The Despot’s Child

Bad tidings reach Muammar Qaddafi’s son Saadi.

The night before his father died, as the sun was going down and I was dozing off, Saadi Qaddafi texted me to come to him.

I descended the stairs from my bedroom and walked out into the warm evening air, crossing the yard of the government compound in Niger where we were both staying. Saadi, my former boss, was in his fifth week under house arrest here; I had recently arrived for a visit.

As-salaam alaikum,” I said, walking to the sitting area he had set up under a tree, complete with a table and prayer mats. I slipped off my shoes and padded over a mattress to the chair next to him.

Alaikum salaam,” Saadi replied, smiling. As we sat chatting in the dusk, I tried to answer his questions about what was going on in the outside world, but I had trouble concentrating. I couldn’t stop thinking about how different he was from the self-assured man I had met the year before. Although a turban covered his head and much of his face, his eyes gave him away: he was scared.

Saadi and I were introduced by a friend of mine from Los Angeles who had been hired as his assistant. In early 2010, she recommended me for a position coordinating investment in a free-trade zone he was spearheading. At first it sounded like a normal office job, except that the office was in central Tripoli, the 36-year-old boss was the third of Muammar Qaddafi’s eight children, and the project’s mission was to help bring Libya into the 21st century. Intrigued, I flew to Tripoli.

When fighting broke out in eastern Libya in February 2011, everything changed overnight, including my job. Saadi, whose father had in November given him the title of special-forces commander in Benghazi, asked me to drop my work and help the Libyan government with press outreach. It was a strange new role, in which I found myself doing heady things (setting up interviews with Christiane Amanpour, for example). But as the war spread, I grew increasingly uneasy about my position. There was no way around the fact that I was working for Public Enemy No. 1. I quit, and decided to use my new connections to try to help facilitate peace.

As I traveled back and forth between Libya, Europe, and the United States in the months that followed, I stayed in close touch with Saadi. We had become good friends, and we naively believed that we could help negotiate his father’s departure from power. It wasn’t until August, when Tripoli finally fell, that Saadi recognized that nothing would ever be the same. As the city tipped into chaos, he and an entourage of younger cousins and friends fled, embarking on a journey through the southern Saharan desert that ended in early September with their detention by authorities in Niger. Later that month, Interpol handed down a warrant for his arrest, on charges—which Saadi has vehemently denied—of misappropriating property through force and armed intimidation a few years earlier, while he was head of the Libyan Football Federation.

All of which is how I came, last October, to be visiting Saadi at a dusty, run-down Nigerien compound populated by an assortment of government guards, Qaddafi cousins, servants (who offered me a daily stream of marriage proposals), and the occasional goat. I had traveled here to help Saadi hire a lawyer and, with any luck, to coax him into cooperating with the international community.

But the visit took a sudden turn when, the morning after my twilight chat with Saadi, my phone rang. It was a close friend, a journalist who was in Libya. “Jackie, can you hear me?” She was talking very fast. “They got Saadi’s dad. He was captured in Sirte.” I didn’t believe her at first; every time I’d turned on the television that fall, someone had been prematurely proclaiming the capture of one of the Qaddafis. But she paused, and I knew then that this was different.

“There are pictures,” she said. “Go to your computer.” I looked across the compound toward Saadi, who was sitting in his usual spot, speaking casually into his phone, the sun beating down on him. I walked upstairs slowly, not wanting to seem upset, and opened my laptop.

I gasped. A beaten and bloody Muammar Qaddafi lay sprawled across the screen, his lips parted, his eyes vacant. I sat there, frozen in disbelief, until the thought of Saadi, outside with his iPhone, snapped me back. I hurried downstairs and across the grounds to where Saadi was sitting. I didn’t want to tell him that his father had died, but I had to make sure he didn’t see these pictures.

“Give me your iPhone,” I said, holding out my hand.

He handed it to me wordlessly, but as I turned to walk away, he spoke: “What do we know?”

“Nothing,” I lied.

As soon as I was back inside, I turned on the television and watched as a series of grainy cellphone videos cycled across the screen. I could take this in, the blood and the chaos and the ecstatic mob, but I wondered how a son would ever be able to watch any of it. Before I could figure out how to break the news to Saadi, though, the job was done for me. I heard footsteps outside, and walked to the window in time to see a group of Nigerien guards go over to him, their heads hung low, to deliver their condolences. He nodded a thank-you, then returned to sitting exactly as he had been before, staring straight ahead. A few of the Libyan boys who were staying at the compound had by now gathered at his feet. The wind rustled the trees and sprinkled the mattresses with dead leaves, but no one moved.

Saadi spent the rest of the day like this, sitting motionless, as people came and went, paying respects. Outside the compound, the world cheered the death of a tyrant. But here, in a small walled compound in Niamey, Niger, the man who had died was a father.

Saadi had talked to me often about his complicated relationship with Muammar. Despite a childhood of immense wealth and privilege, Saadi still lacked the thing he wanted most: his father’s approval. He had resented Muammar’s lack of support for his free-trade zone, and the rift between the two had deepened over the course of the war. They hadn’t spoken to each other in three months. Now Saadi appeared to realize that he would never have his father’s approval, or even another conversation with him. And so, while I privately celebrated Muammar Qaddafi’s exit, I grieved for this other man, a friend who in just six months had lost three brothers and his father.

At 10 o’clock that night, Saadi texted me again, from a different phone: “Come Please.” As I crossed the compound, time seemed to slow down, and I saw only shapes: the soft light that the windows cast over the trees, the blur of a white sheet covering Saadi’s legs, the dark silhouettes of boys still sitting in the shadows. I heard the buzzing of insects, and I smelled the fire burning next to him. The air felt heavy.

I collapsed in a chair, and we sat there, side by side but not looking at one another. Neither of us spoke. I heard him crying but did not look over.