s name. “We are not in paradise,” says Col Ahmad Bani, a spokesman for the official armed forces, which are struggling to incorporate the militias into a national unit. “Maybe he made a mistake in the past. Now he pays for that.”
Mr Brebesh’s case came to light only because his family knew enough to turn to international organisations when local media ignored them. But Libyans say many more are being abducted daily by the former revolutionaries. Elders of the Wurfulla tribe, Libya’s largest, estimate that three to five members of their clan are snatched in the capital a day. During a gathering of tribal elders in Bani Walid, south-east of the city, a distraught man stormed in. His brother and cousin had been kidnapped the night before in Tripoli, he explained.
If they are lucky, they did not end up in nearby Misurata, where human rights advocates say all but one of the impromptu prisons run by militias have turned into nightmarish torture chambers. “There’s no doubt that the rebels committed war crimes,” says Donatella Rovera of Amnesty, which in a scathing report on the eve of the anniversary chronicles widespread torture and abuse by militias. “People died under torture in at least a dozen cases we’ve had. There are people seen alive in videos and later seen dead. Pressure by guards on other guards to torture prisoners is particularly widespread in Misurata.”
Unlike in the hierarchical state structure of the previous regime, the abuse is perpetrated by different groups from various regions under no one’s control. Until the elections in June, no one in the transitional government will have the political authority or muscle to rein them in. “The truth of the matter – and the real problem – is that the government is afraid of the armed militias,” says Essam Mohamed Ezzobair, a journalist for the newspaper al-Arab.
Analysts say the gravest danger is that, despite all the sacrifices, Libyans will fail to establish a credible political authority before the country falls ever deeper into patterns of lawlessness and injustice.
That is a fear highlighted by a deadly incident this month at an old marine academy in the Tripoli suburb of Janzour, being used as housing for displaced residents of central Libya. It hosts people from Twerga driven out of their town of 50,000 by Misurata-based militias who accused them of taking part in Gaddafi’s months-long siege of their coastal city.
Not content to have made them leave their homes, on February 6 the Misurata militiamen appear to have descended on the Janzour camp, seeking to arrest two men. When the Twergans resisted, the militiamen opened fire, initially killing two people, according to the preliminary results of an investigation by Human Rights Watch. When the refugees began a street protest, the militiamen again shot at them, killing three more. A further two were fatally shot while fleeing.
The dead included three children and two women, the UN says. Although a young woman wounded in the attack says the fighters had Misurata written on their vehicles, the head of that city’s municipal council insists there is “no way” anyone under its command was involved in the attack. No one has yet been charged.
Few regret the passing of Gaddafi or long for the return of a regime like his. Yet there is growing hostility towards the sometimes violent and lawless groups that are replacing it. “Those people who were the real freedom fighters,” says a disillusioned Mr Elyazghi, “have already disappeared.”