Saleyha Ahsan

Taking on Libya’s gun culture

Posted by Saleyha Ahsan on 17 December 2011 | 0 Comments

There are a lot of weapons “floating around” Libya these days, mostly in the hands of the country’s one hundred plus militias. It’s estimated, for example, that there are 20,000 anti-aircraft missiles yet to be secured. That’s a big enough number to make the Obama administration nervous about the safety of global aviation. Just this week the State Department confirmed that the U.S. is considering a program to buy these weapons.   

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (center L) smiles during his meeting with Libyan interim Prime Minister Abdurrahim El-Keib (center R) in Tripoli December 17, 2011 (REUTERS/Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Pool)


Meanwhile, on the ground, the war may be over but ordinary Libyans don’t feel secure. Militia members have yet to hand in their guns. Civilians are being shot in the middle of the country’s capital, Tripoli.

This Sunday Libya’s transitional government announced that it’s going to bring militia members into the government. This is also something that the U.S. has offered assistance with. Evidently, no-one wants a repeat of what happened in Iraq when thousands of armed men were banned from joining the new government’s military and went on to help foment civil war. “We’re looking for ways in which we can be helpful,” Gen. Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command told USA Today. “They have to find some way to form a national army.”

Our story, though, is not about official policy or US-Libyan relations. It’s about the grassroots efforts of one Libyan and his friends to deal with the gun culture themselves.

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Dr Hatem Abubaker


Dr Hatem Abubaker is 38 years old, the son of a German mother and a Libyan father. He trained as a doctor but, because of the dearth of medical jobs during Colonel Gadaffi’s time, moved into business. He is now sales manager for Volkswagen and Audi in Libya. He also owns one of the oldest coffee shops in Tripoli. During the revolution, he was one of a number of Libyans who – at great personal risk – recorded and posted video footage of what was happening in the country via Facebook and Twitter. It was also during this time that he returned to medicine to work at the frontline, tending to the war wounded. This is where he met our correspondent British doctor and medical volunteer Saleyha Ahsan.

Dr Abubaker began his interview with Latitude News  by telling Saleyha about how he himself recently lost one of his closest friends to gun violence.

Interview with Dr Abubaker

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Hatem Abubaker (HA):  His name was Mohamed Mustafa Al Ghosbi – he was 36 years old.

Latitude News (LN): What happened?

HA: The problem started at his aunt’s house. It was actually her car. She has a small Pathfinder – it’s just a small four wheel drive. There was a group of young militia with guns. They came to the house and were asking her about the car.  They were saying to her that it was not her car but a company car and that they wanted it. So she called her two nephews – Mohamed and Khaled to ask them to help.






Mohamed and his 10 month old son


They arrived – Mohamed is the quiet one. He lived a really quiet life. You know I still can’t believe what happened to him. Mohamed never involved himself in any fights. His life was going from home to the mosque and back home again. He taught English, he had a little English school. He loved to play his guitar.  Khaled is a fighter-really loud and tough. He is the older brother – he’s 38. Nobody messes with him. He is from the Tripoli Brigades- he is a real thawaar (fighter).

So when they arrived at their aunt’s home- there was a bit of an argument at first. Khaled and Mohamed convinced the men it was a private car and they went away.

LN: Then what happened?

HA: Well the aunt was worried that they would come back. And so she asked the two boys to take the car and park it somewhere else. So Khaled got in his car, and Mohamed got into his aunt’s car and they drove off in convoy.

And then from behind them they saw the men come out behind them. They started to follow them in their cars. There were two cars – a Nissan Sunny and an Escape Mercedes. And they shot at Mohamed and Khaled’s cars. One car pulled out in front – blocking the road in front of Khaled. The other one was at the side.

Mohamed stayed in his car but Khaled jumped out. As I said he is the tough one. He was shouting and arguing with the fighters… One of the men trying to take the car was pointing a gun at Khaled’s head and Khaled was pointing his gun at a third person’s head…  And whilst Khaled was shouting and arguing, his brother was dead in the car behind him. It was from one of the bullets that was aimed at the car. It was a good thing maybe – because if Khaled had known his brother was dead behind him – maybe it would have been a lot worse – they all had guns on them… Khaled took his brother to the hospital – but it was too late.

LN: He was married?

HA: He was and he had a ten month old son.

That night the Tripoli Military Brigade with Khaled went all over Tripoli looking for the men. He knew their faces. It was a long night. They went almost house to house, door to door-looking for the men that killed his brother. Khaled was not going to stop until he found them. They got them all. But the problem is now – what to do with them? They are in prison – but there are no courts, no trials.

LN: And there have been other cases?

HA: This is the third death in ten days.

LN: So tell me about your campaign.

HA: You know when we started it – it was a general thing. Now? Well now it’s become personal. I never knew it would- now it’s someone I knew – one of my closest friends. I have just today come back from his funeral.


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LN: What is the name of the campaign?

HA: We haven’t really got a name for it- we just call it the no-gun campaign-but it’s all about the logo and sending a clear message. It’s basically an anti-harassment campaign.

LN: How many of you are doing this?

HA: There are 12 of us.

LN: Was it your idea?

HA: Well it was a group idea – a group effort.

LN: And what are the others doing?

HA: We had two people who did the design, and then we all voted on it and agreed. Then it was printed.

LN: And what is the aim?


"It's forbidden to enter with weapons"


HA: We want taking guns to become a real thing of shame. You know like when a smoker goes into a non-smoking place – everyone looks at them – in a way to show they are disgusted and not pleased – well that is what we want with guns. For people to feel ashamed to have a gun.

LN: How have you been doing it?

HA: First of all there is a team of us. And we designed the logo – and then got a small amount of sponsorship. It was about 1,200 Dinars ($957). And then we printed about 5,000 posters. We have distributed about 3,500 so far. They get put in shops, in hospitals, in banks in hotels. And I use volunteers because I want them to spread the word and to get involved and widen the network. If I did it myself– then it would just be me knowing about it.

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LN: What will happen next?

HA: We will think about other ways to propagate the message – maybe with film or radio – but something to make the message get through.

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