Ajdabiya, near Benghazi, was a metaphor for Libyan gentleness and kindness. It was also at the forefront of the resistance's fight for dignity and freedom. Is it still standing, wonders A.J. Thomas, back in India after being evacuated from the city as it came under attack. A first person account…

B y the time these words come out in print, Ajdabiya, my city, could possibly be reduced to rubble, going by the BBC report on the evening of March 14: The city was being bombarded from land, sea and air, and there is a threat to kill anyone who resists.

This is my city, my gentle city, the city I love so much! When I began life here two-and-a-half years ago, teaching English in the local branch of Garyounis University, Benghazi, Libya, I was soon captivated by this haven of culture and tradition. The people are so friendly and warm, never missing out on ‘ salaaming' you with a smile. They are generally very honest and upright. A shopkeeper would hand over to you with a smile, something you left behind a couple of days ago! No theft, no violence that we knew of — such a stark contrast to the quotidian Delhi life. The largely Mediterranean climate and alluring vistas of sun and sand and greenery mixed up, foregrounded by the cityscape of flat rooftops as I saw it from my fifth floor apartment which I called ‘my house in the sky', had made me gush with poetry then…

Most of our students are from Ajdabiya, while Brega, lying 80 km to the west on the Tripoli route, sends us some of our best students. Brega is the scene of terrible fighting lately, with the regime troops and the opposition capturing and recapturing it alternatively.

Essential character

Ajdabiya is a metaphor for any other Libyan city such as Misuratha, Az Zawiah, Al Baida, Darna or Tobruk. Though local cultures vary, the essential Libyan character is stamped on everyone. Basically gentle, friendly people who do not frown, or say ‘no' to anything. Even if something impossible is asked of them, they will just say with a smile, ‘ bukra' (meaning, ‘tomorrow'). Outright denial is simply not in their culture. They are also a very proud, dignified people, who intensely love their country. The greatness of Libya is something even the schoolboy on the street wants you to acknowledge. Now, when there happens to be more than one opinion on how the affairs of the country should be run, things have taken a grave turn. I can't imagine that any Libyan can be less patriotic than the other. Yet, people die in their thousands for their dissenting voices.

When the ‘jasmine revolution' erupted first in Tunisia, and, a month later, in Egypt, the Libyans were found watching the scenes on TVs in shops and restaurants. We thought they were following it like some action movie. No one expected them to be swept off by the wind of freedom that blew over the region. The youth we knew were content with their ‘sevens' football, coffee and cigarettes, driving their cars very fast late at night when the roads were empty. There are hardly any gatherings or meetings. There are no cinemas or theatres. The boy-students in the university are the exact opposite of their Indian counterparts. They are generally shy and non-assertive in classrooms which are dominated overwhelmingly by girls.

Living standards in Ajdabiya are comparable to any European city or town I have seen. The upkeep and maintenance of streets and homes, public health and hygiene, the transportation used, are all of the first world. Of course, there are less privileged people in the outskirts and the villages, but the availability of five kubjas (coarse bread) for rubah (one-fourth of a) dinar, and rice and provisions at negligible prices from PDS shops ensured there was no poverty. The per capita income of a Libyan is US$14,884/- according to 2010 statistics. So, reasons for the unrest are simply not financial. As an affluent Benghazi couple who were interviewed by a BBC journalist put it, it is human dignity and freedom that they are fighting for.

Not polarised

Neither are there ideological or religious polarisations. Obviously, Al Qaeda has no place here. Osama bin Laden's pictures are not displayed anywhere, unlike in some Pakistani cities. Libyans are moderate, rightly religious Muslims, though a little orthodox, much like my own people who are orthodox Catholics from Palai!

The first massive rally I witnessed was on February 16. Crowds with no flags marching by, cars and pick-ups lined up in their hundreds, hooting their horns in an unbroken stream of ear-splitting noise…and a few hours later, smoke columns rising to the sky from various parts of the city. Over a dozen government offices and People's Committee offices had been torched. Later I learned that four boys in a procession that had marched towards an army camp had been shot dead. The processions on 17 {+t} {+h} and 18 {+t} {+h} grew stronger in number and clamour. By now, the tricolour of the pre-1969 period had begun to be sported by the protesters, passing by mostly in pick-ups and cars. People who had dreaded even to pronounce the ‘G' word, had pulled down the many portraits of Col. Gaddafi exhibited at public places. Walls were filled with graffiti that opposed the regime.

On 19 {+t} {+h} night, the crowds grew into thousands. There was great celebration and jubilation. The liberation of the eastern region had been announced. Hundreds of pick-ups arrived from the outbacks carrying all kinds of people including the elderly and the middle-aged from the various tribes. Fireworks lit up the sky. Rack-a-tack of the celebratory automatic gunfire mingled with loud explosions of skyrockets. Women and young girls ululated from rooftops. It went on until the small hours of the morning, reminiscent of a Ramadan night. One scene I wouldn't forget from that night is that of a grand old man descending from his pick-up followed by a middle-aged man and a youth, possibly his son and grandson, and a three-year-old girl-child with a flower-like face, who all danced together amongst the merrymakers!

