Standing opposite the wreckage of what used to be the Hotel Wenzrik in central Tripoli, the Libyan man spoke his mind to reporters for a good few minutes, even as their government minders began to zero in on him.
“It has been going for a long time and people are looking for a settlement,” he said of the war with NATO and identifying himself as Zarroug, a self-employed trader.
“Either way, change will come.”
The hotel was bombed last week during the night. No one was there at the time. The Libyan government described it as an example of NATO deliberately targeting civilians in its three-month bombing campaign to topple Muammar Gaddafi, Reuters reports.
A local resident said the building had been frequented by government officials.
When asked if he would be willing to answer more questions, Zarroug ran his fingers nervously through his greying beard as he scanned the crowd of curious onlookers, foreign reporters and the journalists’ increasingly interested government minders.
“I am sorry, there are too many eyes here,” he said, quietly but firmly. After a hurried goodbye, he wandered off.
Despite evident fear, Libyans have savoured the taste of freedom after 41 years of Gaddafi’s autocratic rule, and now seem increasingly willing and often eager to speak up.
Four months into the rebellion, there now appear to be two Tripolis, just as there are two Libyas, the one around the capital, held by Gaddafi, and areas to the east run by rebels.
In one Tripoli, officials like Prime Minister Al-Baghdadi Ali Al-Mahmoudi insist that “all Libyans” are behind Gaddafi. If there are any that oppose him, officials say, they are al Qaeda militants or criminals.
This same Tripoli is inhabited by crowds of people waving portraits of Gaddafi who are shown to foreign reporters on trips laid on by official escorts — usually the only occasions when the small group of journalists are allowed out of their hotel.
But in the other Tripoli, there is Zarroug, and others like him, who speak up, even with government officials in the vicinity and the threat of reprisals never far away.
They often give false names or refuse to give any name at all. But they still want to speak.
“I think the majority of people here are pleased about the NATO bombing campaign,” said a man who gave his name, incongruously, as “Tony”. He spoke at the site of a NATO air strike last weekend, in which a number of civilians were killed.
“They don’t like this,” he added, nodding at the remains of the building. “But they don’t like the regime either.”
Government minders stood just feet away from “Tony” — he said it was his “magic name” — and as he spoke his hands were trembling so much that he had difficulty lighting his cigarette. After a few minutes, he too disappeared into the crowd.
This is not to say that all Libyans are against Gaddafi. He has supporters beyond his security forces.
“It would be naive of anyone to believe that Gaddafi has no support,” said a secular opposition activist who uses the name Niz and who met Reuters reporters this week. “He clearly does.”
But those who are not fans of Gaddafi, the “Brother Leader”, have found a voice and say they now find it hard to be quiet.
“We want to talk so badly because we haven’t been able to say anything,” an activist who gave her name as Amal said.
“Now we can’t stop talking,” added the woman, whose name means “Hope” in Arabic.
“The people of Libya have been oppressed for nearly 42 years and now they’ve had a taste of freedom they’re letting their imaginations run wild.”
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Amal said she had heard new music and read new poetry since the uprising that showed an innate Libyan creativity she said had been stifled by Gaddafi’s rule.
Another activist, who used the name Fatima, said she had read about freedom and independence and was now determined to experience it first hand: “We’ve realised that we can sacrifice our lives for the freedom … of expression,” she said.
“I would do anything so that I can talk and make people hear my opinion out there.”
Even in Abu Salim, a district of Tripoli long seen as a stronghold of Gaddafi loyalists, Reuters reporters discovered on a visit without minders in recent days that people were far from unanimous in their support for Gaddafi.
“I’m pretty sure ordinary people will not fight to defend the regime,” said a shop owner who declined to give his name.
“We are very tired of Gaddafi.”
But in the Tripoli inhabited by officials and government minders, people like the shop owner in Abu Salim do not exist. One minder asked a Reuters reporter what he had discovered on the trip to Abu Salim. Told of the disaffection, he scoffed:
“That’s impossible,” he said, waving his hand dismissively and scowling. “Everyone in Abu Salim loves Muammar Gaddafi.”