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Libya seen through Gadhafi's keyhole

By Ivan Watson, CNN
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Reality of reporting from Tripoli
  • CNN's Ivan Watson spent a month reporting from Libya
  • Residents often said everything was great: "mia mia"
  • Was it a coping method or a survival tactic under Gadhafi?
  • Watson says he watched slow destruction of a country

Tripoli, Libya (CNN) -- "Mia mia." It is an extremely popular phrase, widely used in Libya, that translates roughly to "100 percent."

Nine times out of 10, that is what Libyans said when I asked how they were coping with nightly bombardments by NATO warplanes, electricity blackouts that lasted days and rebel forces who were pressing forward on three fronts.

"Mia mia," they said with a smile. In other words, everything's great! No problem!

Was this the cheerful coping method of a society living amid olive groves and palm trees next to the Mediterranean Sea? Or was "mia mia" a survival tactic for people who had grown up within the authoritarian system of Moammar Gadhafi's perpetual revolution?

The whispers of dissent my colleagues and I often heard in Tripoli suggested the latter.

One night, after we had filmed the largest poster ever of a head of state in Tripoli's Green Square, a middle-aged man rode past on a bicycle, yelling, "Don't believe what you see! It's all lies!" Then he disappeared into traffic, swallowed up amid posters of Gadhafi and regime loyalists, who shrouded themselves in the green of the Libyan flag.

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  • Libya
  • Tripoli
  • Libyan Conflict
  • Arab Spring
  • Moammar Gadhafi
  • NATO

Even in peacetime, Gadhafi's Libya had the Orwellian trappings of a police state governed by a culture of fear.

I first traveled to Tripoli in 2007, when I was greeted at passport control by a portrait of Gadhafi in sunglasses and the revolutionary slogan "Partners not Wage-Slaves."

At the time, Libya was coming in from the cold after years of international isolation. U.S. diplomats opening a new American Embassy were temporarily housed in a sky-high suite of the pricey Corinthia Hotel. Meanwhile, European businessmen were downstairs in the hotel lobby, plotting ways to profit off bountiful Libyan petro-dollars.

The foreigners were free to make deals with the government. But Libyans were still clearly afraid to say much beyond the mantra of "mia mia." Gadhafi's cult of personality reigned supreme.

During that visit, I watched a highly placed engineer and an academic at a government "think tank" separately feign illness rather than speak on the record about their country. Even though I had jumped through bureaucratic hoops, acquiring all the necessary permits from the Foreign Press Department to conduct interviews, these adult, educated men were terrified about sticking their necks out and perhaps saying something that might accidentally challenge Gadhafi's utopian vision of Libya. After all, in the 1980s, Gadhafi banned restaurants, lawyers and the entire retail sector. Now he had performed an ideological U-turn and was apparently embracing capitalism.

In 2007, I had to travel everywhere with a government minder. I was permitted to spend only a single night reporting in the eastern city of Benghazi before being hustled back to Tripoli.

The regime's discomfort was prescient. Four years later, the barely contained political tensions in Benghazi exploded, and Libya's second city became the capital for anti-Gadhafi rebels. Some Libyans clearly had had enough of "mia mia."

It was surprising, then, to see the Gadhafi regime still hosting journalists from the U.S., France and England five months into an aerial bombing campaign that had been led by these three governments.

The government was trying to shape international opinion. But it was doing so with the clumsiness one would expect from a regime that enjoyed absolute control over its own media for more than 40 years.

Throughout the conflict, almost all foreign journalists have been housed in the luxury Rixos Hotel, which lost its Turkish management after Ankara turned its back on Gadhafi several months into the war.

The only time we were allowed to film outside of the hotel was on government bus tours, surrounded by government escorts. Oftentimes, we wouldn't learn about the destination until the last minute. It was like trying to see Libya through a keyhole.

When the regime didn't like our subsequent reporting, it did not hesitate to insult and intimidate.

"I think you are an agent of NATO. You work for Hillary Clinton," the head of the foreign media department told me when he summoned me to his office for one of several hourlong lectures.

"You are a criminal!" yelled his young assistant Issa.

They were furious at my reported estimate that "more than 10,000" regime supporters attended a recent pro-Gadhafi rally. They would have preferred the headline printed in the regime's English-language Al-Jamahiriya News: "More than Five Million Libyans organized in the Marches." Considering Libya's entire population is estimated at just over 6 million, Al-Jamahiriya's alleged rally would have been a remarkable event to witness, especially when broad swaths of the country were still under the control of the rebels.

Sometimes, the bus tours backfired.

On a visit to the front-line city of Zlitan, government officials brought us to a law school that had clearly been bombed by NATO warplanes. It was, they said, yet another example of the Western military alliance bombing a civilian target.

But the campus of the bombed-out school was littered with military uniforms and empty wooden ammunition boxes. "Those belonged to the school's security guards," said a minder.

We asked outside military experts to examine the serial numbers on the ammo boxes. They all agreed that Cyrillic letters clearly showed that one box had contained Russian-made 14.5 millimeter armor-piercing incendiary B-32 rounds. These are high-caliber munitions for the kind of machine gun that is typically mounted on armored personnel carriers and anti-aircraft guns.

