In Tripoli Suburb, a Life After Qaddafi Emerges

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Celebrating freedom from the dictator but left without basic services, revolutionaries move on to challenges more mundane but crucial for their community's survival

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Reuters

TRIPOLI, Libya -- In Gorji, a residential neighborhood next to the now-destroyed military compound at Bab al-Aziziyah, the streets are lined with a desert tree that grows about 30 feet high. The trees throw enough shade to walk comfortably around the neighborhood in Libya's brutal midday sun. On Monday, they were full of children sent by their parents with plastic 5-liter bottles to fetch water from the mosque, which has the neighborhood's only working well.

"The problem is not the water," said Khalid Sharif, a Gorji resident supervising the line at the mosque's faucet. "We have water under the city. But we cannot bring it up because the electricity has not come to Gorji yet." To get around the problem, Sharif said, the members of the mosque disconnected its plumbing from the city system yesterday and reconnected it to the mosque's 50-year-old well, previously used for ablutions. A few oil engineers who live in the neighborhood rigged an electric pump to a diesel generator. The pump should run for a week, he said. Compared to water, fuel is widely available. Groups of men sell it from jerry cans at the city's intersections, though at war profiteer's prices.

Sharif, who works in Tripoli hospital's emergency room, said the regional network of hospitals is awaiting the arrival of a Libyan-Canadian vascular surgeon who has volunteered to visit and will be sent to the hospital in Yefren, two hours from Tripoli. Yefren, which loyalist forces abandoned last month, has taken much of the injuries from the fighting that only ended here three days ago.

Though shortages of blood and equipment have received more attention in recent days, Sharif said that supplies of surgical and post-surgical anesthesia are becoming critically low. He named Dormicam, Fentenyl, Xylocaine, and Valium as drugs that were dwindling, and said the injuries were requiring specialists.

"We have seen more shattered bones and injuries to the arteries than is normal for bullets," said Sharif. He attributed that to fragmenting ammunition he claims to have removed from injured on both sides. "We also need a neurosurgeon," he said. "The snipers. They aim for the head."

Such shortages in Tripoli are acute but have a peculiar inconsistency. Near the Avenue Omar Muqtar, a main road, a tanker truck was dispensing drinking water on Monday afternoon, across from a mini-mart fully stocked with soft drinks and juice. Price-gouging seems limited. A shopper named Khalid bought 30 eggs for four and a half Dinars, about the same price as before the fighting, he said. The shop's owner, a man in his 60s named Abdullah Adesaid Ben Shibbel, said he had raised prices a few percent because his distributor had, but that most of his customers were buying low-price staples anyway, and didn't seem to notice. "Macaroni, oil, tomato, couscous, rice, milk, diapers," had been flying since Saturday, when people started to brave the streets again, he said.

The shop's shelves were full, and both the freezer and the air conditioner were working. It was in many ways indistinguishable from an American mini-mart in peacetime. He did not know if his distributor would restock the shelves, though.

If there is a risk rising rather than falling Tripoli today, it is disease. The first sighting of a garbage truck in some time came on Monday afternoon, with two men grimly scooping up one of the orderly but long-neglected rows of refuse along the roads leading into town. You can now find your way to Tripoli by following a kilometers-long garbage berm, and no one seems to know when regular garbage collection will begin again.

Equally acute is a growing sewage crisis. It has been seven days since people in Tripoli could flush their toilets. This has exactly the effect one might imagine. Most blocks emit a nauseously septic smell, and homes are quickly becoming unlivable without constant buckets of water -- which is too precious to dump in the toilet.

Guns remain common and the city is ringed by checkpoints, most manned by teenagers. The checks themselves are desultory. Beyond the checkpoints, the center of the city will eventually become an enormous reconstruction job. Entire neighborhoods are blown to smithereens, less by the NATO missiles, which appear pinpoint, than by the hand to hand fighting in the streets, where weapons designed to fire into the air were at places used horizontally, in neighborhoods, to blast at snipers hiding in buildings. Not a wall in the neighborhoods around the former palace at Bab al-Aziziyah is intact. Homes are missing balconies.

Bab al-Aziziyah itself will not be rebuilt any time soon. A place of mystery for more than four decades, it is now the scene of a three-day party, which feels like a county fair but with Kalishnakovs firing in place of fireworks. Celebrants can be seen posing for pictures on the former dictator's destroyed furniture.

"Three days, we will have water," said Mohamed Zlitni, an oil engineer -- everyone is an oil engineer. "Or, well, maybe ten day. We do not care." His son was guarding a checkpoint in town, he said.

Stories of how Tripoli fell are emerging. "We collected money," said Zlitni's daughter, Manad, who went to her office in an engineering firm only once a week for the last six months "so the boss could say he was open. He was afraid the company would be closed." Zlitni said she collected money with one co-worker in secret. The co-worker passed it to a relative, who passed it to rebels in the Nafusa mountains to Tripoli's west.

Zlitni was standing with her parents in Qaddafi's palace, about a meter from the spot where the fled dictator delivered his infamous "Zenga, Zenga" speech. "I did not tell them we were giving this money, no," she said, pointing a thumb at her father. "You did not say anything, for six months. Nothing."

In Gorji, in a chair near the water source at Bel Amin mosque, one of the elders, Said Zariba, told similar stories. Originally from Yefren, in the mountains two hours south of the city, he said family members had begun visiting him six weeks ago, meeting at the mosque to pass information between anti-Qaddafi forces in the mountains and the capital. Other members of the Bel Amin mosque confirmed that they had been using the mosque to organize last week's surprise uprising in Tripoli, signaling the fateful moment with the mosque's loudspeaker, as other neighborhoods had done. They would not name specific members of the neighborhood who had participated.

A block from the mosque, Gorji's school is pocked with damage from a fight on the neighborhood's main street. The school is now being used as a jail for captured loyalist forces and for a makeshift city hall. The entire first floor smells like raw sewage. No one cares.

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Marc Herman is a writer in Barcelona. He is the author of Searching for El Dorado.

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