BIR AYAD, Libya — The long columns of cars arrived at the rebel-controlled checkpoint here, 60 miles from the Libyan capital Tripoli, with children flashing victory signs and fathers happily honking the horns of their cars.
The families, hundreds of them, had slipped out of the capital in the early morning of Friday, using back alleys and country roads in order to avoid checkpoints controlled by forces loyal to Moammar Gaddafi, the country’s embattled leader.
They are part of a growing exodus from the Libyan capital, which follows significant advances by the ragtag rebel army toward the capital. Their victories have led many to expect Gaddafi’s era to be finished in in the coming days or weeks, but many inhabitants of Tripoli say they can’t wait that long.
The International Organization for Migration issued a plea Friday for help as it started preparing to airlift thousands foreigners out of the capital, mostly Egyptian guest workers, but also aid workers and journalists.
The refugees leaving the city by car are joining thousands of others who traded Gaddafi-controlled areas for the rebel stronghold of the Nafusa Mountains. Government intimidation, food shortages and fear for NATO bombings have prompted them to leave, they say, stressing that the majority of people in the capital are waiting for the rebels to enter the city.
Those leaving are seen as traitors by Gaddafi loyalists. “The soldiers at the checkpoints called us ‘rats’ and accused us from deserting to the rebels,” said Mabrouk Mohammad, 52. The soldiers had ordered him to turn around, he said, and to return to a capital where he had spent months deliberating whether or not to stay or go.
“Food is getting very expensive, banks and many government offices are mostly closed and we don’t know what this mad dog will do once he is cornered,” he said. His wives (he has two) and seven kids barely fit in his Korean-made van, which was stuffed with blankets and suitcases.
The decision to take the risk and skip town had finally come on Thursday evening when soldiers searched his house following protests in his neighborhood. So when the soldiers at the checkpoint told him to return to Tripoli, he backed up, bypassed them by using a side alley, and steered his way into rebel held territory.
“Now we are free,” Mohammad said. “But Tripoli is not.”
The issue of staying or going is splitting up families in the capital, said Ahmad, 30, who asked for anonymity out of fear of retribution. He slipped out of his family’s house in central Tripoli after his father, a retired government employee, had opposed his plan of leaving for the mountains and joining the rebellion. It wasn’t for his father not liking the rebel cause, but with two brothers already serving among their ranks, he wanted his third son to stay at home.
But now, after secretly hitching a ride with his neighbor Ahmad was in the rebel capital of Zintan, high on revolutionary fever, but sad that the rest of his family remained in Tripoli.
“Now we have to wait for Gaddafi to die before we will see each other,” Ahmad said. “Thankfully that day is very near.”