Tripoli battle is bittersweet moment in Benghazi

August 22, 2011

It was here that Libya’s revolution was born more than six months ago, when hundreds were killed as Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi tried to violently suppress an uprising against his rule.

It was here that Libyans had their first experience in decades of a Libya without Gaddafi, the longest-ruling Arab autocrat in the region, as they cobbled together civic organizations and a parallel government to plan for a new era. And it was here that they begged for international intervention when the city was nearly retaken in March.

On Monday, the head of the Transitional National Council, a temporary governing body for the opposition based in this eastern city, declared that “the era of Gaddafi is over,” after rebels swiftly advanced into Tripoli. “We aim for peace, justice and a nation of law,” said council leader Mustafa Abdel Jalil.

But for many in Benghazi, the moment of joy was tempered with sadness. They celebrated with tears and volleys of gunfire, but there is no direct path to Tripoli for them, and they remain cut off from western Libya.

The road to the capital is blocked by Gaddafi’s home town, Sirte, a place most rebels never dared to approach. Sirte marks the halfway point between Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city, and the capital, which rebels are fighting to dominate. It is unclear whether Sirte’s residents will rise up against Gaddafi or remain loyal to him. The town is home to Gaddafi’s tribe.

“We wish we could go and see, and I have been upset and sad since yesterday. I want to get there anyway I can, walking, by boat, by plane,” said Hakeem al-Wafali, 32, a Benghazi resident. “When Tripoli falls and the tyrant falls, then Sirte will fall. We are counting the minutes and the hours to go to Tripoli. I’ll take my children and my wife.”

Wafali spent the night with thousands of other revelers in Benghazi’s Freedom Square, where the first anti-Gaddafi demonstration occurred Feb. 15 and sparked the uprising, which spread slowly and violently across the nation. On Monday night, he said he will do the same.

All across the city, billboards and street signs in Arabic and English scream the words “We have a dream,” “Free Libya” and “Down with Gaddafi.” The graffiti and the signs have been up for months as people in Benghazi waited for Tripoli’s residents to rise against the government and link the west and east again.

Bounce houses are set up for children on the waterfront near Freedom Square, and vendors hawk trinkets celebrating the revolution. Those headbands and hats now have new meaning because the opposition is within reach of victory, Benghazi’s residents said.

Members of the Transitional National Council reportedly are making plans to travel to the capital when it is safe enough to relocate. There they will try to rule in the interim as Libya enters what people here are calling a post-Gaddafi era.

A few miles southwest of Benghazi, rebel field commander Mohammed al-Rujaili declared the “liberation” of the oil hub of Brega. For months, untrained and ill-equipped rebel forces weaved back and forth there, gaining and then quickly losing ground. Gaddafi’s forces fled the area Monday, Rujaili said. Sirte is the next likely major battleground.

“Sirte is an obstacle. If it becomes a tribal war, it will take a long time to control,” Rujaili said. “But if things continue with Gaddafi forces running away, soon the road will be open.”

The sentiments of the people in Sirte are unclear. Abdel Jalil, the head of the rebel council, said the only way for the town to fall is through internal rebellion.

Rujaili’s men have long been the defensive line for Benghazi, and he insisted that some Benghazi fighters were among the men moving in from the western city of Zawiyah to liberate Tripoli. There may be no way to the capital from Benghazi by land now, but the fight will be over soon, Rujaili said. “In our hearts, we are there with the [fighters] in Tripoli,” he said.

Sitting on a bench outside Freedom Square in Benghazi, Noah Towfiq, 28, propped up the red, black and green flag of the opposition.

“We wish we were there in Tripoli,” he said. “But our joy is that the people there can breathe the air of freedom like we do now. Tripoli is our capital.”

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