MISURATA, Libya — The room where Moammar Gaddafi’s bloodied body once rested is now cluttered with dusty boxes, and the freezer that held his son’s corpse is long gone.
But the Libyan dictator and the forces unleashed by his death five years ago still drive Anwar Sawan’s life.
Hours after Gaddafi and his son were killed in the uprisings that shook the Arab world, Misuratan fighters brought their bodies to this battle-hardened city like trophies.
The corpses spent the first night in Sawan’s family’s house, burnishing his revolutionary credentials. Today, his own home, a transformed shipping container, is a support center for the city’s militias and their quest for influence.
Saved inside his canary-yellow phone are hate messages from Gaddafi loyalists who believe that Sawan played a role in the deaths and knows their leader’s secret burial place.
“We’re coming to get you, you bastard,” reads one.
In a nation where violence sets the cadence, Sawan is one of its virtuosos. Involved in nearly every conflict that followed Gaddafi’s death, he has helped fuel his country's chaotic trajectory — from the rivalries and dysfunction that emerged after four decades of authoritarian rule to the struggle afterward for power, oil and territory.
“I’ve entered every war since 2011 with the same enthusiasm,” declared Sawan, a sharp-nosed, 45-year-old former business executive with a raspy, commanding voice.
For Misurata’s militias, among Libya’s most powerful armed factions, he buys guns and ammunition, most left over from Gaddafi’s stockpiles, bulletproof jackets, food, and water — anything that will give them an edge over their tribal, regional and political rivals.
Since May, Sawan has supplied weapons to militias combating the Islamic State’s Libyan affiliate in the coastal city of Sirte, 120 miles east of here. Backed by U.S. airstrikes, the fighters have pushed deep into the center of the militants’ stronghold, delivering a blow to their aspirations of widening their “caliphate” into North Africa.
But in Sawan’s post-Arab Spring world, there are always more battles to fight, more enemies on the horizon.
“We have other Gaddafis in Libya today,” he said.
On a recent night, a white Toyota pickup parked inside Sawan’s compound was filled with metal boxes of bullets and rows of mortar shells stacked like cucumbers in a supermarket.
Earlier in the day, Sawan had driven to the capital, Tripoli, as he often does. With cash collected from sympathetic Misuratan business executives and the militia’s military command, he visited people he described as “war merchants” who trade in the remnants of Gaddafi’s arsenal and the illicit smuggled weaponry that flooded the country after his demise.
On this trip, he said, some people donated boxes of bullets from their personal stockpiles.
“Five times a week a truck like this goes to Sirte,” said Sawan, bearded and dressed in a tan traditional gown and cap.
How long will the ammunition in the truck last?
“Three hours,” he said, half-jokingly. “Our fighters waste a lot of bullets.”
Five years ago, Sawan owned an aluminum smelter and an animal-feed factory. Like many Libyan professionals, he picked up a gun and joined the revolution. Misurata, Libya’s third-largest city, became a major battleground, with intense clashes and daily shelling between the rebels and Gaddafi’s loyalists. Backed by NATO airstrikes, the rebels took the city in May 2011.
On Oct. 20, 2011, Gaddafi and his son Mutassim were killed in Sirte, and Misuratan fighters brought their bodies to a militia barracks here. Outside, crowds demanded to see the corpses. The local military council wanted a doctor to conduct a forensic examination to prove their identity, and Sawan offered his family house.
“People respected my house,” he said. “And nobody would have the courage to enter someone’s house.”
The next day, the bodies were taken to a market area, where they were displayed in an industrial freezer for three days.
Over the next months and years, as Libya atomized into factional violence, Sawan found his true calling. He joined Misurata’s militias as they fought tribes sympathetic to Gaddafi in the city of Bani Walid and rival militias in Tripoli.
“Wherever our fighters are, I go and support them,” said Sawan, who had flown to the southern city of Sabha a day earlier to deliver supplies to other Misuratan factions.
The container where he lives is fitted with cushions, carpets and WiFi. On most nights, it serves as a war room of sorts, where supporters of the militias in Sirte help Sawan procure and dispatch supplies to the front and exchange news of the campaign against the Islamic State.
“I will marry and have children only when Libya becomes stable,” Sawan said.
