In Libya, new museums mark the war


An eagle taken from brigade headquarters of Moammar Gaddafi forces is now displayed outside the war museum in Misurata, Libya. (Alice Fordham/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Eight months after revolutionaries took control of Misurata, a strategic and bloody battlefield in Libya’s uprising against former leader Moammar Gaddafi, people are going about their lives once more.

Shops and schools have reopened, and a few valiant souls are beginning to patch up the sooty skeletons of buildings shattered by months of fighting.

But Misurata, 131 miles east of Tripoli, has not quite gone back to being a sleepy coastal city. Some former rebel fighters like to block the main street with trucks loaded with missiles so they can have races, executing screeching hand brake turns while irritated motorists are forced onto back streets. And the thousands who died here will not soon be forgotten, as ubiquitous memorials to fallen sons, fathers and colleagues testify.

The latest addition to this city is fittingly macabre. Crammed between bomb-blasted apartment blocks is a makeshift museum of last year’s war and its spoils, its contents filling a former computer center, and spilling out of the building to the sidewalk and the street.

Captured tanks are crowded near a sculpture of a golden fist crushing an American airplane — among the items looted from Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziya compound in Tripoli. Nearby, towering over visitors, a graffiti-covered metal eagle taken from a brigade headquarters clutches an effigy of the longtime autocrat in its oversized talons.

“This is history. This will remain forever,” said Taher Ameen, a volunteer worker who also contributes money to the museum, wearing a baseball cap in the red, black and green of the new Libyan flag.

“These are the martyrs,” he said, leading the way to a wall display of about 2,000 photographs, names, and dates of birth and death. He pointed out the first man killed in the city, in February last year. There are photos of a whole family, with four children, who died together. A women’s section, for the sake of modesty, contains no images.

“If you don’t have this museum, how would you know what Gaddafi did in Misurata?” he asked.

The city, positioned between the capital and the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in the east, was besieged for weeks by Gaddafi loyalists and battered by heavy artillery, as cratered buildings attest. People across Libya say they admire the bravery of the Misuratans, and some travel long distances to see the museum.

“The museum symbolizes strength and persistence,” said Mafez al-Hadi Muhammad, visiting with her parents and six sisters from Zawiyah, several hours away by car. “When we see the weapons, we see what Gaddafi wished for us.”

But as she glanced around at the still-live, homemade grenades and missiles on display, she said she thought that at any minute the arsenal might explode, because Libyans are still inexperienced at handling weapons.

“This is frightening,” she said, looking at a glass case of antitank mines.

People in Misurata are not alone in wanting a museum to mark their war experience. Although planned exhibits in Tripoli have yet to open, a war museum was begun almost a year ago in Benghazi, which suffered far less in the fighting and fell under rebel control much earlier in the conflict.

There, a collection that is less artifact and more art has a home in a gracious colonial building, whose interior was badly damaged by fire in the fighting, and a leafy garden.

Under blackened arches in the lobby are dozens of sculptures made from twisted metal. Some are small and graceful — animals and figures — while others are man-sized, adorned with helmets and ammunition. They are the work of artist Ali al-Wakwak, who retrieves truckloads of debris from battlefields and refashions it into art.

“People feel relaxed when they come here,” he said in the garden, where the rosy light of the setting sun fell on lush grass, palm trees and a display of appropriated rocket-launchers and armored personnel carriers. “I change things from weapons into something different.”

Mustafa ben Nour is part of the collective that has run the museum since its inception. Its members contributed their labor to refit the building with water and electricity, he said, and built a memorial to the war dead. They have encouraged artists to contribute their work.

He plans to exhibit art from uprisings in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia, which also ousted long-standing rulers last year. Some of Wakwak’s work has been sent to Tripoli for an exhibition set to open soon.

When ben Nour began the museum project, others were sending weapons or food to the front line, but he decided to start building the memorial as the fighting still raged.

“We really worked hard to build this museum, because of the blood of the people that died,” Nour said. “It is not something that is easy to forget. It’s something we should work hard to remember.”

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