By Leila Fadel
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, February 28, 2011; 11:28 AM
IN BENGHAZI, LIBYA When Benghazi fell into the hands of the opposition a week ago, Saleh Zayani grabbed two sound mixers and a microphone and headed to the radio transmission building.
His friends were too afraid to join him, so Zayani went with an armed guard, plugged in his equipment and began to speak.
"This is free Libya, and Tripoli is our capital," he proclaimed at 2 p.m. on Feb. 21. Radio Free Libya has been broadcasting uninterrupted every day since.
Zayani found his voice in the same place he had worked, stifled and fearful, for two decades as a sound engineer, transmitting the messages of Moammar Gaddafi's regime.
Slowly others joined him, and now a group of 20 that includes engineers, revolutionaries and broadcasters keeps the station operating. The work never stops, and the message - which reaches Tripoli and beyond, as far west as Zawiyah - is as important as the forces being sent to Tripoli to support the uprising there, Zayani said.
He weeps when he talks about what drives him. "It was the blood. I saw them killing the people. I saw people I knew that were killed," he said, dropping his face in his hands. At least 220 people were slain in the battle with Gaddafi forces for control of the town, doctors here say.
But Zayani is also overwhelmed by his newfound liberty. "I feel free. For 41 years we were prisoners."
Every day, he uses that freedom to proclaim progress in the push to topple Gaddafi. When Misurata, just outside Tripoli, fell into opposition hands, he screamed into the microphone, "God bless you!" As rebels took other cities he did the same. He keeps cough drops in his desk, his voice hoarse from barking words of encouragement on the air.
"We need to give them courage in Tripoli," he said. "They are still afraid of the regime. We need to give them more power to attack the regime. In Benghazi we know revolutions. All uprisings have started from here."
On Sunday, in the makeshift studio with two microphones, two phone lines and a few cellphones, the station broadcast the afternoon prayer, timed to coincide with prayer time in Tripoli.
Then Ahmed al-Mjreesi, 45, another sound engineer, spoke softly into a microphone: "Here is the voice of the free. The voice of the truth." The station played a patriotic song.
In a bit of irony, it was over Radio Benghazi that a young army officer named Moammar Gaddafi announced the bloodless military overthrow of the Libyan monarch on Sept. 1, 1969. Gaddafi took over the station that morning, ordered a technician to open the broadcast with verses from the Koran, and announced, perhaps over the same aged equipment, "From this moment on, Libya is a free and sovereign republic."
Gaddafi rose to power with a promise of social justice and unity. Now Zayani revels in his own announcement of Benghazi's freedom from Gaddafi.
Throughout the day, broadcasters here encourage Libyans in Tripoli to keep fighting and attack the barracks of Bab el-Azzizya, Gaddafi's main base.
Callers from across the country share stories of suffering and victory. When they can't get through on regular phone lines, they call the cellphones, which Mjreesi and others hold up to the microphones.
"We are waiting for them" to achieve victory in Tripoli, Mjreesi said anxiously. "We're one voice, one capital, one Tripoli."
A colleague, Mohammed Saghir, began to weep, unable to speak. Zayani hugged him and wept, too.
"We are so tired," Zayani said. "We're not scared, but [Gaddafi] needs to stop this. We will keep going until Gaddafi falls."
Omar Ali, 63, an engineer, said: "We have more freedom than ever before. Our thinking is free now. Our words are free now. It's a feeling you can't transfer and you can't explain."