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Revolutionary Road Trip
Looking To The Future, Libya Erases Part Of Its Past
Originally published on Tue June 12, 2012 11:11 am
NPR Morning Edition host Steve Inskeep is taking a Revolutionary Road Trip across North Africa to see how the countries that staged revolutions last year are remaking themselves. Steve and his team are traveling some 2,000 miles from Tunisia's ancient city of Carthage, across the deserts of Libya and on to Egypt's megacity of Cairo. In his first story from Libya, he looks at what has changed in a country that was dominated for decades by one man.
I was talking the other night with one of NPR's employees along our route – an Egyptian woman who has covered the Arab Spring as a journalist, and lived it as a citizen – and she mentioned how she loved George Orwell's 1984.
Of course she did: Orwell was the master at describing the totalitarian state, and she had grown up under one of the Arab world's thuggish dictatorships.
Orwell came to mind for me as we traveled through Libya, because it was Orwell who said, "He who controls the present, controls the past. He who controls the past, controls the future."
For forty-two years, Moammar Gadhafi controlled the present, rewrote the past to suit his ends, and seemed likely to hold on into the interminable future.
Now Gadhafi is gone, killed by rebels in his home city last October, and Libyans are still finding fresh and original ways to display the bloody images of his final moments on Facebook.
His death finally released Gadhafi's grip on Libya's recent history, and his people are just beginning to revise the record.
Once we rolled into Libya past a string of checkpoints and settled into a Tripoli hotel, we visited Libya's national museum.
The building itself is a museum piece, a stone-walled castle that was standing in the early nineteenth century, when the infant U.S. Navy battled the so-called Barbary pirates based in Tripoli.
Updating Libya's History
The collection on display inside includes spectactular statues and carvings from the ancient Roman empire. And until recently, it also included a Volkswagen Beetle that belonged to Gadhafi. That car is in storage now, along with several rooms' worth of documents and artifacts linked to him.
A museum employee, Najat Ben Hamida, showed us where artifacts glorifying Gadhafi's 42-year rule used to occupy much of the fourth floor.
Now the floor is bare, and the document display cases are empty.
"Everything here belonged to Gadhafi," she says. All kinds of documents, she adds, though she acts like she never paid much attention to them.
Elsewhere, the museum staff has done the equivalent of repairing Libyan history with duct tape. Workers have put Libyan flag stickers over displays that give Gadhafi's personal name for Libya — the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahurriya -– a made-up Arabic word.
More permanent changes to Libya's history will take time.
Years Of Plotting
But many Libyans are now telling their own personal histories of the last few decades.
We heard one such story just down the street from the museum, when we sat down with a man named Omar El Shakmak.
"I was hiding for the last 30 years my activity in the Libyan National Front. The opposition Libyan National Front," he says.
Over tiny cups of espresso, he told us a story he could never have revealed just a year or two ago when Gadhafi was still in power.
We were sitting in a hotel, by a window with a view of ships in Tripoli's harbor, and Shakmak shook off his blue blazer as we talked.
He told us how he joined the state-owned oil industry in 1977, working as an accountant at an ammonia plant. He worked for two decades at an oil refinery, hours from any major city.
He eventually became an official in the oil company, and he often couldn't believe how the regime spent billions of dollars he and other workers were helping to make.
"For example, when you hear about money being paid to some other government in Africa, and you knew that there is no added value at all to the Libyan people," he said.
It left him very frustrated and helps explain why Shakmak joined the Libyan National Front, that opposition group, even as he continued working for the oil firm.
Arrested And Tortured
When traveling abroad, he passed on information about Gadhafi's government. But in 1985, he was arrested by Libyan authorities.
We ask if he was tortured, and he said he was. He then stands and leads the way to more private spot. He sits against a wall, tucking his arms beneath his raised knees and holds his hands together.
"They put your hand like this, and then they tied it, and then automatically they pull you, and pulling you by a chain the other way, they hang you upside down," he says.
A colleague at work, who knew nothing of his underground activity, spoke up for him, and swore he was loyal to Gadhafi.
Shakmak was then released in 1986.
But the Libyan National Front knew he couldn't risk working with them.
The opposition group told him instead to simply stay inside the oil company and continue with his official job, because someday the opposition would need people with experience to run that industry.
"People who are clean, who are not involved with corruption, qualified and efficient persons," he says.
It seems extraordinary, but Shakmak insists it was true. Twenty-five years before the revolution that ousted Gadhafi, the opposition was preparing for it.
