Few of us had much clue what we would find as we drifted past a deserted border post into a country run for as long as I could remember by a man regarded as part monster, part clown. What would these newly liberated areas of Libya, under the shaky control of the fledgling revolutionary government, be like after 42 years in the grip of Muammar Gaddafi? Some of what we found as reporters was of little surprise. Accounts of life under tyranny ranged from bitter recollections of persecutions and public hangings of dissidents to the necessary demonstrations of acquiescence through conformities such as the requirement that all the shop shutters be painted green.
But it was also swiftly clear in the early days of the Libyan revolution that here was an uprising, and a people, in many ways different to what was shaking other parts of the Arab world. Having thrown off the yoke of fear, Libyans in Benghazi and other newly liberated areas seemed almost ashamed at having put up with the old dictator for so long. And so they set about to redeem themselves with a courage and determination they could scarcely believe they had found. There would be no compromise.
Two books by distinguished television correspondents — Lindsey Hilsum of the UK’s Channel 4 News and Alex Crawford of Sky News — capture the drama of those uncertain days, as popular revolution morphed into armed conflict. Hilsum, in her masterful account, draws on pre-revolutionary visits to Tripoli, where she encountered a fearful and sullen population, as well as her reporting of the uprising and more recent research to produce an account with historical depth to match dramatic reportage.
At the center of it all, of course, is Gaddafi. Hilsum captures the delusions of one of the last members of a breed — the president for life — that has largely disappeared from the rest of Africa, although the self-styled “Brother Leader” maintained he was merely guiding the people. He appears to have been sincerely baffled by the popularity of the uprising.
Sandstorm recounts life under Gaddafi through the moving and sometimes chilling accounts of his subjects. It’s a country where fans could only refer to football players by number, not name, in case one of them became more popular than the Brother Leader. The exception was one of the dictator’s brutal sons, Saadi, who fancied himself as a great midfielder and was appointed captain of the national squad. He also appeared — as a substitute — for an Italian club under, as Hilsum puts it, “a rare deal whereby the player pays the team.”
Saadi played his own part in the steady stream of resentments that saw Benghazi become the crucible of revolution. Alongside the horror of the public hangings of students at the city’s university, there was the less gruesome but deeply resented bulldozing of the local football club facilities by Saadi after fans paraded a donkey kitted out in a football shirt sporting his number.
Hilsum’s disgust shines through as she recounts how the west embraced Gaddafi. The man who armed the IRA and was blamed for the Lockerbie atrocity became so acceptable in European capitals for a time that the director of Britain’s MI6’s counter-terrorism division could call one of the dictator’s chief murderers and torturers “a friend.” In public, former British prime minister Tony Blair embraced Gaddafi. In private Britain delivered up the Brother Leader’s opponents for imprisonment and torture.