'We win or we die'


Benghazi, Libya’s rebel city, got its revolutionary mojo back on Thursday night, after the UN intervened in the conflict. But it was too late for Irish-born Libyan Rami el-Kaleh, writes MARY FITZGERALDin Libya

RAMI EL-KALEH was visiting his family in Benghazi when the protests that would eventually tip his country into full-blown revolt began last month. Like most in his hometown, el-Kaleh, a 27-year-old engineer who had moved to the Libyan capital of Tripoli for work, was appalled by Muammar Gadafy’s brutal attempt to quash the peaceful anti-regime demonstrations, and like most he felt he had to do something in response. Some Benghazians, confident their uprising would prompt other cities in Libya to act, took up arms to protect their revolution on the front line while others kept the home fires burning, volunteering to distribute food and medicine. Rami el-Kaleh decided to write a song.

“We were all wondering what we should do,” his friend Dadu recalls. “Rami said if we cannot go and fight we should do something that would make a difference. So he came up with a song that captured how we all felt. He wanted it to be our message to the world.”

Dadu helped record the song and produce an accompanying video. The opening chords play over a photograph of a young Libyan girl flashing a victory sign, her face painted with the red, black and green of the pre-Gadafy flag adopted by the fledgling opposition.

“We will not surrender / We win or we die,” Rami’s friend Hussein sings in English, the lines a reference to the famous cry of Omar al-Mukhtar, Libya’s colonial-era resistance hero, who was hanged by the Italians in 1931. “Our flag will not fall down / It will wave up high forever.”

The video splices footage from the protests and the uprising that followed. Images of thousands of jubilant Libyans gathering in rallies or bent in prayer are juxtaposed with shots of injured demonstrators being ferried to hospital. “The world outside is watching / We are drowning here / In the river of blood . . . / We will fight to the end,” Hussein sings in tones of quiet defiance. “You can burn all the bodies / You can bury them in the ground / They will rise from their ashes / Just to bring you down.”

Rami el-Kaleh never got to see the completed video. He was killed more than a week ago when a Gadafy loyalist, one of several believed to be lying low in rebel-held Benghazi, opened fire on a street in an affluent area of the city. A single bullet tore through the car el-Kaleh was driving and struck him in the back. He died on the way to hospital.

Today mourners still crowd the el-Kaleh family home. In the front garden men sit drinking tea in the traditional funeral tent. Inside the house his father, Shueib, shows a framed photograph of his dead son, decorated with the colours of the rebels’ flag. “Shaheed [martyr] Rami el-Kaleh,” a caption reads underneath.

At the time of his death el-Kaleh had been preparing to move to Ireland, where he was born in July 1983, to further his studies. His laptop, which has a screensaver image of a grinning Rami standing in front of the Benghazi courthouse turned graffitied rebel headquarters, contains a file marked “Irish”, where he kept documents for his planned move. His birth certificate records his parents’ address as 9 Comeragh Green, Lismore Park, Waterford, and his father’s profession as a cattle buyer.

Shueib was then working for an Irish company involved in exporting meat and livestock to Libya. “Rami was around four years old when we moved back to Libya,” says Shueib. “But he always had a strong attachment to Ireland. He had a passion to return. He said he wanted to make a life there.”

MUCH HAS CHANGED in Libya since Rami el-Kaleh passed away, on March 8th.

The momentum of the revolution he was proud to be part of slowed and then appeared to dangerously stall as Gadafy’s forces made a series of gains against the rebels’ motley army of military defectors and thousands of untrained yet spirited volunteers. As the regime continued its advance towards Benghazi, the opposition’s de-facto capital, the mood in the city and across what the rebels had declared “Free Libya” oscillated between desperate hope, manifested in the willingness to believe almost any rumour as long as it might cast theirs as the winning side, and something darker. The pleas for international help in the form of a no-fly zone grew more urgent by the day.

“If [Gadafy] comes here there will be no Benghazi left. There is no question about that,” says Iman Bugaighis, an orthodontist turned spokeswoman for the opposition Libyan National Council, when we meet outside the seafront courthouse. Tears course down her cheeks as she struggles to appear defiant. “And when that happens, nobody in the international community will be able to say they didn’t realise, they didn’t know.”

This creeping despair evaporated after the UN Security Council’s eleventh-hour move on Thursday night to authorise a no-fly zone and “all necessary measures” short of a ground offensive to protect civilians. In one fell swoop Benghazi got its revolutionary mojo back, with people shouting, singing, ululating and firing shots in the air in celebration.

Amid the euphoria, however, few are willing to contemplate the difficult questions that remain. What happens next? What if the UN move fails to sway Gadafy, let alone dislodge him? Will a no-fly zone and military strikes be enough to allow the rebels to prevail and result in their revolution sweeping across the rest of Libya? Or does the country face being bogged down in a grim continuation of what some are already describing as a civil war?

Before I left Benghazi this week I visited the burnt-out house of Huda Ben Amer, a woman whose name strikes fear in the hearts of many here. Ben Amer rose to become one of Gadafy’s most trusted aides after she impressed him with a particularly grisly show of devotion to his regime.

At the public hanging of a Benghazi dissident in 1984, Ben Amer rushed forward as the condemned man swung from the rope. She threw her arms around his body and used all her strength to pull down until he was dead. Ben Amer fled Benghazi soon after the uprising began last month and has since been seen at Gadafy’s side during his televised speeches.

“If she ever comes back here we know she will be far more vicious than before,” said one young Libyan who accompanied me as we picked our way through the detritus of Ben Amer’s torched home. “That’s what scares us. If they win they will wipe Benghazi out.”

But the people of this city long known for its simmering resentment of Gadafy and his 42-year rule also know deep down that they are past the point of return. “There is no going back, we know that,” says Iman Bugaighis. “This land cannot bear both Gadafy and us.”

Many outside Libya, especially those perturbed by TV images of bearded men at the front invoking God, have wondered who exactly the Libyan rebels are. The answer is everyone and no one.

The people who, inspired by the ousting of leaders in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, have risen up against Gadafy are drawn from a wide spectrum of Libyan society, young and old, rich and poor. They include academics, lawyers, doctors, judges, engineers, fishermen, labourers, students and the unemployed. They range from arch secularists to Islamists who have spent long years in Libya’s prisons. Among the protesters are women in headscarves and the full-face veil known as the niqab, and women who chose not to cover their heads at all. Several women sit on the rebel council.

All have one thing in common: decades spent chafing under Gadafy’s stifling regime. “It’s like we are finally coming up for air after 42 years of feeling like we were drowning,” says one.

With the opposition so diverse there are likely to be several competing visions of the kind of Libya those within its ranks would like to see emerge in the future – if and when Gadafy falls. For the moment the majority talk of a democratic state, although what role religion might play is a more delicate issue. One leading Islamist, who told me he considered Turkey’s government a model to which Libya should aspire, said Libyan society was not suited to an Islamic state.

Many will be watching anxiously to see how Libya’s endgame plays out, not least within the region as fears grow that the so-called Arab Spring may founder here if Gadafy manages to cling to power after all that has transpired over the past month. At the katiba, a sprawling military compound in Benghazi that witnessed the decisive battle in the fall of the city to the opposition, freshly spray-painted graffiti captures the mood: “I was born in Tunisia, I grew up in Egypt, I’ve fought in Yemen, now I’m sacrificing myself in Libya with hopes of victory – my name is freedom.”