Gaddafi's death: voices from Libya

"I've been waiting for this my whole life." Young Libyans who have never known anything but Gaddafi'

It was hard to hear anyone properly over the car horns, ululations, chants and cheers in Martyrs Square, but my friends -- students and young professionals who have known little other than Muammar Gaddafi's repressive, totalitarian, paranoid rule -- tried gallantly to describe what it feels like to wave the former "Brother Leader" goodbye for the final time.

"It's amazing," Yusef shouts over the crowds. His friend Zuhair wrestles the from him phone to add "It's an incredible feeling. I've been waiting for this my whole life." They pass the phone to Noor, but she is too excited to do more than scream.

With the entire of central Tripoli blocked, they abandon Zuhair's car several streets away and walk into the central square on foot. "Everyone is coming out of the houses and joining us now. There are thousands of people coming out onto the street, and office workers are leaving their buildings still wearing their suits to come to the square," Yusef explains.

Yusef was already planning to head to Martyrs Square when he heard that Sirte had fallen, but when he saw the news of Gaddafi's death on TV "we started jumping in front of the TV, and people just ran outside, to see their neighbours and get candy and chocolates. People were spraying perfume on each other, and giving each other chocolates. We were so happy."

He left his mother and sisters at home. "Some people are afraid to go out, because of the random shooting," he says, but the problem hasn't been as bad as he feared. "There have been three or four cases of people shooting up into the air, but the crowd just started shouting at them and threw water bottles and things at them until they stopped."

His conversation was halting as he called back greetings and congratulations to strangers in the street. Before the revolution, many Libyans had all but retreated into the relative security of their family homes, fearful of Gaddafi's security forces and neighbourhood gossip. Despite six months of civil war, Libyans are learning to trust one another again, and ordinary citizens are reclaiming public spaces -- both physically, and politically.

Al-Jazeera has reported that mobile phone pictures of Gaddafi's injured body are already being blown up to make posters to hang in public squares. The reaction is simultaneously distasteful and understandable, but the Libyan people have more to celebrate today than the sorry death of a terrible tyrant. Despite the frenzied excitement of this morning, Yusef was already focusing on the long-term implications of this final military victory.

"Finally we can focus on rebuilding our country, on creating a transitional government, on elections. Until now we have just been focusing on liberating Sirte and finding Gaddafi. Now we can move on." The National Transitional Council's political challenges are far greater than the military one they've just overcome. But at least now they are ready to move on.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spears. She previously lived in Tripoli.

 

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

Felipe Araujo
Show Hide image

Hull revisited: What happens when a Brexit stronghold becomes City of Culture?

We report from Hull, to find out if you can replace the kind of nostalgia that led to a Leave vote with cultural investment.

At 75 metres long, the offshore wind turbine blade erected across Queen Victoria Square, in the heart of Hull, is a sculpture intended to mark a new chapter in the city’s history. For the next 12 months, Hull, a city of more than a quarter of a million people in the northeast of England, will be the UK’s City of Culture.

The 28-tonne blade hails from the local Siemens plant. The German technology company employs around 1,000 people in the area, making it Hull’s biggest single employer.

Seen up close in this context – laid dormant in the middle of a town square instead of spinning up in the air generating energy – the structure is meant to remind passersby of a giant sea creature. It is also, I’m told, an allusion to Hull’s rich maritime history.


All photos: Felipe Araujo

Nostalgia is a big thing in this part of the country. At one point, Hull was the UK’s third largest port but technology and privatisation drastically changed that. The battle over cod fishing with Iceland in the waters of the North Sea 40 years ago has also dealt a major blow to a region with a long and proud trawling tradition.

People here still talk about a bygone era when the fishing industry provided jobs for everyone and there was enough money to go around.

Fast forward to 2017, and the country’s new capital of culture is the same city that voted 67 per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June. Its new-found prestige, it seems, is not enough to erase years of neglect by a political class “too busy for commoners like us”, as one resident puts it.

“More than a message to Brussels, it [the Brexit vote] was a message to Westminster,” Paul Leeson-Taylor, a filmmaker born and bred in Hull, tells me. “For the first time in a long time people in Hull felt like they had the chance to change something, and they took it.”

But while speaking to people on the high street and hanging out with locals at the Community Boxing Club in Orchard Park, one of the city’s most deprived areas, there is one word that consistently popped up in conversation – more than any specific policy from Westminster or the much-hated rules “dictated” by Brussels. Foreigners.

According to official figures, Hull’s population is 89.1 per cent white British. Still, immigration is big on people’s minds here.

During my two-day stay in the city, I find myself being the only black person in most places I visit – I’m certainly the only black guy at the boxing club. So when someone begins a sentence with “I’m not racist but…”, I know a tirade on immigrants is about to ensue.

“There are just too many of them,” Nick Beach, an estate agent whose Polish clientele is a big part of his business, tells me as he is about to teach a boxing class to local children. Beach was born in Shepherd’s Bush, in West London, but has been living in Hull for the last 20 years.

“When I go down there these days and go into Westfield shopping centre, it is very rare you get an English person serving you now,” he says. “I just find it disappointing that you go into your capital city and you are a minority there.”

These are the much-discussed “left behind”, a white working-class community that has gained particular prominence in a time of Brexit and Donald Trump. Under economic pressure and facing social change, they want to have their say in running a country they claim to no longer recognise.

For Professor Simon Lee, a senior politics lecturer at the University of Hull, immigration is only a superficial layer when it comes to explaining the resentment I witness here. For him, the loss of the empire 70 years ago is still something that as a country Britain hasn’t come to terms with.

“The reason for us to be together as a United Kingdom has gone, so what is the project?”

As destiny would have it, a foreign company will now play a major role on Hull’s economic future, at least in the short term. In the wake of the Brexit vote, there were widespread fears Siemens would pull out of the region and take its factory elsewhere. With the massive blade looming large in the background, Jason Speedy, director of the blade factory in Hull, assures me that isn’t the case.

“The Brexit decision has made no difference. We have made our investment decision, so Siemens, together with the Association of British Ports, has put in £310m. It’s all full steam ahead.”

As Hull becomes the country’s cultural hub for the next few months, the hope is that its residents stop looking back and start looking forward.

For Professor Lee, though, until there is a complete change in the power structures that run the country, the north-south divide will remain – with or without the EU. “The way you kill nostalgia is to have something new,” he said. “The reason why people here are nostalgic is because there is nothing to replace it with.”

Felipe Araujo is a freelance journalist based in London. He writes about race, culture and sports. He covered the Rio Olympics and Paralympics on the ground for the New Statesman. He tweets @felipethejourno.