Inside Syria

© dona bozzi

In Antakya, the disease of isolation envelops  journalists  in their quest for the Sunni of Syria,  the witnesses of the regime atrocities. Amateur sleuths chasing new leads to the sacred spots of the revolution (no media center issuing press passes and selling tickets to the war, no five star hotel like the Uzu in Benghazi, where the media are treated to the talks of A list anti regime commanders) we basically relied on the Syrian activists, asking them where are the thousands  of refugees that Turkey hosts, and the names of villages and camps started to bubble up.  The Turkish authorities rigorously denied access to these camps, then adding insult to injury, they advised us to write  an email to the government officer in charge of refugee assistance, ”as a pure formality”, since our request would be likely “approved  tomorrow”.

We proceeded therefore surreptitiously through our own transit center, a breach in the wire enclosure surrounding the Boshin camp.

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Within minutes, heads popped out of  tents, children pouted at the cameras and the elder unlocked their grief.  Fahere Zerzore,  86 year old  from Idlib with the attitude of a leader in her irides,  produced  metaphorical gestures with her hands: she lifted up her arms in front of her body, then closed a circle joining  her fingertips as if to indicate a pregnant woman. Then forcefully she lifted up her right arm, and vigorously dropped a virtually armed fist as if she ripped her own body.
Caught in the act of the infringement, we were driven to the camp office by the guards, where we were ordered prior restraint.  The interpreter  in charge of deleting the camera files  stubbornly kept turning the playback wheel clockwise, and then counter, so we made him happy by telling him that he had formatted the whole card, thus deleting all of the images.  He handed it back to us, remarkably requesting  what I would do with the deleted files, whereby I took the oath not to divulge them to the media, deep in my earth reserving reporter’s privileges.
A FSA incarnation finally showed up, in the figure of  commander Abu Ammar, his nome de guerre, all he agreed to give. We met him in the Antakya souk, calling out for a translator who would help us  buying  a pillow, we could have used to sleep on the backseat of the smugglers’ car, which would have trafficked us into the Syrian night.  The merchant would stubbornly respond to our metaphorical gestures by showing us the hotel, when Abu engaged in conversation.  Abu is a Syrian expat to Atlanta, Georgia,  back to the origins to help his brothers in arms with the bottom up revolution in  Idlib,  a throwback to  Misrata 2011, where Libyan expats to London would come back to help their fellow citizens, by throwing  rpg from the Dafnyia frontline into Ghaddafi held Zlitan.

Abu Ammar procured us a lift  to Bereniaz, the last Turkish village before a smugglers’ crossing.  We spent the night at the house of Abu  Fahed, a connection of Abu Ammar’s.  Before going to bed, his wife dissolved friendly coagulant bacteria into the milk vat, from which she will strain out our breakfast cheese.
Then, with a flashlight,  she showed us the bathroom,  anywhere out there in the orderly aligned olive groove. We spent the night on the porch of Fahed’s farm, under a useless mosquito repellent clothing hovering over our mattress, awoken now and then by sleepless Fahed working the phone across the” border”, as our illegal crossing  was approaching.

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At the break of down, Abu Saleh and Muhammed, the interpreter, came from the “other side” to pick us up, and took us back to Syria,  we held hands throughout  a span of  two miles of muddy no man’s land.  In the meantime, a few Syrian motorcycles riding in the opposite way, carried a few people across the “liquid” part of the border, which had no fence, while the Turkish border  turned more than one blind eye from their watchtowers.
Syria, the Idlib province,  (green land is its meaning), Atmeh and the olives grooves are on the other side of a seemingly endless  wire border, which had already been cut, apparently with pruning scissors, and passed through by previous human traffic.
Abu Saleh is also a liaison of Abu Ammar’s, who was coordinating  for us from Antakya throughout our trip; as far as dress code, Saleh was ruthless: a black coat, long enough to stumble on it, on top of a heat absorbing second skin were given to me by the lady of the house, not a hair wisp was allowed to poke from my hijab.

He took us to visit the FSA operation complex: the beardless young men looked, at worse,  like disgruntled students, cool quote T-shirts gave away that they weren’t willing to blow themselves up with an explosive belt.  Holding on to their kalashnikov, sitting on the couch nonchalant, they seemed to need a gut check, just to prove to themselves they would be ready to step up to “something” coming.

