Monday, September 05, 2011

A Libyan rebel leader's tale

HE WAS my confidential source in the Libyan military this spring, an officer who passed on secret information about disaffection in the ranks of Muammar Gaddafi. And then as the Libyan revolution spread, he made bombs and smuggled weapons into Tripoli to help overthrow the Gaddafi government.

By Nicholas D. Kristof

But then Salem al-Madhoun, 47, was arrested three weeks ago, captured after the Gaddafi forces detected his Thuraya satellite telephone transmissions. I received an urgent message about his capture, and I assumed that by now he must have been tortured and executed. On arriving here in Libya, I set out to comfort his widow.

That proved unnecessary.


In truth, these new leaders include all kinds, but I'm reassured and inspired when I meet those like Madhoun. It's impossible to know what lies ahead for Libya, but Madhoun's story is a window into the grit and vision that made the entire Arab Spring possible.

When rebels liberated the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, they found Madhoun: skeletal and tortured, but alive. Now he is the hero of Tajoura, the suburb outside the capital where he lives, and in long conversations in his office and home he recounted the full story of how he came to help overthrow the government.

Madhoun studied electrical engineering in France, and as an engineer he rose in the ranks of the navy. When the Libyan revolution began in February, his ship was ordered to attack Benghazi, but he, instead, plotted to defect and sail his ship to Malta. Through an intermediary at that time, he asked me if he could have US protection while the ship was at sea.

I'm not in the business of providing air cover, but I wrote a blog post then urging the Obama administration to create a safety corridor to protect Libyan ships seeking to defect. Then Madhoun heard from fellow officers that he was about to be arrested, and he changed plans. He recorded a video on board his ship, announcing his defection and calling on other military officers to join his mutiny.

I was in Cairo then covering the revolution at Tahrir Square and received a frantic call: Would I put the video online? I agreed to do so but asked about Madhoun's family. He was in hiding, but what if the government took revenge on his pregnant wife and three children? I didn't want that on my conscience, and I suggested that Madhoun think it through carefully. He consulted his wife, Samah, who was outraged at the way he was placing his family at risk.

'I told him it's a big mistake,' she recalled to me. ''Why don't you think before you do this?'' Somewhat sheepishly, Madhoun sent word that I shouldn't mention his name after all, and we dropped the idea of showing the video. He disappeared into hiding, along with his family, and began to help organise the underground resistance in the Tripoli area.

Working with a force he says consisted of around 1,200 underground rebels, he smuggled weapons in by boat and bombed security offices. He sent targeting data to French government contacts so Nato could bomb military sites.

Libyan women have received little attention in the uprising, but, behind the scenes, they played a significant role. Even Madhoun's daughters, aged 11 and 14, volunteered to sew rebel flags, which other family members then hung from mosques and schools to spread the message of resistance.

'This is the time to fight Gaddafi,' Madhoun's 18-year-old niece, Rehab, remembers telling him, and she pleaded for any assignment in the underground. An engineering student who speaks excellent English, Rehab also began painting dramatic anti-Gaddafi graffiti around Tripoli - sometimes in English so foreigners would know the opposition was alive.

In May, Madhoun was picked up in a routine police sweep, but he lied about his identity and claimed to be a simple vegetable seller. After four hours and a beating, he was released. But then, on Aug 10, police found Madhoun's hideout, and his world collapsed.

'When they arrested me, I knew I was going to be killed,' he recounted. He says he was subjected to horrific electric shocks in interrogations overseen by Seif al-Islam Gaddafi, one of Muammar Gaddafi's sons.

'What helped me endure torture was reciting the Quran,' he said, adding that he never gave up names. After less than two weeks, rebels stormed the prison and named Madhoun the military commander of the newly liberated Tajoura area. He now has an escort of bodyguards as he strolls through the neighbourhood - greeted rapturously by neighbours.

Americans wonder and worry who Libya's new leaders are, and if they can knit the country together. In truth, these new leaders include all kinds, but I'm reassured and inspired when I meet those like Madhoun. It's impossible to know what lies ahead for Libya, but Madhoun's story is a window into the grit and vision that made the entire Arab Spring possible, from Tunisia to Syria. Yes, the movement was facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, but so many people lost lives or limbs.

This was no armchair revolution.

Madhoun acknowledges that the hard work is only just beginning. Yet he is guardedly optimistic that Libya can build a modern multiparty democracy - and he hopes US President Barack Obama will soon come to Tripoli so the Libyan people can thank him and all Americans for their support.

'My death was inevitable,' he said, 'but I am alive thanks to God and Nato.'