From Tripoli to Manchester

Since the fighting in Libya began many British-Libyans have flowed across the UK’s borders, either fleeing from or heading towards the fighting.

From Tripoli to Manchester

From Tripoli to Manchester

At a Libyan awareness fair in Manchester I spoke to a man who had experienced the unconventional journey from an oppressed city in North Africa to a city in Northern England.

Mohammed (whose name has been changed to protect his family in Tripoli) is studying at an English university and has dual Libyan-British nationality because of his Scottish mother and Libyan father. He was in Tripoli at his family’s home when the uprising began and described the city as he found it: “The youth are everywhere; they’ve got nothing to do…there’s a lot of resentment, there’s a crack in the community…it was inevitable that it was going to happen.”

After the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia many Libyans were wary of the demonstrations spreading further. Before the Arab Spring reached Libya, Mohammed and his father ensured that the women in the family went to the UK. “My mum came out at the very start. We made sure that my mum and my sisters got out on a flight. At first they weren’t up for leaving, because it didn’t feel like this was going to happen here.”

Mohammed stayed with his father; however he wasn’t to know that this would make it nearly impossible for him to leave.

Gaddafi’s crackdown

He recalls how there was an increasing military presence on the streets, as well as an escalation of pro-Gaddafi propaganda and support. People took to the streets to show their support for the regime. Footage of pro-Gaddafi groups was spread around news stations in an attempt to prove that Gaddafi still enjoyed popular support.

UGC footage used by Al Jazeera of protests in Tripoli

UGC footage used by Al Jazeera of protests in Tripoli

Despite all this Mohammed remembers the anti-Gaddafi movement building. Specific dates began to lose their meaning but one night “there was a lot of youth going to the Green Square … We were getting phone calls saying ‘We’re in the Green Square, we’re in the Green Square, we’ve taken down his posters, do you want to come down?” Instead of meeting his friends, Mohammed stayed outside his family building to protect the relatives inside.

This was a potentially life-saving decision, as not long after he received those phone calls: “People were just running. You heard a lot of gunshots… There was a 15 year old killed. There was a guy in front of the street shot in the leg… I spoke to one guy who was running away and his friend was shot just next to him.”

This night of violence ignited resistance against Gaddafi’s forces and every Friday after the weekly prayers people would protest, but at the same time the city was filling with riot police who would react violently to any dissent.

“We were moving forward [towards four armed policemen] and I remember the guy on the left started firing tear gas into the crowd. It didn’t affect everybody and then the guy next to him, he just fired, a live bullet, and it was as if we’re not human, as if our blood is worthless.”

These are the stories the UK’s Libyan community has been hearing since the uprising began. At the fair there were several speakers who had recently travelled between Libya and the UK. One of these was Dr Ramadan Attaywa, who had been in Misurata when the fate of the city was on a knife edge. He portrayed the fighting in victorious rhetoric: “When I reached the beaches of Misurata, I saw a land that I’ve never seen before. I saw a sky which I’ve never seen before. I breathed an air I’ve never breathed before… As if life has been brought back to Libya, has been brought back to Misurata.”

Dr Ramadan Attaywa addresses the fair

Dr Ramadan Attaywa addresses the fair

The allegations of violence and kidnappings during the initial protests received significant backing when the International Criminal Court (ICC) issued arrest warrants for Gaddafi, his son Saif al-Islam and the Libyan Intelligence Chief Abdullah al-Senussi. The court received compelling evidence to indicate that hundreds of civilians were killed or injured by Gaddafi’s forces as part of a systematic attack against demonstrators. Gaddafi’s government has dismissed the arrest warrants as false charges.

Unlike in Benghazi and Misurata, the crackdown had the effect Gaddafi wanted in Tripoli. Mohammed credits Gaddafi’s control to his intimidation alongside a lack of co-ordination between protestors: “There’s no internet and nobody can talk without the internet. People can’t mobilise.”

Escaping Tripoli

This situation led to Mohammed deciding he needed to leave. “I left there because I felt that there was no hope. I was there every day and every day it just seems to get worse. You can’t talk to people, you can’t talk about politics. You can talk about anything but about the people that are being slain…and there’s nothing else that you want to talk about.”

How to leave became difficult as Gaddafi’s men began blocking off routes. He considered leaving through Tunisia, but risked having his possessions confiscated and he heard stories about people going missing crossing the border. In the end, he claims he got lucky.

“I was driving past the seafront and I saw a Ukrainian warship and I thought I bet that’s taking British nationals out. I stopped and they said just register your passport here. So I went back to the house, gathered my clothes, didn’t even see my Dad, took my bag. I called my Dad up and I said ‘listen I’m going to get on this ship and I’m going to get out, I need to get on with it. I’m doing nothing in Tripoli.’ At least here I can do something, I can help raise funds, I can help organise, clean toilets for the sake of the cause. I can do something.”

After leaving in early April Mohammed is now considering going back. This is because in England he can’t know the truth of what is happening to his friends and family in Libya. He says “I speak to him [Dad] on the phone but your conversations are so limited. Just “yeah everything’s fine”. Because everybody’s getting lifted, it’s a fear culture.”



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