Soon, the city took on a new character. Hundreds of Bangladeshis, Egyptians and other sub-Saharan people who did the basic cleaning work for the Libyans, disappeared en-masse. Libyan youth, hitherto unaccustomed to any physical labour, volunteered to keep the streets clean and the waste-bins emptied, Tahrir Square style. At junctions, youngsters controlled traffic. All shops were opened. Ajdabiya was normal, literally. As the National Transition Council of Libya was formed, subordinate local committees were formed in all liberated Libyan cities. Governance had come back to normalcy everywhere, with such committees in full control.

Within a couple of days, there was a total shut-down. I was told that it was a general strike. The gentleman who volunteered to drive us to the bank asked me: “Don't you have strikes in India?” “Yes,” I said. “But our strikes are acceptable in a democratic system.” He couldn't follow what that was, having grown up in a political vacuum for the last 41 years!

Under control

The shop-keepers didn't charge even a single farthing more for anything, although an emergency situation had developed, with many Egyptian and Sudanese shopkeepers heading home. I was told imams in mosques had specifically told them not to hoard or increase prices taking undue advantage of the situation, and they had simply followed orders! Some people went further. The family of an Indian colleague was supplied with loads of grocery by people around!

Yet, well-wishers warned. “Beware of going out into the streets. Foreigners are viewed with suspicion. Just take rest, eat and sleep!” Yes, we were foreigners. We had nothing to do with politics on the ground. But, we, as teachers, dealt with the youth of the region. Really nice youngsters. Our concern for them, and our colleagues, was real. What were we to do? I chose to go about in the streets during day and night, to get a first-hand feel of things. Children were playing about. Even when rumours of aerial attacks and mercenaries advancing floated around, people moved about normally; they never ran about in panic. The sight of young men in pick-ups wielding automatic rifles, displaying heavy weapons, punctuated the sedate atmosphere.

The next few days were filled with rumours fired by some hard facts. There had actually been an aerial bombardment of the arms depot just outside the city. Some sub-Saharan mercenaries had indeed been rounded up. So, whenever automatic fire erupted in the middle of the night, one could not be sure whether it was the signal fire of the night-watch of the local committee, or the mercenaries making a depredation. The deep rumble could be of an aerial attack in the outskirts or of a mere cracker. So, expecting a bomb on one's roof on the top-floor apartment, or a posse bursting into one's apartment with guns ablaze were more of a reality, rather than the highly improbable fiction of a Hollywood flick. I shifted sleep-time to 7 a.m. till noon.

Time to leave

After about 10 days like this, the plan of evacuation by ship from Benghazi was announced. Students and colleagues pleaded with us not to go leaving them behind. But some of those who were keen on our safety agreed that it was better for us to leave.

When we finally set out towards Benghazi, 160 km north, everything was calm. Nearing Benghazi we were stopped at a couple of check-points manned by rebels with anti-aircraft guns and heavy machine guns. The checking was most cordial and urbane.

Benghazi, the second largest city of the country, where fierce fighting for several days saw thousands dead, is the headquarters of the Transition National Council. There was perfect order in the streets and roads we passed, except burnt-out structures that housed government offices, and anti-regime graffiti that filled the walls.

Uneventful return

Barring the 12-hour-long wait on the pier occasioned by the confusion the many Indian volunteer groups working apparently at cross-purposes caused, the boarding, on February 28, of MV Scotia Prince and the 33-hour voyage to Alexandria where planes were waiting for us, were largely uneventful, although the potential danger until we left Libyan waters kept us with bated breath, as news reached us of the aerial bombardment of an ammunition depot in Ajdabiya and an explosion at Benghazi, close to the house we stayed overnight, that killed 35 people.

For me, after reaching Delhi, like a rat abandoning a doomed ship, this has been the time to pray…to pray for my beloved students and colleagues of Ajdabiya and Brega…for the colleague who had to stay back with his three small girls and a newborn son, his wife and aged mother…for the little Libyan girls who flit by hanging from their fathers' hands, like butterflies… for the serious-faced little boys clad in fancy uniforms totting toy machine guns….As grief pulls down my heart, I try to buoy myself up, through the only thing I can do now…just pray…pray that let all these turn out to be mere rumour…let my city continue to glow unscathed in the molten gold of the afterglow over the Saharan sands….

One of the meanings of the word ‘Ajdabiya' in local Arabic is, ‘a perfect place to die,' which was coined by a contemporary of Ibnu Batuta. This religious figure, who was on his way from Morocco to Mecca on a pilgrimage, suddenly realised that he was about to die due to some strange illness. Of all the places along the route, it was Ajdabiya that floated into his mind to settle down at, for a quiet death. Let's hope that this meaning does not portent the fate of Ajdabiya.

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The shop-keepers didn't charge even a single farthing more, although an emergency situation had developed