19 Aug 2011

Libyan rebels take Gharyan on their advance towards Tripoli

International Editor

The Libyan capital is now cut off to the west at Zawiyah and to the south at the garrison town of Gharyan, from where our International Editor Lindsey Hilsum reports.

Eight weeks ago, I was taken to the garrison town of Gheryan by Colonel Gaddafi’s press minders. Today I went back with the rebels.

Gheryan had risen against the government in February, but the rebellion was quickly quashed. When we visited in June, the minders were at pains to tell us that the town was firmly with Gaddafi and there was no chance that would change. A small man with an idiot grin pursued me down the street as I tried to slip away and talk to people without the minders listening. “Come and see the Berber caves,” he babbled. “You are welcome in Gheryan. Everyone is very happy here.”

Sitting outside a shop I found two men who told me they weren’t happy at all, but were far too scared to say more. At a barber’s shop I was told the situation was “hamsi hamsi” – 50/50. That’s what I call hedging your bets. Another man, seeing TV cameras and government minders, told us how much he loved Colonel Gaddafi.

Today, two days after the battle for Gheryan was won by rebels who had stormed in from the Nafousa Mountains, people were out on the streets shouting anti-Gaddafi slogans and waving the new red, green and black rebel flag. A rebel commander showed me round the “katiba”, the barracks where a battalion of Colonel Gaddafi’s troops had been based. This was the Sabhan Battalion, named after its general, who apparently fled to Tripoli on Sunday. “He only fought for four hours,” said the rebel commander, scornfully.

So is everyone in Gheryan equally enthusiastic about the rebel takeover? I think most are relieved to see the back of Colonel Gaddafi’s soldiers. Yet those who toed the Gaddafi line have families too, and many were doing what they thought was best for their safety. Their lives may be in danger now, if old scores are settled, as so often happens in revolutions.

We saw the funeral of a young man today, shot in Gheryan last night by – I was told – a “Ghaddafi spy” in rebel ranks. I was told that the “spy” had been arrested, because if he were killed there would be an endless problem with his family. Hopefully, arrest not killing will be the way they deal with dissent, and revenge will not be wreaked on those who step out of line.