“You’ll be 80 years old,” a friend seated nearby quipped.
Koranic verses, handwritten in large, curvy script, cover the walls of the container. A T-shirt pinned up in one corner is a tribute to the prophet Muhammad, emblazoned: “I ♥ Muhammad.”
It’s not just an indication of Sawan’s devoutness. It reveals his political leanings. He supported a loose coalition of pro-
Islamist militias, mostly from Misurata, known as Libya Dawn, that attacked Tripoli’s airport and seized large areas of the capital in the summer of 2014. Protected by the militias, a self-appointed Islamist-led government took control of Tripoli, while a rival government ruled in the east.
Now, a Western-backed unity government, brokered by the United Nations in December, is also asserting authority.
The Misurata military council coordinating the fighters in Sirte has aligned itself with the unity government, which is led by Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj. But Sawan has not, revealing a rift within the militias.
“The international community brought him to power,” Sawan said. “They forced him on us.”
But the biggest threat for Sawan, of more concern than the Islamic State, is Gen. Khalifa Hifter, a military strongman whose forces control swaths of eastern Libya.
The general, who lived in exile in Northern Virginia for two decades, does not support the unity government and is going to keep Sawan in business for a long time.
“Hifter is the new Gaddafi,” Sawan said.
Pointing to a corner of his container, he added, “You’ll soon see Hifter’s body here.”
The Misurata council is increasingly wary of Sawan’s influence with their militia commanders and his outspokenness against the unity government.
“Anwar is a showman,” said Brig. Gen. Mohamed al Ghasri, spokesman for the council’s military operations. “He likes to appear that he’s at the center of everything. In fact, he’s just an ordinary guy.”
A slim man walked into Sawan’s container, his face solemn. A militia commander had been injured fighting the Islamic State in Sirte. “Shrapnel from a mortar hit him in the face,” Mohammed Gilwan said. “He is still alive.”
Sawan picked up his phone and called to see whether the militia needed more weapons. The truck outside would head to Sirte at dawn.
“If the West sent us ammunition, we would have finished Daesh a long time ago,” he said after he got off the phone, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The fight for Sirte, Sawan hopes, will give Misurata greater influence in a region where much of Libya’s oil is produced. He said a plan is being discussed to leave 1,000 fighters to protect and secure the city. And what if Sirte, a rival of Misurata, doesn’t want the militias? The city, after all, is Gaddafi’s home town, where his tribe remains dominant.
“Whoever liberates Sirte should protect it,” Sawan said. “If they didn’t want the Misuratans there, why didn’t they liberate their own city?”
Gilwan, who was Gaddafi’s personal cameraman in the late 1980s, noted that when the Misuratans helped liberate Sirte in 2011, they agreed to hand over the city to its residents. But the residents allowed Gaddafi’s loyalists, and later the Islamic State, to retake the city.
“We will not make the same mistake again,” Gilwan said.
“What will unite Libya is force and money,” Sawan said. “It’s like bringing up a child. You give him nice clothes and toys, but when he makes a mistake, you hit him with a stick.”
Gaddafi used the same strategy to control Libya.
Once, Sawan said, Gaddafi’s relatives offered him $25 million for the location of the dictator’s grave. Sawan turned them down.
“I said, once you bring your elders and wise men and you say, ‘We are responsible for what Gaddafi did in the last 40 years,’ then I will give you his body,” Sawan recalled. “But they told me, ‘We are not responsible for what Gaddafi did.’ ”
Misuratan community leaders have kept the grave’s location a secret, worried that their militia fighters would desecrate the site or that Gaddafi’s followers would “make it a shrine, like their Vatican,” Gilwan said, as Sawan nodded in agreement.
Misuratans say eight people witnessed Gaddafi’s burial. Was Sawan among them?
“Even if I knew, I will not tell anybody,” Gilwan said. “Everybody who witnessed Gaddafi’s burial, they swore an oath not to tell anybody.”
Sawan refused to be drawn into the conversation.
Moments later, he walked outside to inspect the ammunition in the truck, his phone tucked into his pocket. Although his life revolves around war and is in constant peril, he doesn’t regret the uprisings that upended his country, possibly for years to come.
Said Sawan: “The worst day today is better than any of the good days under the Gaddafi regime.”