Widad El Weila came all the way from Libya’s capital, Tripoli – a two-and-a-half-hour drive – with her teenage daughters to see the body of former Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.
“We wanted to see it with our own eyes,” she says, “and we brought the kids to show them that there is nothing more to be afraid of.”
Ms. El Weila was one of only a few women standing in line in the dilapidated outdoor shopping mall on the outskirts of the coastal city of Misrata where Qaddafi’s body – and that of his son Moatassim and his former defense minister Abu Bakr Younes – have been put on public display since they were killed Thursday.
“I told [the rebel fighters] to … make sure that everybody knows [Qaddafi] is dead,” interim Oil Minister Ali Tarhouni told the Reuters news agency.
The display – under flimsy blankets on a stone-cold floor in a commercial freezer – hasn’t seemed to bother the hundreds of Libyan men lining up for a last glimpse at the man who ruled them for 42 years.
Nor has it seemed to bother the vast majority of Libyans who are celebrating the country’s liberation, which was officially rung in today by the transitional government’s leader, Mustafa Abdel-Jalil, at a euphoric rally in the eastern city of Benghazi.
“We have all waited for this moment,” said Mr. Abdel-Jalil, the chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC), in front of the mass of flag-waving revelers. “This revolution began peacefully with the demand for justice, but it was met by excessive violence.”
Will Qaddafi get a proper burial?
The NTC is reportedly preparing to bury Qaddafi in an undisclosed location to keep his grave from becoming a shrine to the dead leader’s supporters.
At least one person in Misrata has been waiting for a call from the NTC.
Sheikh Hesham Mohamed Embrika runs a cemetery on the beach just outside Misrata where the pro-Qadaffi dead are buried. Mr. Embrika considers it his religious duty to give even the enemy a proper Islamic burial.
“As soon as we heard that Qaddafi had been killed, we prepared a grave for him. We are ready to bury him here, but I think they will have to provide security. Feelings against Qaddafi run high in Misrata,” said Embrika.
Driving along devastated Tripoli Street, the former line, it is not hard to understand why.
Omar Kawa, a 23-year old former rebel, points to the long list of names of martyrs painted on a whitewashed wall. More than 1,000 people were killed during the six-months siege of Misrata – enough to name every street in the city after a martyr.
“Every family in Misrata has been affected by this,” says Mr. Kawa. “That means a dead boy, a destroyed house, a wrecked car in every family here.”
Kawa was at a farm outside Misrata, which his brigade uses as hangout, when Qaddafi’s body was brought in there on Thursday.
“The ambulance driver was one of us,” Kawa said as he kicked some dust over the spot where Qaddafi lay during the half hour he spent here. “He didn’t know where to take the body and he was afraid of getting mobbed.”
“We discussed the situation and then one of us thought of the freezer at the shopping mall,” he said. “It was far enough outside the city to keep the body safe from the people.”
The news that an autopsy revealed that Qaddafi was shot in the head after his capture doesn’t trouble many people here.
“It’s good riddance,” says Kawa. “Even at the very end, during the battle over Sirte, he made sure that many people died needlessly.”
He remembers the surprise of the civilians of Qaddafi’s hometown of Sirte as they escaped the fighting. “I gave them juice, I played with their children. They couldn’t believe their eyes. ‘You are Libyans,’ they said, ‘[Qaddafi loyalists] told us that your were Al Qaeda and that you were going to kill and rape us.”
Hussein Dabaiba, a 33-year-old fighter who was living in Newcastle in the UK until he joined the fight in August, was there when Qaddafi was apprehended.
“I was standing on the road above the sewer where Qaddafi had hidden,” he said at the barracks of the rebel’s “Tiger brigade” in Misrata. “We were being shot at by four of his bodyguards who were protecting whoever was inside the sewer tunnel. We didn’t know who it was until I heard my friends shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ from below.”
Dabaiba doesn’t know what happened to Qaddafi after he was led away. “We were too busy fighting. People forget that the firefight went on for hours after Qaddafi was captured.”
Barbeques and bravado
As he speaks, hundreds of fighters pour into the barracks. They are returning from what used to be the frontline at Sirte, Qaddafi’s last holdout. The fighters display the usual bravado: they shoot into the air and burn rubber with their home-made fighting vehicles.
As some of the fighters prepare a barbeque, family members and other fighters line up to be embraced every single fighter returning from Sirte.
“This is what we do now: we hug each other and we go to each other’s barbeques,” says Dabaiba, dismissing any rumors of lingering tensions between the former rebel brigades, which some analysts have warned might turn into a civil war. “We were all fired up, and we were frustrated over the lack of progress at the front in Sirte.”
Haj Othman Belhaj, a leader of the Halbous brigade, which shares barracks with the Tiger brigade, agreed.
“We can’t wait to get back to our nomal lives,” he said. “We in Misrata were the first to pick up weapons against Qaddafi; now we will be the first to hand them over to the new national army.”