The Revolution Comes
The moment finally came last year.
Two of Shakmak's sons were involved in the revolution. One was imprisoned by Gadhafi's government in Tripoli. The other joined a rebel fighting force that moved into Tripoli when Gadhafi's forces fled.
The two sons were reunited at the bombed-out ruins of Gadhafi's compound.
And today, Shakmak is the deputy oil minister in Libya's new government. He has helped oversee the rapid revival Libya's oil industry, which is now back up to 90 percent of its pre-war production.
The deputy minister arranged for us to see the oil terminal at the port of Sidra, in what was a Libyan war zone.
The building manager, Abujala Zenati, climbed the stairs to a room with a view of the Mediterranean.
A few miles out at sea, two massive oil tankers were at anchor, sucking in Libyan oil from undersea pipes.
The building was wrecked during the war, but workers laid new pipes and bypassed destroyed equipment.
Walking across the grounds, you can smell the money Libya is making -– more than 300,000 barrels worth of oil from this port alone each day.
Zenati explains the strong smell of crude oil. "Well actually, we have a little bit of a leak over there," he says.
In his building, walls have been patched where they were punctured by shells. A few signs of combat remain in the walls of Zenati's office — like a bullet hole in the organization chart.
But Libyan oil is once again flowing, earning the income that gives many Libyans confidence that for all their trouble, they do have a shot at a better future.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
Let's continue now with MORNING EDITION's Revolutionary Road Trip, a journey through nations of the Arab Spring. Steve Inskeep is traveling about 2,000 miles through Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, from Carthage to Cairo.
(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE)
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
OK, we're in the car. The window's down. The radio is on. We've just left Tunisia. We're moving along the highway after getting our passports stamped at the western border crossing into Libya, and checking in with a militia also at the border with anti-aircraft guns mounted on the backs of pickup trucks.
Many armed groups operate checkpoints on the roads, all of them loyal to Libya's revolution, though not necessarily taking anyone's orders. The road leads past scenes of last year's fighting - building after building pockmarked with holes as if struck by disease. It also leads past an oil refinery, where flames burn once again atop the smokestacks.
Then you reach Tripoli, where militiamen briefly took over the airport the other day. Yet the capital glitters by its harbor and is filling again with life.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHATTER)
INSKEEP: We saw schoolchildren pouring through a doorway, coming out of the sun and into a centuries-old stone castle by the water. That castle is now a museum, which just reopened for the first time since the war. The kids are experiencing something that is new for Libya: a perfectly normal day.
Of course their country does not have a normal recent history. We begin our exploring Libya at this museum because much of our reporting along the road from here involves Libya's reckoning with the not-so-distant past.
(SOUNDBITE OF FOUNTAIN)
INSKEEP: We're taking a stroll through Libya's national museum. Arranged around this fountain are artifacts from the ancient Roman period, 2,000 years ago and more, spectacular statues and gravestones that have been brought in from along the coastline and even deep in the Libyan Desert. There used to be some more recent artifacts in this room were I've just walked - a couple of vehicles associated with Moammar Gadhafi, including a Volkswagen Beetle that it's said he drove in the 1960s. Those vehicles have now been put in storage.
An employee here, Najat Ben Hamida, showed us where artifacts glorifying Gadhafi's 42-year rule used to occupy much of the fourth floor. Now the floor is bare, the document display cases empty.
NAJAT BEN HAMIDA: (Through translator) (Unintelligible) and everything here was belonged to Gadhafi.
INSKEEP: What sort of documents?
HAMIDA: (Foreign language spoken)
INSKEEP: All kinds of documents, she says, seeming never to have paid much attention to them.
Elsewhere, the museum staff have done the equivalent of repairing their history with duct tape, putting Libyan flag stickers over displays that gave Gadhafi's personal name for Libya, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. More permanent changes to Libya's history will take time.
But many Libyans are now telling their own personal histories of the last few decades. We heard one such story just down the street from the museum, when we sat down with a man named Omar El Shekmak.
OMAR EL SHEKMAK: I was hiding during the last 30 years my activity in the Libyan National Front - the opposition, Libyan National Front.
INSKEEP: Over tiny cups of espresso, he told us a story he could never have revealed just a year or two ago, a story of how he very quietly joined that opposition group. Today he's the deputy oil minister in Libya's new government.
