By SARAH A. TOPOL
SURT, Libya — Libya’s real test, now that Muammar el-Qaddafi is gone, is whether the instinct for vengeance can be blunted. Surt, Qaddafi’s hometown and the city in which he met his end, is anxiously watching and waiting for the answer.
On the beachfront, the only sound is the sea. The last city to fall in the rebellion against Qaddafi’s rule is silent. Almost every house in District Two, believed to be the neighborhood where Qaddafi spent his final days, was battered in the fighting. There is no electricity, no running water, and so far no support for reconstruction. The place smells like decaying trash and faintly of fire.
The Mubarak home overlooking the azure sea has a gaping hole in the second floor and all the windows are shattered. The three-story house was built by two working-class brothers (no relation to the ousted Egyptian president) for their extended family over 20 years ago.
Nasser Mubarak, the eldest brother, is here with his wife and son, trying to salvage belongings and clear the wreckage. Bearded, dressed in a dishdash, he is covered in soot. The family fled Surt when the fighting began in September, staying with relatives living outside the city.
As a convoy of former rebels from Misurata drives along the promenade, Mubarak and his young son wave and call out their thanks from the balcony. The fighters from Misurata spearheaded the assault on Surt, seeking revenge for a three-month siege by Qaddafi’s forces that left their own city in ruins before the summer. Now, they are patrolling the ruined city with heavy weapons mounted on their truck beds.
“I’m happy now, but I need money so I can rebuild my home,” Mubarak tells me, standing by the doorway. “We’re waiting to see if the new government will help people here rebuild.” The day laborer smiles as his son struggles to shift stray chunks of concrete rubble to the neat pile already stacked on the deserted sidewalk.
Unlike other cities damaged in the civil war, Surt has yet to see any aid. Many Libyans I ask shrug and say the city deserves its fate. One even went so far as to giggle when I brought up helping the residents of Qaddafi’s hometown. Heavily armed units of revolutionary fighters are operating semi-autonomously, and the fear of retribution underlies every conversation I have in the city. I ask Mubarak about the possibility for tribal fighting and revenge by the armed militias.
“We hope not, but only time will tell,” he replies.
“We hope not, but it’s expected,” loudly adds his younger brother, Muftah Mubarak, who has been watching from a few feet away. “Everyone will fight about positions in the new government and all the tribes in Libya will fight each other.” Muftah names some prominent Libyan tribes, saying it is inevitable that the clans will seek to avenge their dead. “The militias will fight each other.”
I ask Muftah why, unlike his brother, he didn’t bring his children to help rebuild. He gestures at the wreckage. “I don’t want them to see this,” he says. His scorn is palpable. Then Muftah whispers the now-taboo motto of Qaddafi’s Libya. “God and Muammar and Libya, only.” From under his glasses, his eyes scan my face for a reaction. Nasser looks on in dismay.
Nasser says he just wants to move on, rent an apartment somewhere and try to rebuild his life. But Muftah is adamant about staying in the family home and wants the country’s new rulers to help him now. “In 15 days, we haven’t seen anything from the new government. The N.T.C. should start as soon as possible or it will be a humanitarian disaster,” he says, echoing something I hear over and over again in Surt — a city that was built largely on government largesse.
The victors may scoff at the demands of the losers, remembering the loss of life and the damage that Qaddafi’s forces inflicted on their homes. But the future of the country rests on the ability of the new government to respond to civilian needs – and not only of those who won.
Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has written for the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, GQ, Newsweek, the New Republic and Slate, among others.