Envisioning a post-Gaddafi future, some refugees consider returning

A woman who says she is a relative of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi curses him in Saloum, Egypt, after fleeing Agdabiya, Libya.
A woman who says she is a relative of Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi curses him in Saloum, Egypt, after fleeing Agdabiya, Libya. (The Washington Post)

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By Tara Bahrampour
Monday, March 21, 2011; 8:56 PM

MARSA MATROUH, EGYPT - When Adel Mansuri and Yasmeen Taynaz bundled their children into the car and fled Benghazi with just the clothes on their back, they feared they would be gone forever.

A month earlier, the family had burned their Green Books - the mandated tome that contains Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi's political, social and economic theories - and put all their hopes in the revolution. They had held out as others fled the rebel stronghold - he using his skills as an air traffic controller to help the opposition, she watching her three children abandon their PlayStations and start playing war games in the garden.

But then Ras Lanuf fell. Brega fell. Ajdabiya fell, and Saturday, as Benghazi came under fierce attack from Gaddafi's forces, Mansuri's family ordered him to leave. The city seemed likely to fall at any minute, and if the government found him there, it would be dangerous for all of them.

He wept, briefly, in secret, then joined the stream of refugees heading to the Egyptian border.

"I was really crushed, I was devastated," he said. "I felt lost. Every time I got to a village, I thought about turning back." After all, if fighters themselves were leaving, what did that mean for the revolution? And what did it mean for Mansuri, 44, who had spent his whole life in a tight community of Benghazi families?

After driving nine hours and spending eight more at a border crossing crowded with fleeing Libyans, the family arrived in this Egyptian seaside town at dawn Sunday and collapsed in a hotel, exiles in a new land.

But revolutions have their own unpredictable timetables. As the family slept, international airstrikes, which had always been a tantalizing abstraction, materialized. They awoke Sunday afternoon to the news that Gaddafi's forces had retreated from Benghazi. They went for a stroll along the sparkling Mediterranean, the children running around freely for the first time in ages and the parents infused with new hope.

Mansuri decided he would spend only a few days here, long enough to buy some communications equipment for the opposition and pack Taynaz and the children off to Qatar, where her parents live.

"Unless we are betrayed by the world, by the U.N., there is no chance that he'll stay," Mansuri said of Gaddafi. "We just need to regroup our revolutionaries."

Already looking ahead to a post-Gaddafi Libya, Mansuri and Taynaz described a new sense of unity and civic responsibility that had taken root in their city since the uprising began. Teenagers were clearing debris from the streets in place of the Egyptian and Sudanese workers who had fled. Pillars of the community were sacrificing their lives, including Fakhry el-Slabby, 56, the pilot of a plane that went down in flames over the city Saturday.

"This guy's very rich, he's got a big house, kids," said Mansuri, who watched the plane fall with his friend inside. "He could have stayed in his beautiful house instead of going out to do this, and I'm sure he knew he would die. He did this for Libya."

Not all Libyans in Marsa Matrouh were ready to turn around after their harrowing journey to get here. Many said they were heading on to Alexandria to wait out the war. But the stream of people crossing in declined significantly Sunday, and on Monday an aid worker who had been on the Libyan side said families who had fled to towns on that side of the border were heading back toward Benghazi.

To Benghazi resident Abdulgader Ettaib, 63, this was not surprising. "Libyans are not really known for being refugees; we like to stick around," he said, adding that he and his family planned to return to Libya after dropping off a relative in Egypt. "Libyans live abroad, but at the end of the day they come back."

A family in a hotel here Monday said they had flown in from Boston and planned to drive to Libya that afternoon, more than three decades after going into exile in the late 1970s. "I'm feeling good, going to see my country again," said Masoud Buisir, 45. "I just want to go in and see what's happening."

For Mansuri, the revolution continued to be unpredictable, and by Monday night he was weighing his determination to return against an idea to start a "free Libya" radio station from Qatar.

Taynaz was nervous about her husband going back. But at the same time she, too, was reluctant to be away from her home city, especially in these heady days.

"If any good news happens, I want it to be when I'm there," she said. "If Gaddafi leaves, I want to be there and see all."


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