After only two days, Mujahid,  third connection of Abu Ommar since we crossed the border, came  to pick us up and took us to Meadia, veering alternately  to right and left, for four hours, on a span of 300 miles of sickening zigzags, deep into the Idlib province; After Binnish, we gave up remembering the names. Our security, a small pistol on the dashboard, and a “no Bashar here”, reiterated now and then by Mujahid.

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In Meadia, he was the owner of  an empty house and a wife,  Zehna, and seemed to make a living out of shuttling journalists from Meadia to Homs, and back. The bare floors were covered later in the day with multiple sofa cushions, enough to sleep a mischievous gang of five kids, busy during the day with burning tyres, trying to get smoke into regime pilots’s eyes.  Our neighborhood was composed of a wall less house opposite our own. We could see the occupants  right inside, a group of young wackadoos busy watching horror movies 24/7, empty beer bottles scattered around the floor. When Zhena would cry over her physical wounds from the regime bombing, we would step out to call for help.   Zuher, uncomfortable messenger from across the muddy street, relayed back from the conclave,  that was none of our business, and we better stay out of it.
From Meadia we drove to  Kfrezeta: Mujahid’s friends recounted stories of houses burned with white phosphorous, used by the regime to  ethnically cleanse the Sunni’s houses and their human content.   They showed us pictures of charred human flesh, diaphanous pinpoint irides popping out like marbles; like in a previous revolution, the spared from death were eager to show their victims to the visitors, and demanded their dead to go viral for the world to see, hoping helas in vain, that Bashar will get his just deserts.

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Our host decided that we would be better off in Khan Sheikhoun,  a bigger city with, at least in a previous era, a higher standard of living than Kfrzeta.  On the dirt road, we pulled over the pick up on the scene of an execution. Our friends requested pictures, luckily we were spared the ethical conundrum,  the camera batteries being uncharged  due to power rationing on the previous night.  Zuher, the interpreter, explained that they generally identify the SAA check points via the executions’ spot, however that wouldn’t apply here, given that the body resulted to have been moved.
His aqua colored face, his sooted body, the bullet hole on his temple, didn’t put a writing on the wall, warning  us to make a U turn and go back home.  For some reasons death didn’t seem possible for us at that particular moment, as if we could have been able to remain unflappable and prove to suddenly popping up Bashar’s forces that we were tourists, war tourists, or any other kind of idiots extraneous to the opposition.

Captain Foud Qotiny, 35 years, and Anas Hassao, 40, of the FSA in Khan Sheikhoun, wore the Syrian coat of arms, a shield  with two stars, plus one, reassuring  us of their identity politics with the opposition. They guaranteed our security throughout the day, by shifts, from the inspections of the shelled areas to the souk, where the smell of zatar still hovered, which we identified to their disappointment as “Syrian oregano”, from the familiar smell.

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From the way Captain Foud was treating us, it looked as if Khan Sheikhoun had been bypassed by journalists: seeking spiritual compensation through my camera lens, he took us to the destroyed buildings,  the houses of the amputated and the wounded, the dead. “The perceived need, the obligation to tell was increasingly urgent” (Glenn Greenwald, No place to hide);  to relieve his grief, we  assured  him with a pang of guilt that we  were going to do the media shock and owe.
While hopping from one wobbly stone to another on the top floor of a gutted house, suddenly Hany Souci,  Anas’s brother, student of political science in Damascus,  whispered:  “speed, speed!”, as if he was trying to push us out of the field of view of a telescopic iris.  Later that day, the FSA rebels showed us a 14,5 mm bullet coming from a BMT tank,  which had killed a man, exactly in the area where we had carried out the inspection.

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At twilight, we were driven to the Shouhada Khan Sheikhoun cemetery, the monument to the martyrs of 15/05/2012, when 50 city residents were killed in one day by a regime air strike.  Three  children, unaccompanied, knew exactly what to do: they crouched down, laid flowers on the bare earth covering their friends, then stood up and turned their palms upwards, in prayer, until the awkward eye contact through my lens.

Disturbed by our encroachment on their privacy, they left. A worse abuse  than  photographing  the man killed by execution, which, in the end, we did not do.  Feeling like vultures circling on a funeral, we left as well, with that recurring pang of shame.

