At nine pm the announcement went out over the hotel PA system: “All Journalists, there will be a trip planned to Baab al-Aziziya after dinner. Please gather in the lobby.” We duly trudged to the waiting busses, newcomers such as my self curious to see Gaddaffi’s compound, and veterans hoping against expectations that the man himself might make an appearance.
Our small convoy of minibuses turned through the first gate. Then the second and third. Garish green neon glowed from accent lampposts. We shuffled through a fourth gate where groups of waiting Gaddafi supporters burst into chants at our appearance. I was patted down by a chipper young woman who asked me where I was from just as the crowd launched into a robust chorus of “We love Gaddafi, we hate Sarkozy.” There were a few half-hearted attempts at Obama bashing thrown in, but they were not so convincing. Earlier in the day a man had told me that Libyans couldn’t really hate Obama, “because he is African.” In the short time I have been here, I have learned not to challenge illogical statements. It gets you nowhere.
Finally, through a fifth gate – this one topped by wicked metal spikes in addition to the others’ garlands of razor wire. For a man who claims the undying love of his people, Gaddafi isn’t taking any chances. We were led through an open expanse of cropped green grass stippled by well-lit palm trees. A few RVs were tethered nearby – modern camels in a manufactured oasis. Gaddafi supporters, mostly young men out for a night of fun it seemed, threw themselves at a barrier and declared their undying love for Gaddafi. Like visitors at a zoo, we glanced up, took notes, and shuffled by.
Our destination was Gaddafi’s Command and Control Center, which had been bombed ten days before in the early days of the Allied air strikes. The massive domed entrance, in the form of a Prussian military helmet, complete with eagle on top, still stood, but beyond was complete devastation. Many of the other journalists had been there before, right after the attack. None of us could figure out why they had brought us again though the TV crews were ecstatic to be able to get footage of anything, even if it was recycled. One of the minders tried to convince me half-heartedly that 64 people had been killed in the attack, including women and children. I asked what women and children were doing at a military installation and he shrugged. “That’s what I have been told.” There has been no confirmation of those numbers, and the regime, desperate to show evidence of civilian casualties, has failed to produce any proof, not even hospital visits to the wounded.
I picked up a metal shard of what looked to be part of a shell and marveled at the destructive power of a missile. The command center’s three floors had been pancaked. A desiccated pine tree was inexplicably perched on what remained of the roof. Nobody could explain why.
We picked our way through the rubble and ducked under the Prussian helmet gate to make our way back across the lawn. By this time the crowd had grown to a couple of hundred. They pressed against the gate and chanted their take on the popular Egyptian and Tunisian slogan demanding the downfall of the regimes. “The people, they need Colonel Muammar.” Some had climbed the wall of a makeshift amphitheater facing the entrance of his former home, one that had been hit by US air raids in the 80s and left unrepaired as a monument to his defiance. It was there where he had made his early, ranting speeches, but this time the podium and leather armchair were gone. Brother Leader was not going to make an appearance this evening, it seemed.
We were directed to a center stage that offered a view over the gathered crowds. Perhaps a hundred were Gaddafi’s “human shield,” volunteers who camped on his grounds in order to protect him from airstrikes. I recognized many from a protest at the hotel earlier in the day, an elderly man in a white turban and a striking young woman named Sumaya, who had told me earlier that she was a medical student from Benghazi. “The people of Benghazi want Gaddafi,” she told me then. “It is al Qaeda that doesn’t want him.” I asked why Gaddafi loyalists weren’t standing up for him there. “We are scared of the rebels. If you say you love Gaddafi in Benghazi they will kill you,” she explained. Catching my eye at the latest protest, she grinned and gave me a V sign.
Video footage of an earlier rally was playing on a giant screen. An older woman held a baby aloft in the crowds. The same woman was holding the same baby down below. I looked at my mobile phone. It was nearly midnight.
I asked another of the minders if he thought the protesters were being paid. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe.” Then he looked out at the crowd of shouting teenage boys and changed his mind. “I think they are here because it is fun.” They did appear to be having fun. They struck defiant poses on the shattered ramparts. They waved flags. And every time a TV camera panned over the crowd they jumped to get into its frame. As we filed out, the crowd filed out with us. Photo-op over, their work for the day was done. A couple of rambunctious boys clung to the back of our mini-van as we drove out the gates. It was a Thursday night—the beginning of the Libyan weekend— in war-wracked Tripoli, and teenagers, like teenagers anywhere else in the world, were simply looking for kicks. “What else is there to do?” my minder asked rhetorically. “We don’t have movies, and there are no bars.”