TRIPOLI, Libya — Nineteen-year-old Mohammed el-Mishergi strolled down to the harbor Monday to buy fish, only to run into a group of militiamen loyal to Moammar Gaddafi. A few hours later, Mishergi was found dead in a bullet-ridden car with another man, his legs tied together with rope.
“There are still groups of them not far from here, guys with green bandannas, with guns!” Mishergi’s father, Azzdine, screamed at two Libyan rebels holding Kalashnikov rifles in the streets of the capital’s ancient walled city Wednesday. “What are you doing? Go and get them.”
The younger Mishergi was neither for nor against Gaddafi, just a young man getting a breath of sea air, his mother said. But in Tripoli, being neutral carries its own peril as the two sides fight what could be the climactic battle of Libya’s six-month-long civil war.
Despite rebel victories in recent days, the celebrations have been put on hold until the violence ends and Libya’s autocratic leader of 42 years is captured, killed or out of the country.
Rebels say they control almost all of the Libyan capital, and they scored a massive symbolic triumph Tuesday when they routed Gaddafi’s troops from his sprawling Bab al-Aziziya compound.
Nearly everyone seemed happy Wednesday that Gaddafi’s rule was effectively at an end, but many Tripoli residents said they still fear him: His unpredictability — his “craziness,” as some put it — is perhaps his last weapon.
“The capture of Bab al-Aziziya is not enough for us to feel safe,” said Sondos, a 30-year-old resident, who added that three families share her home because they do not have enough men around to protect the women. Gaddafi “has places under the ground,” she added, referring to speculation about a massive underground tunnel complex. “We fear he still has something up his sleeve.”
Rumors are rife that Gaddafi may have poisoned the tap water or might find a way of bombarding the city from the outskirts or even from the sea.
Rebels said a few loyalist neighborhoods such as Abu Salim are still holding out, and elsewhere small groups of loyalist soldiers are hiding in buildings and directing sniper fire, convinced by their commanders that surrender means certain death.
For many civilians, the continuing clashes mean staying indoors — or taking up arms, as fisherman Naji Ali Omar, 46, did. “I am a man, but I don’t really know how to use a weapon,” he said as he patrolled the streets of Tripoli’s old city.
Later, at home, he expressed misgivings about his new role.
“We try to stop our children from seeing weapons, but what can we do?” Omar said, as his 5-year-old son eagerly grabbed the rifle he had momentarily set aside. “Now they all want to use weapons.”
There were huge celebrations in the city’s central square over the weekend when it looked as though Tripoli was about to fall in just a few hours. But Gaddafi’s forces surprised everyone by staging a brief comeback.
Throughout the capital Wednesday, armed men dressed in the rebel colors of red, black and green manned checkpoints. The checkpoints were erected every few dozen yards and were hastily put together with anything from plant pots to bed frames, school desks to burnt-out cars. The rebels flashed victory signs at passing motorists, who eagerly reciprocated.
But the gunmen vastly outnumbered civilians on streets that were unusually deserted even for the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan. The people who did venture out, looking for supplies in the few food stores that remained open, did so reluctantly.
“Are you feeling secure?” asked one shopkeeper in the old city, as the sound of gunfire mingled with the call to prayer. “There is no security at all.”
With his supply lines disrupted by the fighting, the shopkeeper’s shelves were almost empty, a few half-rotten green peppers and garlic bulbs the only vegetables on offer. Most of the other shops were shuttered.
“They really have to find a solution,” he said, referring to the rebels. “They can’t wait even a week. We are in a poor neighborhood, and people shop from day to day. People won’t know what to do.”
Many civilians, too, are worried about the number of guns that have flooded into Tripoli. Residents have been buying weapons for months in preparation for this moment, said Ben Otman, 47, who owns a computer company.
“Now they think of the weapons as their property. How can we collect all these weapons?” he said.
The rebels have insisted that there should be no acts of individual reprisal against Gaddafi’s henchmen. But the anger akin to what Mishergi’s father displayed Wednesday could be difficult to contain.
Papering over regional and tribal divisions and establishing a new democracy in North Africa will be even harder, especially after more than four decades during which Gaddafi crushed all opposition, all debate, all critical thought.
“We grew up with fear,” Otman said. “He was ruling us with fire and iron. It will not be easy to move to democracy and behave like a modern country.”