From  Zhena and her daughter we learned to put the soap away and how to eat from hunger: one night  Zhena cooked what we called sweet noodles, basically pasta and what she found around the house, sugar; with a stern face, she asked us  if we liked it, as if the sweetener was the most natural ingredient for the meal; sharing their poverty, it was sort of being fed cake by the regime when starving.

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From the ladies of the house we also learned to get accustomed  to the explosions, they would come after dark from the 82 mm of the T – 72 tanks, and to the snipers’ shots, loud pops, sounding as if they were coming from around the street corner, sometimes from behind the door, when we would stare at each other, in silence.  When all that would cease, the young daughters nonchalantly would go back to their computer screen,  endlessly staring at the notification: “server not found”.

Friday, traditionally demonstration day in rebel held cities: our friends warned us that  the shabiha snipers, from the rooftops, may be shooting  down wholesale at demonstrators:  our eyes wide open and looking up, they hardly adapted to the background illumination,  thus we marched with wobbly legs and skipping beats  to the town square; the older protesters had no banner, just their arms raised, their fists clenched and their loud shouts.
The children held  a large banner with the hawk of free Syria, asking “where are the people of the world?” signed by “the people of Khan Sheikhoun”.

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Another banner read ” Arab nations, we will not forgive you!”

Back at home, Hany  for the second time in two days, suddenly wispered to us: ”speed, speed!”:  we were ordered to pack up and leave.  The order came following a message from Abu Ammar,  calling his friends from Istanbul. Foud explained that Bashar’s  army was about to surround the city, he had to get us out immediately.  We jumped in the car, Foud at the wheel,  Hany in the front. Sitting  on the sides in the crowded back,  two men with  guns, as if to protect the two of us crowded in the center.
The non lethal assistance promised by the U.S. to the opposition in the previous months must have been in the mail, because captain Foud Qotiny, three stars and the hawk of Qureish on his shoulder, ludicrously didn’t have a satellite phone to verify  the road to Meadia, and had to pull over to ask the farmers about the shabiha’s positions.
In two hour, we were  back to start at Mujahid’s house in Madaya. He had apologized to Zhena, about leaving her alone, and would still dodge katyusha rockets by zigzaging his pick up back and forth from Meadia to Atmeh on the Turkish Syrian border.

Back in Antakya,  the Orontes Hotel  manager, as he saw us safe, put his right hand on his heart, to convey relief.  On our laptop screen, behind a billowing gunmetal cloud of smoke in Khan Shiekhoun, Hany Souci probably held his aunt Alya tight, to give her courage,  trying to stop her pressure from going up, her blood pumping hard through her veins  when  barrels were dropped from the regime helicopters.  A journalist showed up,  wondering if Austin Tice of the Washington Post was still alive. Austin, an ex marine, was know by many who hadn’t actually met him because he was rumored to have helped the rebels to take out  a shabiha sniper with a kalashnikow, then screaming “hallah uakbar!”. Then he remarked that the story circulating  about the CIA was actually true.  Feeling  off the loop and dumb, we asked what else had the CIA done that we didn’t know about.

Only an hour later, Tom Ashbrook’s  on 22/06/2012 On Point mentioned that the CIA was actually “steering guns to the opposition in Turkey”. Most Cia “guns” turned out to be, rather,  propaganda: it turned out that the U.S. robocop, was  actually sending to the rebels, not much more then  MRE, meals ready to eat, repurposed from Afghanistan and Iraq.http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33997408
Back at home, via Facebook, ABU Ammar messaged that Mujahid wasn’t  shuttling journalists from the Turkish border into Idlib anymore, dodging katyusha rockets with his sharp zigzagz.

Night boat to Misrata

© dona bozzi

Tobruck from Cairo: the humble donkey cart stopped at Saloum, intimidated by the wealth  beyond the custom barrier. In the waste land to the border, we took several lifts from private cars and quite a few among them, even if welcoming, did not shy away from recommending tips.