We were sitting in a hotel, by a window with a view of ships in Tripoli's harbor, and Shekmak shook off his blue blazer as we talked.
Make yourself comfortable. It's a little warm in the sunlight, I know. Would you remind me how long you have worked in the oil industry or for the government of Libya?
SHEKMAK: I joined the oil industry in January 1977.
INSKEEP: He worked as an accountant at an ammonia plant. He worked for two decades at an oil refinery, hours from any major city. He became an official in a state-owned oil company. And he often couldn't believe how the regime spent the billions of dollars he was helping to make.
SHEKMAK: For example, when you hear about money being paid to some other government in Africa, and you knew that there is no added value at all to the Libyan people, to the economy, of course it will keep people frustrated.
INSKEEP: Which helps to explain why Shekmak joined the Libyan National Front, that opposition group, even as he continued working for the oil firm. When traveling abroad, he passed on information to Libyan opposition leaders in exile. And then, in 1985, he was arrested by Gadhafi's government.
Were you tortured?
INSKEEP: I'm sorry to ask, but in what way? What did they do?
SHEKMAK: They do a lot.
SHEKMAK: They do a lot. But to tell you the way, how they (unintelligible) excuse me. (Unintelligible)...
INSKEEP: I should wait here?
SHEKMAK: No. No. Just I want you to see...
INSKEEP: He stands and leads the way to more private spot. And here he suddenly sits against a wall. He tucks his arms beneath his raised knees and holds his hands together.
SHEKMAK: They put your hand like this. And then they tied it. OK? And then automatically they pull you. And then you found yourself just like that.
INSKEEP: They're pulling you by a chain that's (unintelligible)...
SHEKMAK: This is one way. The other way, they hang you upside down.
INSKEEP: Shekmak was released in 1986. People in the Libyan National Front knew he couldn't risk more work with them. They told him instead to simply stay inside the oil company, because someday the opposition would need people with experience to run that industry.
SHEKMAK: People who, they are clean, people who has not been involved with corruption, qualified and efficient persons.
INSKEEP: You're telling me that 25 years before the revolution finally happened...
INSKEEP: ...people were - including you - were trying to prepare to be ready for that moment?
INSKEEP: The moment finally came last year. Two of his sons were involved in the revolution. One was imprisoned by Gadhafi's forces in Tripoli. The other joined a rebel fighting force that moved into Tripoli when Gadhafi's forces fled. The two sons were reunited at the bombed-out ruins of Gadhafi's compound. And Shekmak has helped to oversee the rapid revival of Libya's oil industry, which is now back up to 90 percent of its pre-war production.
The deputy minister arranged for us to see the oil terminal at the Port of Sidra, in what was a Libyan war zone. The facility manager, Abujala Zenati, climbed the stairs to a room with a view of the Mediterranean.
ABUJALA ZENATI: So this is actually our control room here.
INSKEEP: Okay. A few miles out at sea, two massive oil tankers rode(ph) at anchor, sucking in Libyan oil from undersea pipes. This place was wrecked during the war, but workers re-laid new pipes and bypassed destroyed equipment. Walking across the grounds on the shore today, you can smell the money Libya is making - from more than 300,000 barrels of oil that pass through this port on a typical day. That smell, is the smell of crude oil?
ZENATI: Well, actually, yes. We have a little bit of a leak over there, and...
INSKEEP: Building walls have been patched where they were punctured by shells, though a few signs of combat remain in the walls of Zenati's office. So this is a bullet hole in this organization chart?
ZENATI: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
INSKEEP: Good thing you weren't at work then.
INSKEEP: Zenati is at work now, and the same oil income that fueled the excesses of Moammar Gadhafi now gives him confidence that Libya can earn a better future. We're traveling the Revolutionary Road from Carthage to Cairo, through nations of the Arab Spring. We're back in the car, and tomorrow the road takes us to the scene of some of the Libyan war's heaviest fighting, and an ongoing act of vengeance that the United Nations calls a crime against humanity.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: They have tortured and killed and displaced and burned fields and houses, and they have committed the ultimate sin in our culture and our religion, which is rape, all coming from supposedly a good neighbor, you know?
INSKEEP: Should they be allowed to return?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Not in my lifetime, I don't think.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVID GREENE HOST: And we have much more from our Revolutionary Road Trip online. You can also read about Steve's visit to a Tunisian city with some Hollywood ties. It's where parts of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" was filmed. That's at our pop culture blog, Monkey See, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.