"The guard would need to be about 3 meters tall to carry the gun for those," security analyst Zoran Kusovac wrote in an e-mail to CNN. "But if Hulk Hogan was the guard ..."

The trouble is, the regime's habit of exaggeration and outright lies was often matched by the outrageous claims of the rebels. The opposition fighters often claimed to control cities that later proved to be in loyalist hands. After last month's killing of rebel military commander Abdul Fattah Younis, the Benghazi-based Transitional National Council issued wildly contradictory statements.

Eventually, it emerged that a rival rebel faction killed Younis and set his corpse on fire before dumping it in a valley.

From the front lines the rebels now say they are eyeing Tripoli

NATO didn't help matters in the truth department. Throughout the conflict, Western governments stuck to their argument that NATO's mission was to "save civilian lives." But the aerial bombardment of loyalist positions just before rebels launched offensives against Gadhafi-held towns hardly resembled life-saving operations. Add that to the crippling economic blockade of Tripoli, and suddenly NATO's mission appeared to be focused more on regime change than on protecting innocent civilians.

The Libyan government could make a strong case that NATO had exceeded the mandate provided by a United Nations Security Council Resolution. But the Gadhafi regime was so obsessed with not appearing weak that it refused to let journalists see the hardships endured by Libyan citizens.

I saw the extent of the crippling power shortages only when I sneaked out of the Rixos one night. In downtown Tripoli, I was stunned to see an entire neighborhood plunged into darkness, with families breaking their Ramadan fast by candlelight. Residents told me they hadn't had any electricity in days. We also started hearing rumors of protests due to the lack of power.

I asked Libya's prime minister about these reports at a news conference the next day.

"The only rallies that came out on the streets in the last few days were those supporting the leadership of the country," Baghdadi Al-Mahmoudi said. "Libyans are able to hold firm against these sanctions and this aggression."

Another "mia mia" moment from one of the highest-ranked officials in the land.

And who could challenge him? As early as March, the regime shut down Internet access and cell phone text messaging throughout the entire country. One of the only exceptions was the Rixos Hotel, where government minders came to check their e-mail (and charge their cell phones, as the power shortages got worse).

The Rixos was where Libyan state TV talk show host Yousef Shakeer lived with his family. He broadcast from a studio in the basement, serving up nightly denunciations of NATO, the rebels and the foreign journalists in the hotel ... while predicting Gadhafi's imminent victory over his enemies.

Every night, gunfire rang out around the Rixos. Asked what it was, government officials always said, "They are supporters of Gadhafi celebrating victory." Celebrating five months of near-constant victory must have been exhausting.

When NATO's nightly bombing runs struck closer to the Rixos, the strange collection of regime supporters who somehow could afford $400-a-night hotel rooms sometimes lashed out at foreign reporters.

"F--- off!" a Libyan man screamed at CNN producer Jomana Karadsheh, as she ran to film 2 a.m. explosions from the roof. Later, he apologized when he learned that Jomana was Jordanian.

Seen through this bizarre lens and surrounded by antagonistic ideologues, reporters ended up questioning themselves on everything they saw. Was that person I interviewed actually a government agent? Were the dead people in those coffins really civilians killed by last night's airstrikes? How many people really supported Gadhafi?

Imagine my surprise when on one of my last days in Libya, I sneaked away from government minders in the neighborhood of Souk al Jumma, which has been the scene of anti-Gadhafi street protests. There, I met a man named Tahir who told me he was being patient, waiting for the rebels to come from the Nafusa Mountains and Misrata to liberate Tripoli.

"Lies, all lies," he said when I asked him about the wild crowds of Gadhafi supporters broadcast nightly on Libyan state TV.

"Thank you, Britain; thank you, America," a group of teenagers playing foosball yelled to Jomana and cameraman Joe Duran in another part of Souk al Juma.

The best argument I ever heard for defending the dictator came from an interpreter named Mohamed. He was worried about his family's safety, having heard rumors of rebels attacking dark-skinned Libyans.

Never having worked with the rebels, I could not confirm or deny Mohamed's claim. But it raised the specter of racial and tribal conflict in the event of Gadhafi's overthrow.

"Report the truth, please," a Libyan man standing in line told me as a Tunisian customs officer processed my passport last week. I was about to leave Libya and at the end of my rope after a month of virtual house arrest.

"What is the truth?" I snapped back. "Mia mia?!"

No, the man said. He was fleeing to Tunisia with his family because there was no electricity in Tripoli and because Gadhafi's forces had opened fire with machine guns on a recent street protest against the power outages.

Another claim I could not independently confirm.

For now, only one thing is certain. During my month in Libya, I watched a country slowly being destroyed, city by city, town by town.

It doesn't matter whether the damage is being caused by warplanes, rebel machine guns, loyalist rockets or the sudden departure of the foreign guest workers and educated Libyans who kept the economy working.

The fact is, Libya is starting to look and feel more and more like another Arab country whose long-ruling dictator was overthrown with the help of foreign armies. Iraq.

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