Erased from Existence: Travels in a City Purged of Rebellion

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The town of Zawiyah has been cleansed of dissent. A rebel stronghold in the early days of the revolt against Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s forces, this oil town on the western coast of Libya was the site of a pitched street battle that culminated in a rout that saw scores of antiregime protesters killed and hundreds more injured. Fresh green paint covers the city’s whitewashed walls, obliterating all traces of antiregime graffiti. The voices of residents are now daubed with fear: when asked about the situation, the response is a forced “millia, millia,” local slang for “all good.” The rare admission of trouble is accompanied by a flick of the eyes in the direction of a stranger standing too close.

A government-organized excursion for journalists to the town on Tuesday was meant to show that life has returned to normal in Zawiyah, but the lingering presence of security forces shows that it is anything but. And as the battle for Misratah, the sole city in the west of the country that is not under government control, reaches a crescendo, the fate of Zawiyah’s rebels risks being replicated in an equally devastating manner.

Zawiyah’s central mosque, which served as a rebel HQ, has been razed to the ground. A government spokeswoman explained that the rebels — “al-Qaeda,” she called them — had been drinking in the mosque, defiling its sanctity so much that the government had no choice but to tear it down. Across the street, graves of the rebel dead who had been buried in a place of honor for their sacrifice have been bulldozed.

At Zawiyah’s hospital, the site of extraordinary carnage a month before, doctors and nurses denied that the city had once been home to a large antigovernment movement. They joined voices in an impromptu chorus of support for Gaddafi whenever television cameras appeared, though those out of sight giggled at the ridiculousness of the situation. Going against the official line that most of the rebels in Zawiyah had been Egyptian and Algerian instigators, Dr. Massoud al-Deeb told an AP correspondent that the wounded were local men. “They are all our people. I helped both sides [rebels and Gaddafi forces],” said al-Deeb. “We had 20-30 injured people every day, mostly with gunshot wounds.” Another doctor who did not give his name later told TIME that he saw soldiers dragging rebel victims out of the hospital. A third doctor said that in some cases, the rebels came in themselves to rescue their colleagues before soldiers could grab them.

In the rebel-held east of the country, Commander Abdel Fatah Younis excoriated NATO forces in a rare press conference, saying they were doing nothing while forces loyal to Gaddafi continued to bombard Misratah with artillery fire. NATO “is letting the people of Misratah die every day,” Younis said. “If NATO waits one more week, there will be nothing left.” Meanwhile, Gaddafi’s forces pushed rebels out of Brega, a town that has changed hands at least seven times in the past week.

In Tripoli, the Deputy Foreign Minister lashed out against the newly formed transitional government, describing the leadership as “illegal,” “illegitimate” and “without a mandate.”  In a vertiginous display of good cop–bad cop schizophrenia, Khaled Qaim first told reporters that if the rebels gave up their arms, they would be “most welcome to participate in any political process,” then vowed that “history will not forgive” Libyans who seek foreign assistance in pursuit of regime change. If the regime’s lack of forgiveness in Zawiyah is anything to go by, the rebels in the east are unlikely to take up the government’s offer to lay down their arms.