Neighbor Against Neighbor: A Story of Libya's Lingering Divides

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An Arab man and his black-skinned neighbor, and a country still healing from war

zzzlibya article.jpgA Libyan volunteer fighter guards a building in Tripoli. (AP)

TRIPOLI, Libya -- I heard recently why Azzedine Meshergui and his family had to leave their home in the old city. He was like other men there, with his plain speech and rough hands, save that he had tried to help his neighbors when few others would. Later, things went wrong for him. Such are the fortunes of war.

I first met Meshergui a year ago. War had reached Tripoli, and the regime of Muammer Qaddafi was collapsing. Qaddafi fled while his forces killed whom they could. I found Meshergui raving through his neighborhood in grief for his son, Mohamed, murdered two days earlier.

"I had no weapons, my son had no weapons!" he cried, plowing through a group of onlookers. "Only those who went to Green Square to cry 'Muammer' had weapons!"

Mohamed had gone to buy fish and hadn't returned. His mother reached him once by phone, but the second time a strange voice answered. They found Mohamed in a parked car, bound at the knees and shot through the head.

On the day that Mohamed Meshergui died, I had left my apartment in Tunis with my girlfriend, also a reporter. That night we crossed the border and the next day hitched a ride with two rebels and some captured rifles. A day after that we reached Tripoli.

There was still fighting in places, and only two hotels were open. Both were expensive. We decided to rent a small house in the old city from a young man named Ayman, who was sprucing it up for his impending marriage.

There we came upon Meshergui. He was weaving down the alley, shouting and trailed by his wife.

"The mother of the martyr!" cried bystanders. Someone draped a rebel flag over her shoulders. She posed for our cameras, looking miserable.

I knew the old city from earlier visits. It dated to Phoenician times. In the seventh century it fell to Arab armies. A 16th century Ottoman corsair named Dragut recovered it for Islam after a period of rule first by Spain, then by the Knights of Saint John. Dragut's bones lie entombed there in a mosque by the sea.

A century ago, the Italians chased out the Ottomans. Then the World War Two allies chased out the Italians and installed a king, himself chased out in 1969 by Qaddafi. Once, the old city was all whitewash and palms. Under Qaddafi it became a slum.

Behind the seafront cafés are crumbling houses and dirt alleys. Poor Libyans live there alongside even poorer sub-Saharan laborers permitted to settle by Qaddafi, an enthusiastic pan-Africanist.

The Street of the Bakeries starts from a second century Roman arch by the harbor and cuts through the old city to an empty place where people park cars and burn trash. There, behind a metal door, lived the Mesherguis. It was there that, last year, I encountered Meshergui exploding in grief. Later that day, I returned to learn more.

"Oh, it's you," Meshergui said, cracking the door. He had calmed down. "Come in. What's your name?"

I introduced myself and said I was sorry about his son.

Several generations of Mesherguis were bustling in the courtyard. A chicken was pecking among their feet. Meshergui was a fisherman. Now he carried a gun to help secure the old city. I asked him what Libya needed next.

"Ballot boxes," he said. "A new generation is going to lead Libya now." He even saw room for Qaddafi's supporters, "provided their hands are free of blood."

"Are there pro-Qaddafi people in this neighborhood?"

"Even the neighbors," he said. "They're from Chad. The father is in Qaddafi's militia."

After visiting the Mesherguis I went next door. The people living there were black.

"We're from Sebha, in the south _ not Chad," said a young man named Ali Hadar. "We're not pro-Qaddafi. And my father's a trader, not a fighter. He's trapped in Sebha now by the war."

Maybe Ali was telling the truth. Maybe Meshergui had reason for believing otherwise. Or maybe for him black skin was suspect. I would never know. I had other concerns: articles to write; power cuts and food shortages; the danger of violence.

Until that week none of the neighborhood's young men had owned a gun. They were fishermen and schoolboys. Now they called themselves revolutionaries.

