The price of freedom
Faces of young men stared back at me from family portraits proudly hung in the central square Benghazi and what struck me was how young they were.
Just a few weeks ago I stood on a public platform and vigorously slammed proposals for Western military intervention in Libya.
The hasty scramble by the Americans, French and Brits lacked strategy and a clear goal.
To me it appeared to be yet another oil-fuelled, reckless act by gung-ho leaders who would end up being sucked in to a long military campaign as futile as the Bush-Blair adventures into Iraq and Afghanistan that we are still paying for in terms of wasted lives.
“Here we go again,” I said. “Another imperialistic adventure with the long-term aim of getting our grubby hands on other peoples’ oil.”
To those few Libyans present, I warned they would live to regret this pact with the West that I likened to jumping into bed with the Devil.
Being very conscious of the fact I’m not a Libyan and desperate at not wanting to be seen as another opinionated Westerner sticking my nose into matters I didn’t understand, I sought the views of many Libyan friends and contacts.
Their reaction was mixed, but more often than not I was told that without outside help the Libyan people would be slaughtered by Gaddafi who himself described those who opposed him as cockroaches that needed to be crushed.
To justify my stand I reasoned that all revolutions are bloody and that the heroic people of Tunisia and Egypt had paid the blood price in their hundreds to win freedom.
I even recounted Malcolm X telling people that if they were not prepared to die for it they should remove the word freedom from their vocabulary.
Of course making grand statements from platforms in central London is one thing but going to see for myself what was happening on the ground was something else.
My few days in Libya proved to be extremely humbling, illuminating and provided me with a reality check.
I was wrong about opposing military intervention. No if, buts or maybe – I was wrong, wrong, wrong.
The people of Libya would have been brutally crushed without mercy if the West had not responded to their cries for help.
Perhaps the greatest shame is that Arab leaders stood by emotionless as the Libyan people begged everyone and anyone for help to bring down Gaddafi.
Some of those Arab leaders had no such hesitation in answering cries for help from the oppressive royal regime in Bahrain … obviously the Saudis and rest of the GCC cabal felt uncomfortable helping to bring down an evil, brutal, dictator who routinely abused and oppressed his people while happily propping up another.
It could have been an opportunity for the rising regional power Turkey to step in to the breach but to the massive disappointment of the Libyan people Recep Tayyip Erdogan refused to become embroiled.
So in the end the West did intervene and although the blood of innocents is still flowing in the streets at least it is not a torrent.
And maybe this is a war led by no one, with no particular aim but the enforcement of the No Fly Zone has prevented a massacre.
That is the view held by one of Libya’s spiritual leaders Sheikh Mohammed Bosidra who told me: “We had no choice. It was either make a pact with NATO or be crushed. It was a matter of survival, as simple as that.”
However many have already paid the ultimate blood price. Each town and city has a special place for its martyrs, and there are many. Faces of young men stared back at me from family portraits proudly hung in the central square Benghazi and what struck me was how young they were.
In Derna, more portraits of the sons of Omar Al-Mukhtar hung in the town centre and some of the bodies have been buried in a cemetery next to the tombs of three Sahaba and 70 other martyrs who fought against Roman and Byzantine forces in 692AD.
“We have a very fine tradition of producing martyrs in Derna and that is why Gaddafi hates the people of Derna more than anywhere else in Libya,” one woman told me.
And then she pointed to a French Tricolore and a Union Jack whispering: “Thankyou, we will never forget what you have done for us.”
I admit I felt uncomfortable, even a fraud, on several different levels by accepting her thanks. Usually I end up apologizing for the deeds of various British governments and Empire so this was something new for me.
We are still not clear what is the endgame of the NATO-led force, but the Libyan people are crystal clear in one thing: Gaddafi must go.
Only then can they begin to work out the next move, and it won’t be easy.
The Transitional National Council, says it is committed to liberate every part of Libya from Aamsaad in the east to Raas Ajdair in the west, and from Sirte in the north to Gatrun in the south.
But from what I could see the mission is unstable and unpredictable, chaotic, disorganised and confused.
However, what is undeniable is the bravery and courage of the Libyan people who we in the media routinely refer to as rebels … these people are not rebels. They are shopkeepers, students, doctors, businessmen and mechanics who have never owned a gun or wanted to pick one up in anger, until now.
And yet there they are, tens of thousands, prepared to die for freedoms and liberties they’ve never known in Gaddafi’s 41-year rule.
I was moved to tears by a regiment of young men who marched, rallied and chanted demanding to be sent to the front lines in Misrata to help their brothers in arms.
Their personally-delivered message in Benghazi was to the members of the interim government and they were extremely critical of some elements of the TNC who they said were more interested in parading around with bodyguards intoxicated with the little power they had than making real decisions.
The criticism of the leadership was stinging but reassuring that these young men were not blind to the shortcomings of their own. Too often in the Middle East people are blind and unquestioning in their loyalty to their leaders.
It is clear to me that once Gaddafi is gone – and he will go – that the Libyan people will not replace him with another tyrant or a Western puppet. Whatever government and constitution they choose will be one of their own making.
But first we in the West must give them all the help and support they need to accomplish the removal of Gaddafi until it is time for NATO to go in a dignified exit.
And who knows, for once, Western intervention might just be regarded as a force for good.