Screaming and chanting his name, the 500 women and girls vowed their undying love for one man. Not a pop star or Hollywood actor, but Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.
“Kill all the people in Libya first, then come for Muammar Qaddafi,” 14-year-old Fatima Hassan said. “I will kill myself if Muammar Qaddafi is killed. I know our people will kill themselves if he dies.”
The event in Tripoli on Sunday was billed as a graduation ceremony for women who had been given weapons training in defense of the regime. About 50 international journalists, invited and escorted by government minders, arrived to find them clapping, singing, ululating, punching the air and waving green flags in a tented hall set up with chandeliers and two colossal flat-screen TVs.
There were elderly women and little girls in the hall, and every age in between. Some held aloft pictures of a luminous Qaddafi, one framed in green tinsel. A woman waved a green flag and wore a sparkly green cape, green scarf and green bandana with badges showing Qaddafi’s face. Next to her was a woman wearing a watch that displayed his image.
Reporters pondered whether the event had been stage managed entirely for their benefit. The Qaddafi groupies painted the first dozen rows green, but behind them were hundreds of empty seats. Outside was a rattle of gunfire as some enthusiastic graduates fired their new weapons into the air with little regard for where the ammunition might land.
There was also much idolatry, most of all from the teenager Fatima, who said her father is an engineer and she attended an international school in London.
“We love Muammar Qaddafi and we want to save our country,” she said. “He made us happy. He makes us eat and makes the country free to do what we want. Before, we weren’t free. My grandparents tell us that before Qaddafi, it was bad, there was no bread. He saved us.”
Pledging to fight for the man depicted on her necklace, she said: “There are no women and children now.”
Fatima claimed her five brothers have gone to fight for the regime against rebels in Benghazi and Misrata.
Asked how she would feel if they were killed, she replied: “It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. It’s for the leader.”
With government minders hovering nearby, there was similar fervor from Habib Abdul Qasem, 39, a nanny dressed in military fatigues.
“Of course I will defend myself and my country,” she said. “We are an armed nation, everyone in this country has weapons. I keep a gun in my house. I’ve never used it, but if the conditions change I will use it against the Crusasders.”
The set piece over, journalists were shepherded back to their official bus, but it remained stationary for long minutes as the celebratory gunfire came ever closer. There was growing anxiety on board over the potential for stray bullets.
When this was expressed to a government minder, he replied tartly: “Your planes are bombing the Libyan people and you are afraid of a bullet?”