That wouldn’t happen in Libya: if you are a foreigner, don’t try to pay for buns at the bread line in Misrata, and don’t try to wait for your turn either. When the oven doors open, you are invited to take a cloth and help yourself to the hot buns, then at the cash, a flashed open palm, slightly pushed forward, indicates that even if you are a regular with two baguettes you are free to go.
Benghazi Freedom Square had been rehearsing for months, the celebration of the impending mad dog’s fall, 4 months before a bullet blew his head: 40 km west of Misrata, the rebels were pushing the front line further west every day, “container by container”, boasted Tribute fm 92.4, the English-speaking radio operated by Libyan expats returned from London in order not to miss the inevitable.

On the promenade along the sea, amongst the loads of wearable memorabilia with the Libyan star and moon, the colors of the European creditors of the revolution were for sale as bracelets, or waving tall on flags, together with those of the overseas allies of the free world. Whoever engaged in conversation prized their favorite western sponsor: “Sarkozy, Italia, myamya!” (Libyan for excellent, they never heard it in Syria). Some kids were passing USB keys to the journalists, containing images of babies  burned by white phosphorous in Misrata. The facade of the Courthouse was completely covered by a mosaic of faces. The man requested who they were lowered his head and shut his eyes: “They are the “shahids”, the martyrs of the regime from 1969 until  the battle of the Katiba, the government garrison conquered by the rebels in February 2011.”

The women in black from Freedom Square, then aging, where holding framed portraits, bearing the likenesses of their own children, between their twenties and thirties, victims of the Abu Salim massacre, back in 1996, when 1200 regime opponents were machined-gunned in barely 137 minutes.
Back to the hotel, the manager himself was watching burned bodies from the Misrata shelling, and so did we, some were babies wrapped in white shrouds. Then he recommended to get black veils to go around, which we did at the souk, for 5 dinars, from a merchant who took 20 and forgot to give us back the change. At the ensuing riot, the Libyan men at the souk deliberated that the merchant was “No Libyan people”, claiming that national moral code which came up up again subsequently for, perhaps amongst other reasons, the sake of the Libyan reputation abroad.  Misrata committee, Benghazi port. We were ordered to enter the ladies’ waiting room for the ship to Misrata, which was also a prayer area. The ferry fare was 70 dinar for Libyans and 150 for foreigners (one way), a surprising double standard because “everybody must pay according to their means”. The night passage of about 450 km west was secure, the staff guaranteed, because “NATO approved”; the boat, full. The passengers were so closely packed together, that a man’s toe, who was lucky enough to have found a chair, was dangling on the open mouth of a snoring man, lying on the deck. Most of them were Misrata residents, bringing back rare goods, like cheese, coffee, cigarettes. The free alternative, a fishermen’s boat, which was also carrying a few shababs, the men at war, was expected to have a duration of 50 hours.

Misrata

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The magic word to reach the front line sounded like a code name: Dafniya, literally Land of Farmers, End of Misrata, seemed to stand for the front line as well. Just mentioning to the rebels when they stopped their pickups, would provide us a lift 40 miles west to a shipping container, overflowing with sand, as a makeshift rampart to block the road. Further up, more containers were marking subsequent gains of ground. With civilian cars it didn’t work, we were sent back to the checkpoint. The advance “container by container” from Tribute radio was finally realized: a fresh container, marking the farthest position of the front line, was added each time a jump ahead was produced, thus leaving the preceding ones behind, a line up of staggered blocks where the pickups would zig-zag right through, a quite familiar maze for them. Overflowing with sand to deter the impact of bullets, the containers were an ingenious concept born out of necessity, like the UB-16 Soviet rocket launchers, effectively recycled from old choppers and mounted on pick ups.

A distant heir, for astuteness, of the Stalingrad soldiers who would send dogs with dynamite into the nazi lines, (the rebels have actually been known for sending out reconnaissance dogs with flashlights in the outskirts of Tripoli), this army of its own shared with its precursors the strategy of provisioning: 75% of the ammo, affirmed a rebel, had been looted from the enemy forces. The statement seemed reliable, if we consider the often bare footed state these troops were in: the only Nato-vehicles in sight on this side of the front were local black cars with a large white N painted on the hood, not a joke, as one might think, but a measure of protection from possible friendly fire from above, they said.