One night they were outside smoking water-pipes and singing about Bou Shafshoufa -- "old frizzle-head" -- a popular name for Qaddafi. Suddenly five rapid gunshots crashed through the melody as Ahmed Merimi, age 18, swung an arc of bullets from his Kalashnikov into the sky.

Some of the boys laughed, but I didn't think it was funny.

I was tired of guns. One boy at a checkpoint had used his pistol for gesturing. He prattled as I dodged this way and that. Another time, some revolutionaries trooped up to a large hotel with a rebel official; then one discharged his rifle into the portico tiles, scattering journalists.

Meanwhile, there was loose talk about dark-skinned mercenaries used by Qaddafi. That would turn out to be true, but at first the rumors surpassed reality. Anyone with dark skin was suspect. Fear blurred the lines between civilian and combatant, Libyan and foreigner. Meshergui found himself at Ali's door with orders to arrest him. He brought Ali and two other men to a sports center by the Roman arch where revolutionaries were based. They asked Ali if he had a gun.

"I used to have a gun," Ali told me afterward. "For protection."

He had bought a Kalashnikov from a Nigerian mercenary but had recently given it to a pro-rebel imam. The imam wasn't around to verify Ali's story. Ali was locked in an indoor soccer field with scores of other black men. Some were foreign, others Libyan. The next day he was released.

"Thanks to Azzedine Meshergui," he said. "He said he knew me and took responsibility for me."

It was a small act, but significant. A wave of distrust was sweeping Libya. Many were carried with it. But when the wave hit Meshergui, it broke and swept past him. Despite even his own misgivings, he stood by his neighbor.

"There are mercenaries in the old city," he told me later. "But Ali's not one of them."

The round-ups of dark-skinned men continued. The next day Ali was detained again. This time Meshergui couldn't help.

Several neighborhood boys, clutching rifles, led Ali and four other men down the Street of the Bakeries. The men moved silently in their white robes. Suddenly, one got a swift punch to the head. The boy who did it wore a balaclava mask. Behind it, I recognized Ahmed Merimi, and remembered him firing wildly in the air.

The prisoners were put in the sports center. A group of women formed outside. They wore smooth black robes and talked quietly.

"My cousin is inside," said one.

"My brother."

"My husband."

Two vans arrived, and the women began to scream. A revolutionary fired several quick shots into the air. The women kept screaming. The prisoners filed into the vans and were carried off to jail.

I was in and out of Tripoli over the next few months. Ali was released; many others were not. Rain came, and the streets of the old city turned to mud. So did the Mesherguis' courtyard. Then one day I found the house shut and empty.

Recently, I asked a neighbor what had happened. She said she had seen everything: Meshergui was bawling out one of his sons for fighting when a neighbor man complained of the noise. Tempers rose. Then Meshergui's son let fly with a Kalashnikov. The neighbor went to the hospital, and the two Mesherguis went to jail. When they got out the family left.

After that, I tried to phone Meshergui on two numbers he had given me. Neither worked.

Last month I returned to Tripoli to cover Libya's first elections in over 40 years, for a national congress. Election day was all flags and smiles. There are still guns, although people mostly keep them at home. There is still distrust of supposed Qaddafi loyalists. Slowly, Libya is binding its wounds. Healing will need time.

I dropped by the old neighborhood. It was a hot, sleepy afternoon. I was about to leave when my old landlord, Ayman, appeared.

"You'll have coffee, won't you?" he said with a smile.

He wore a silver wedding ring, and washing was hung on a rack in his courtyard. I congratulated him.

In the offing stood Meshergui's old house. I think of him now like a casualty of war. He made his struggle, for better or for worse. His downfall -- pointless, avoidable -- might not have occurred had there not been guns.

"Do the young men still go around with guns, like before?" I asked Ayman.

"No," said Ayman. "All of that's finished now, inshallah." -- "God willing."

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John Thorne, an American journalist based in Tunis, has covered North Africa since 2006.

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