August 2011

For 42 years the Libyan people suffered from the repression and brutality of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, the world’s longest-surviving dictator, but yesterday they wreaked spectacular revenge on the last bastion of his reviled regime.

Braving rockets, mortars and heavy machinegun fire, they breached the walls of Bab al-Azaziyah, the despot’s highly fortified compound in southern Tripoli, and poured in their thousands into his inner sanctum for a veritable orgy of looting and ransacking.

“The dictator is gone. Libya is free,” wept Jamal Tunally, 52, who brought his four sons to witness a time they will remember for the rest of their lives. “I never thought I’d see this moment, but it’s come at last.”

As skirmishes continued elsewhere in the city last night, Colonel Gaddafi spoke briefly to his dwindling army of supporters, vowing to fight to the death. The withdrawal from the compound was a “tactical move” after it had been demolished by Nato bombers, he told a local radio station.

There might yet be flickers of resistance for some time yet, but the significance of yesterday’s astounding scenes in this astonishing year of Arab uprisings was unmistakable. It was Libya’s equivalent of the days that President Mubarak and President Ben Ali were toppled in neighbouring Egypt and Tunisia earlier in the Arab Spring, but the one prize that eluded the triumphant hordes was perhaps the greatest of all. Colonel Gaddafi and his sons were nowhere to be seen.

“Where is Gaddafi’s house?” a reporter asked. “No one knows. None of us has ever been here before,” a rebel replied. “Gaddafi, where are you? We are looking for you,” the mob cried.

Libya’s equivalent of the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, or of communist heroes’ statues after the collapse of the Soviet Union, followed a vicious battle between rebel forces and the dictator’s last loyal troops that lasted most of the day, filling the city with the cracking of machinegun fire and the booms of shells and mortars and sending thick black smoke high into the sky above a capital from which half the population had fled in recent months. Nato warplanes played their part, bombing the compound from above.

Finally, late in the afternoon, the rebels breached the outer walls of the 50-acre compound. In pick-up trucks with heavy machineguns, they flooded in, some had rocket launchers mounted on their backs. Soon the second perimeter wall was breached.

As word spread, Tripoli’s streets filled with honking vehicles and soon thousands upon thousands of people were converging on a compound that had previously filled them with dread. Their fear gone, they poured through the broken walls even as bullets and shells whistled overhead. “Allahu Akhbar” they cried as they rampaged over lush green lawns fringed with palm trees. “Libya is free,” they shouted as they draped their flag from the building wrecked by an American airstrike in 1986, in front of which stands a great fist crushing a US warplane and where, six months ago, Colonel Gaddafi defiantly vowed to crush the “rats and cockroaches” who had risen against him and hunt them down “alley by alley”.

They set fire to a great domed pavilion. They looted the homes of the regime’s elite, stripping them of silver and chine and other valuables and tearing down portraits of their deposed leader. “House to house! Room to room!” chanted some men, calling for a search of the complex of bunkers and tunnels, in a mocking echo of Colonel Gaddafi’s words from six months ago when he threatened to crush early stirrings of the revolt.

They rampaged through barracks whose occupants had melted away as mysteriously as their leader. They broke into armouries and reinforced concrete bunkers seemingly untouched by Nato’s airstrikes, and carted away great crates of AK47s and other rifles, of rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) launchers and Berettas, of bandoliers and magazines filled with ammunition. They took away, in short, weapons stockpiled by the regime for the sole purpose of repressing and butchering its people. One man brandished a looted golden sniper rifle.

Their joy was unconfined. They fired their new toys skywards with utter abandon. Soon the air was filled with the stench of cordite and the ground was strewn with bullet casings. One man armed with an RPG aimed at the top of a domed building, and with a single shot destroyed a great statue of an eagle perched on top.

They smashed or hauled away luxury Land Cruisers and sleek black BMWs, even a golf buggy that looked remarkably like the one that Colonel Gaddafi used to drive around. They filled their cars and pick-up trucks with loot, though in truth it did not seem much like looting as most of the treasures they carted away were acquired with wealth stolen from the Libyan people. By the same token it did not seem much like Ramadan, traditionally a time of mercy and compassion, but the people’s hatred of the regime was far too deep for that.

Flat screen televisions and hi-fis, as well as a vacuum cleaner and Cuban cigars, were all being hefted away along with the sort of trophy rifles and handguns favoured by the elite. One man shouted at the looters: “People have died and you are stealing!”

There were surreal moments as rebel fighters streamed out of the smouldering ruins of the compound carrying with them the fripperies and baubles of one of the world’s most eccentric and self-regarding dictators.

One young fighter emerged with the gold braided peaked cap of Colonel Gaddafi on his head. The dictator had worn it for his 40th anniversary parade, he boasted. The looter, who introduced himself as Mr al-Windy, was sagging under Colonel Gaddafi’s gold chain of office and held in his hand an extravagantly plumed peacock feather fly-swat, topped with a gold elephant. “I am going to give this to my dad as a present,” he said, “because he suffered a lot from Gaddafi.”

Mr al-Windy said that he had found the items in the dictator’s inner sanctum. “I was like ‘Oh my God, I am in Gaddafi’s bedroom,” he said. “Then I found this. I am like ‘Oh my goodness, I am having these things’.”

Six months and one week after they rose against the man who turned Libya into one of the world’s most vicious police states, who made it a byword for state-sponsored terrorism around the world, they had stormed and pillaged his last stronghold.

In the course of that half year, thousands had lost their lives, tens of thousands had been displaced, and the destruction has been immense. Colonel Gaddafi might have escaped, and his diehard loyalists could yet cause further bloodshed, but as the rebel revellers headed for further celebrations in Green Square last night no one had any doubt that his regime was well and truly finished.

“It’s our victory day,” one cried as he fired a deafening burst of bullets skywards.

“I knew it would happen one day, but I didn’t think I’d live to see it,” another exclaimed. “He’s gone, gone for ever. We’re free, free, free, and freedom is the greatest feeling on earth,” a third proclaimed.

Colonel Gaddafi begged to differ. Even as his home was being ransacked yesterday, he issued yet another defiant message. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, the Russian head of the World Chess Federation, who visited the Libyan leader in Tripoli in June, said that he had received a call from him yesterday afternoon. “He is in Tripoli, he is alive and healthy and is prepared to fight to the end,” Mr Ilyumzhinov said.

Abdel Hakim Belhadj, a rebel commander, said that he did not know where Colonel Gaddafi or his sons were, adding: “They ran like rats.” Other rebel officials said they believed that the “Brother Leader” was probably still not far away.

Amid the horn-blaring, flag-waving euphoria, and as tracers from celebratory gunfire streaked through the night sky, only Mabrouk Ali Butalah, a financial manager, expressed a note of caution as he watched the hordes carting away armfuls of lethal weaponry. “I hope we’ll be able to collect all these up again after this is all over,” he said.