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Misrata was besieged on two principal front lines: on the west side, Dafnyia, 40 km from Mysratah, was facing Zlitan. On the eastern outskirts, Karareem confronted Tawergha, where the population of color was traditionally loyalist: also a civil war of black vs white, the conflict uprooted people from east to west and vice versa, out of allegiances or coercion.
Gozeelteek, a ghostly hotel with a bombed-out wing, had been deserted even by journalists: in order to encourage them, the media center and radio Misrata were courteously putting up the brave ones left, breakfast included. There we had, at 5 am in mid june, our first unconscious grad missile experience, likening a thunderclap from a 35 pounds dumbbells being dropped a couple of floors up.
At Gozeelteek, as an unconventional security measure, you couldn’t even lock yourself up in your room, because there was no key. Next door right, Portia Walker of the Washington Post and Ruth Sherlock of The Telegraph had blocked their door with furniture for good,  they used the balcony we shared to get in, the first time with a vigorous jump, which scared the daylight out of this writer’s soul, screaming her guts out and ready to surrender her throat to the knife wielding cutter.
Next door left, the beautiful face of Chris Stephen of The Guardian, never to be seen again on the screen, protectively blurred in his You tube interviews, probably from the name he has to carry.

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Kahlil, a guest of the hotel originally from Zlitan, had come back from London “to help his brothers” by fighting his former city from the Dafnyia front.  Those who had been deported by Gadhafi from Misrata to Zlitan, during the Misrata Spring, were forced to bomb their city of origin.  Kahlil recounted, at breakfast, that when a grad missile was launched into town, massacres of large proportions were avoided thanks to them, the deported rebels, who didn’t screw the self-destructor on the grad at the moment of launching. The devices, which normally would provoke the grad explosion and were rigorously kept apart from the rocket for security, were surreptitiously hidden in the sand by the “traitors”.
On the other hand, the “desaparecidos” from Misrata were men of the opposition taken away from their family in the same period, but not for fighting. We met them when talking to the people: in one day only, two fathers claimed back their sons, and a son claimed back his father: they all wanted to have the kidnappings reported on Al Jazeera.

On the 16th of June, the pick-up driver had taken us to the path beyond the last container, most probably the Dafnyia dirt beltway, protected by berms of shoveled up earth, along which we could ride looking for best shot, but beyond which we dared not go.  Our fixer was the commander of the katiba Al Sumud,  “The Non Surrenders”, same as  Saddam Hussein’s resilient, UN banned missiles. He explained that Katibas often included men sharing the same occupation in civilian life.

Dafnyia

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Here the shababs sipped and shared their tea with us, in a moment of pause, where the language  barrier was overcome by all of us, by reiterating the mantra “Gadhafi out” ad nauseam, accompanied by the hand gesture of slitting one’s own throat.   We stayed until 6 pm, when the mortar bombs started to fall. The commander turned his face up and lifted his arms up and out, as if contemplating a benevolent rain, identifying them as “hown, hown!!” (Arabic for mortar). These bombs were usually responsible for the typical black halo around the breaches in the walls of Tripoli street, Misrata’s main avenue whose videos got blanket media coverage.

In order to see the howns, since we had to live with them, we went where Gadhafi forces left them: on Tripoli street there was a weapon’s fair displaying exploded mortar bombs, the tail fitted with a full around crown, and not much else, the tip and body mostly blasted out. The grad, a 3 meter long missile with a range of up to 40 km, was the main showpiece of that blasted arsenal, made of artifacts of the springtime slaughtering.

27 th June.  Dafniya was most of the time off limits. A colleague at the hotel suggested to jump in an ambulance. We requested a lift to the Al Hikma hospital, situated at the beginning of the road to Dafniya, which served quite well as an indicator of the situation at the front: empty emergency area, Dafnyia “myamya”. The strategy was almost perfect, the driver not allowing us into Dafniya, and dropping  us off at the field hospital, at approximately 4 km from the front line. “This is where the wounded soldiers are first taken”, said a doctor, so they won’t die before they are taken back to Misrata. A man was dousing the ambulance floor with a water hose, turning the saturated red to clear.

At the gate of the driveway to the hospital, at approximately 5 pm, multiple grads hit the ground, like craters erupting in near unison. Too close for comfort. One turns around, and around, and there are no craters, and one is afraid to step into the next crater, or to stay and become the next crater. The drivers coming from Dafnyia, who usually slowed down to say hello with the V sign for victory, were zooming by like bullets flying into the city, and so did a car coming from the hospital, leaving us standing there.

