TRIPOLI, Libya — On a breezy Friday, the Muslim day of rest, carloads of families pushed to get through a bottleneck at the walled entrance of a place that once, they’d never dare enter.
“Looking for Frizzhead?” cracked a taxi driver, using a nickname for Moammar Gaddafi, who used to live here. “Right this way!”
Inside the tree-shaded compound of Bab al-Aziziya, abandoned by the Libyan leader as rebels closed in last month, the families cruised around slowly, gawking at blackened, looted buildings like tourists on safari. The golden rifles and Gaddafi family photos are gone, but the sprawling labyrinth of homes and offices still attracts Libyans from around the country, eager to glimpse the inner chambers of a fallen empire.
In a partially collapsed building that apparently fell victim to a NATO bomb, Najmaldin Mohamad al-Ghoruda, 53, led his five young daughters over mounds of shattered glass and broken green marble. “I came from Gharyan, 80 kilometers from here, just to see this,” said Ghoruda, a school headmaster.
Two of the girls ran up with small green booklets they had found in the rubble — Gaddafi-era propaganda. For a moment they seemed unsure what to do. Then they started ripping the books to shreds. Their father smiled. “We need to change only one subject in schools,” he said, “the political thoughts.”
A short drive away, the graffiti-scarred building where Gaddafi famously promised to hunt down the rebels “alley by alley” now looked like a cross between a county fairground and a punk-rocker squat. Concession stands sold headbands, hand-crocheted purses, lapel pins and infant-size hoodies trumpeting the red, black and green of the new flag. Teenagers danced, sang and played drums on the balcony, and townspeople on the roof held flags aloft.
Young men wearing the mismatched fatigues of the rebel army wove through the crowd in mud-streaked pickup trucks, occasionally raising their guns and shooting off a few rounds — a common, often unnerving, celebratory ritual in free Libya.
Some were freshly arrived that day from the contested town of Bani Walid. For many, the line that separates normal life from the heat of war has been erased. The fighting nearly over, they roam unchecked through a land that as yet has no constitution and no laws other than those governing decent behavior.
During daylight, the civilians at Bab al-Aziziya outnumbered the fighters. Isra Alarbae, 18, a medical student, stepped carefully in high heels across the sandy grove that had become a parking lot and picnic spot. She wrinkled her nose: “I hate this place. Because, you know, he was here.” She and a friend stopped at a souvenir stand, where the friend bought a small, ruffled red, black and green dress for a 1-year-old.
A 15-year-old boy walked by in a crisp T-shirt bearing the image of Che Guevara, whose face has appeared on bumper stickers since the beginning of the revolution, and whose long hair and beret have been adopted by some of the rebels. “I don’t know who he is,” the boy, Abdul Majid, admitted a little sheepishly. “I just like him.”
Inside the building, families peered at formal sitting room furniture coated in debris. Teenage boys leapt down a curved staircase, taking the steps in threes. In a side room, two little girls in jeans and pink and purple T-shirts posed with a machine gun as relatives snapped photos — until one of their mothers rushed up in a panic and ordered them to keep away from the gun.
On the roof, Mohammad al-Rammah, 23, said his mother had no such qualms about the Russian sniper rifle he had picked up off a dead loyalist soldier in June. He patted it and grinned: “I was so excited that I taught myself — and the other rebels, too. We all taught each other how to use them.”
Rammah said that once the fighting ends, he will return to flight school and give up his gun. But “it is not simple to get used to the change,” he said. “I’m in the revolution for six months, so it will be hard for me.”
As the sun grew low, a man standing at the edge of the roof started firing over the crowd. Another joined him, and they were answered by bursts of shooting from the ground.
Parents grabbed children and ran for cover. The gunfire increased, sending sparks into the darkening sky. A young woman ran up to the shooters and screamed at them to stop. They ignored her.
Finally, a burly man in a baseball cap paused, clearly pleased by the attention. “Don’t worry,” he said with a friendly smile. “It’s safe, it’s safe. We’re just shooting to say we’re sorry for the people who were killed here.”
The man, Waleed Khatrish, 32, said that once the war ended, he planned to return to his job as an engineer at an oil company.
But he would love to keep his gun, a Kalashnikov he picked up off a dead Gaddafi soldier. “In my heart, if they let me, I would like to have it inside my house,” he said. “Just to remember the things that happened to me.”