Peering into a subterranean jail, Adil Gnaybor shuddered with fear. Rusted prison bars once covered with earth were now exposed, dug up by rebels who had discovered the secret labyrinth of cells. The space was too small for Gnaybor’s 5-foot frame, and a white tube provided the only source of air.
“If I go inside there, perhaps I will die,” Gnaybor said, staring into the hole.
Thousands of Libyans have been arriving here at a complex of palatial homes, known as the Katiba El Fadil bu Omar, where Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi stayed during visits to this port city. It is here that Gaddafi also had an underground prison.
The compound is perhaps the most vivid symbol in eastern Libya of triumph over the Gaddafi regime. His houses have been torched and looted. Graffiti denouncing his regime is spray-painted on nearly every wall. One declared, “Libya will be free.”
But amid the faded opulence, Libyans expressed fear that their revolution was losing ground on two fronts and could be reversed.
For many visitors, the underground jails were not only a chilling reminder of the brutality of Gaddafi’s government. They also foreshadowed the terror Gaddafi is capable of inflicting in the future if his forces retake the city, Libya’s second largest.
“I feel nervous. Look what happened in Zawiyah and in Ras Lanuf,” said Gnaybor, 50, referring to two cities — the first in the west, the second in the east — that Gaddafi’s forces have retaken over the past two days. “Everywhere we are losing a lot of people.”
Al-Badri, a 62-year-old who came with his three daughters, said: “I expect anything from Gaddafi. He could bomb Benghazi, even use chemical weapons.” He declined to give his full name, for fear that he would be targeted if Gaddafi returned.
“What is America waiting for?” he continued. “Until Gaddafi manages to kill all the Libyan people?”
Of all the cities that have revolted against Gaddafi, it is Benghazi that most Libyans expect will bear the full brunt of his wrath if he retains his grip on power. Libya’s three-week-old populist revolution was born here, and it managed to reach the threshold of Gaddafi’s nexus of power in western Libya with its brief takeover of Zawiyah, 30 miles from the capital, Tripoli.
Benghazi is also the headquarters of the Libyan National Council, a 31-member body that seeks to replace Gaddafi’s regime.
In 1996, an estimated 1,200 prisoners who had protested Gaddafi’s rule were killed at Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison. Many were from Benghazi. Such memories of savagery helped trigger the uprising.
It is difficult to imagine Gaddafi retaking Benghazi without a battle that will almost certainly be bloodier than the clashes that erupted in Zawiyah. On the streets and in the cafes of this city of 700,000, there was a palpable sense of defiance among younger Libyans who have largely fueled the revolt.
“Be firm. Be steadfast,” said Yusri al-Nadda, a blind preacher dressed in a traditional brown cloak who led prayers Friday. “Steadfastness is a wonderful thing. We need it now.”
The Katiba, at first glance, appeared to represent a totem of defiance against Gaddafi’s rule. On one wall was an image of Gaddafi as a vampire, “bloodsucker” written next to him. Teenagers waved flags of the old monarchy, which Gaddafi toppled in a bloodless coup in 1969. Near the underground jail, a man donned a Gaddafi mask and danced, poking fun at the dictator.
No one knows for certain how many prisoners were held here. Most were no doubt opponents of the regime, but others were held for being devout Muslims, whom Gaddafi perceived as extremists linked to al-Qaeda.
That so few Libyans seemed to know about the cells speaks to the secrecy of the regime. In fact, all of the visitors interviewed said they had no idea of what lay behind the walls of the complex, which was built in the 1970s.
“No one knew this was a prison,” said Ahmed, 60, who came with his wife and two daughters. Like other visitors, he was too fearful to give his family name. “This is terrible. I didn’t expect to see this. I’m sure many were tortured and killed here.”
Some Libyans said viewing signs of Gaddafi’s ruthlessness gave them more resolve to resist his forces.
“This will make them stronger,” Muhammed, an engineer, said as he stepped out of a fortified underground bunker. “This will encourage them to take the next step, which will be Tripoli.”
Osama Shabsha, 30, an oil company worker, said he fled the city of Brega on Thursday after an airstrike by Gaddafi’s forces. He angrily denounced the United States and the rest of the world for not helping the rebels oust Gaddafi and usher in a new era of democracy in Libya.
“They don’t do anything. They just make speeches. We need action,” he said. “Gaddafi is in his last days, but we still need help. A no-fly zone will be the best thing. It will energize our fighters to do more.”
Shabsha said that as he drove from Brega, cars filled with fighters were headed toward the front line. Standing near the hole to the underground prison, he said Gaddafi’s forces would never enter Benghazi.
“We will fight until the last moment,” Shabsha said. “A lot of guys are willing to die. We don’t want this regime to continue its evil ways.”
Other young Libyans were less certain.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” Ahmed Ibrahim, 26, said as he peered into a large, gaping hole at what appeared to be a warehouse to hold prisoners. “God help us, because now the picture is not clear.”
Older Libyans remember how Gaddafi has fought back other militant uprisings during his 41 years in power. On Saturday, rebel commanders conceded that they had lost control of Ras Lanuf and its oil refinery.
Mimi, who brought along her two children, was too fearful to criticize Gaddafi. Nor would she express her feelings about what she had witnessed.
“I won’t condemn anything until he is gone. We’re still afraid of his regime,” she said. “Everything is possible. He could come back. He has survived for more than 40 years.”