SIRTE – In the shattered Libyan town of Sirte, the hometown where Muammar Gaddafi met his end last month, the mood was grim on the eve of one of Islam’s great festivals – the only good news was for the sheep.
As fellow Libyans prepared on Saturday to celebrate Eid al-Adha, the feast of sacrifice, by giving thanks for liberation from Gaddafi’s rule with the ritual slaughter of tens of thousands of the beasts, those waiting their fate at a roadside market in Sirte were finding few buyers.
Sirte, once Gaddafi’s favoured “capital of Africa”, lies in ruins. His tribal kin and loyal supporters in what became the last bastion of his 42 years of personal power were in no mood to join festivities that many Libyans will see as recalling the sacrifices of a war that has won them freedom.
“Who can celebrate Eid at a time like this?” grumbled Ali al-Saadeq, 48, as he joined a group of men eyeing up small flocks corralled in makeshift wire pens or huddled on the backs of farmers’ pickup trucks by a highway on the edge of town.
“A revolution is supposed to turn things from bad to good,” he said as sellers manhandled their bleating livestock to show off their qualities and tempt reluctant buyers complaining of empty pockets. “But so far, we haven’t seen anything good.
“People don’t have money to buy sheep,” said al-Saadeq, noting the going rate was still a hefty $200-$300 a head. “People don’t even have money to buy bread for their kids. Who has money now? The banks were all destroyed in Sirte.”
A few animals were changing hands – Sunday’s dawn will see families across the Muslim world cutting sheep’s throats for festive meals that recall the story of God’s favour to Abraham in sparing his son. But as these were trussed by the legs and slung into the trunks of cars, many more remained unsold.
Standing at the improvised market – like much of downtown Sirte the regular trade ground was destroyed in fighting and, locals say, by vindictive rebel forces from other towns – Taher al-Mansuri, a 33-year-old engineer, said he would make a purchase, but this year only to share a sheep with a neighbour.
The dislocation of the civil war meant he, like many in Sirte, had not been paid for months and the festivities of former times, when the once modest fishing village enjoyed patronage and cash from the Gaddafi clan, could not be matched.
Due to the revolt that began in February, the men said, they knew of no one locally who had managed to make the annual Haj pilgrimage to Mecca, whose end is marked by Eid al-Adha.
“It’s not the right time for someone whose house has been destroyed or has lost a relative, blown up or shot,” said Mansuri. “I don’t think that a family would want to celebrate Eid when they have a relative also who is missing.”
Though few were prepared to venture avowed nostalgia for Gaddafi – barely a mile from where he was captured, tormented and killed by fighters for the National Transitional Council (NTC) – the anger against his enemies bubbled over.
“They’ve rounded up prisoners and killed them,” fumed Mehdi Juma, 40, referring to at least one case where international human rights monitors have accused NTC forces of suspected atrocities against pro-Gaddafi fighters who held on in Sirte for two months after the capital Tripoli was overrun.
Deep tribal and regional rivalries, notably between the people of Sirte and those of Misrata, Zawiya or Benghazi whose triumphant slogans are spray-painted across the bullet- and shell-scarred walls of Gaddafi’s hometown, underlie fears that Libya, for all the postwar euphoria elsewhere, faces trouble in the future, even the risk of an insurgency or more civil war.
Unconfirmed reports in the area on Saturday spoke of two people killed near Sirte by suspected Gaddafi sympathisers. The talk added to a climate of fear that ubiquitous checkpoints and patrols by the motley forces backing the NTC have done little to alleviate, at any rate in the area around Sirte.
Inside the town itself, few residents appeared to have returned to homes, many of which have been damaged by fires as well as by explosions and the effects of shrapnel.
One group of young men, who said they were mostly students and supporters of the anti-Gaddafi cause, worked with a bulldozer to clear a street of rubble, but there was little other sign of activity. Many residents appeared still to be sheltering with relatives in the arid countryside round about.
The odd car passed along Sirte’s seafront promenade, once a showcase for Gaddafi when he hosted international summits and foreign dignitaries. They crunched, cautiously, over blasted concrete and countless cartridge and shell cases.
Surveying the ruin of what had been his minimarket, 22-year-old Mohammed Mahfouz was in despair: “How can I fix this? There’s no electricity, no water. It’s beyond repair.
“A revolution that comes like this, wrecks buildings, steals and loots and writes obscene things on the walls of people’s homes and destroys everything in its path and sets fire to houses, is this a revolution?
“I don’t feel like it’s Eid. It’s just a normal day, a depressing day.”
Along the street, where streetlights stand crooked in the warm sea breeze, reduced to the punctured texture of cheese-graters in testimony to the hails of metal that flew along the beachfront last month, Zia Mohammed, 36, stood disconsolate in the wreckage of her home, her children bewildered around her.
Husband Mohammed Ramadan, standing in the charred and still reeking wreckage of his sitting room, said it had been deliberately torched by NTC fighters who suspected him – wrongly, he said – of being a supporter of Gaddafi, a common complaint across the seaside town that is home to 100,000.
“We have nothing to give to the kids, nothing to eat,” his wife Zia said. “We have no gas to cook with. We have nothing.
“Here, there is no Eid.”