 

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Back at the hospital, the staff confirmed that three grads had actually hit the tomato field, which provided the main ingredient for the daily-baked pizza for the army, then ordered positively not to disclose to the media where they hit.

The 2nd of July. An empty tent at the Al Hikma hospital, Dafniya myamya, we took off again. The freedom fighter first took us for a tour along the beach to see the Chinese development binge: the construction of the huge condo buildings, about 5 km long, was on hold for the duration of the revolution, he explained, and scheduled to resume, hopefully, quite soon. Then he stopped on the way to Dafniya to practice his machine gun.

Standing up in the back of the pick up, he fired away from behind a flat metal shield all the way up to his neck, making the kalashnikovs on the back seat next to us rattle and shake and nearly drop and hit the car floor. At Dafnyia, a mujah, taking advantage of the endless stalemate, was sleeping right on top of the dunes in the last container (helas the last for the last 6 weeks), holding on to his AK 47 in his sleep. Another  was preparing to launch a rpg, which in Libya is  usually referred to as rgb, like the acronym of primary colors, red, blue and green.

 

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Dozens of pick-ups, coming from the city were carrying rajima rockets launchers, lodging 12 missiles of 8 km range, to the southern flank of the front. The poor relative of the grad, which can reach as far 40 km, but of the same 122 mm caliber, the rajima is also shorter, and represented the most ubiquitous weapon in the rebels’ sui generis ammunitions’ insalata.

The 8 of july, return to safe haven Benghazi.  On Al Jazera, a reporter in Dafnyia  showed what just yesterday had been the furthest position for 6 weeks:

the abandoned container where the shabab slept, the dunes on the container covered by a barrage of bullets. “Not to worry” reassured the reporter, they are doubling down exactly 6 km further: after 6 weeks of impasse, a new container had been placed just 160 km west from the snake’s head in Tripoli.

On the road to Ajdabia, at the last check point before the city, some kids in uniform, by then part of a regular army of the revolution, posed proud for the camera with a brand new battery of their own brand new “hown”, made -they said- in South Korea, and a line up of their own grads, just out of the box from Russia, some still in the package marked “explosive”, guarded by a sleepy soldier lying on a mattress.

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The 23 of August: it’s hard to sit pretty across the sea when Tripoli is being taken; Rome, Cairo, Xandria, back to the waste swathe before Libya: at the border, the chief inspector was a member of the Abdullah Al Zanussi family, a prominent Tobruk family who was part of the Tobruk PTC (Provincial Transitional Council). He recognized us from our previous entry visa and we congratulated him for the job well done. Next day, three young men stopped their Toyota pick up rolling down the window: “Benghazi?” We jumped in,
 after 15 km, they made a right turn towards the fourth Italian shore. At the beach, the man next to the driver pulled out a knife and handcuffs, so we threw  mac books,  cameras, Euros , and shoes at them, in exchange for an open car door, a deal they seemed quite happy with. A handful of Euros, which were meant to fantastically multiply by two, once exchanged into dinars at the black market behind the hotel Dojal!

The gang escaped with their loot, taking along with, them, inshallah, the wacko with the handcuffs calling out “jeans!” from the front seat.  The people of Tobruk (who oddly enough, mentioned more often that “Rommel passed by here” rather than Montgomery) picked us up barefooted, and the Abdullah al Zanussi family put us up at the 5 stars family’s hotel, Al-Masira, apparently “march” in arabic, named, it was rumored, by Mussolini.

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In the hall, it was Al Jazeera all the time, and that meant Libya all the time. The leader of the rebels in Tripoli, Abdel-Hakim Belhaj, the Americans were concerned- was supposed to have ties with Al Qaida, and had exhorted the rebels not to hand in their weapons. Also,the emir of Qatar, who financed the revolution, is some kind of a wahabist, leader of an oppressive regime.

Jamel, a Dafniya rebel, however, did wave his index finger at us, declaring: “No bin Laden!” He admitted that his all-time hero was Fracesco Totti, the king of Italian soccer.

During out on the town time we were escorted at all time by Farraj, – his real name – a cop, just in case the wackos would show up again. In downtown Tobruck there is a tiny tiny church, all boarded up. In spite of all the sour feelings, Tobruck residents didn’t take it down, because, he said, the Libyans didn’t mind the Italians after all.