Libya was officially declared liberated on October 23 but my friend Ahmed won’t leave the Tunisian capital, Tunis. He doesn’t want to return to his family in Libya. One of the main reasons is guns.
Ahmed Elhinsheri is, like me, a doctor. This summer he volunteered to go to Tunisia to treat fighters injured in Libya’s civil war. That’s where I met him – a 29- year-old with perfect English (he lived in northern England as a child) wearing a faded red Arsenal football club t-shirt in an emergency room in the desert city of Tatouine. Ahmed was my unofficial guide and translator in those manic early days.
Gunshot wounds are mainly what we treated in Tatouine. Gunshot wounds are what Ahmed has been dealing with now for over five months. It’s not surprising that he is so opposed to the gun culture that has swept Libya.
Ahmed Elhinsheri and a patient flash the victory sign in Tunis. (Credit: Saleyha Ahsan)
Gun ownership was illegal under the Gadaffi regime. But the country now feels awash with guns. While they are publicly used only by militias, many residents now keep guns hidden away in their homes.
A visit to Tripoli and brother number 2
When Ahmed, ever the guardian angel, learned that I was on my way to Libya’s capital Tripoli, he called his youngest brother Aiyman to take me under his wing. In my early unsteady days in Tripoli, Aiyman, a 19-year-old English language student, was the perfect guide. He took pride in driving me around, showing off his city to blaring tunes, which varied from Libyan revolutionary rap to US R&B. He is a huge fan of Usher, he told me.
The writer at Bab Aziza with Aiyman Elhinsheri
We went to Bab Al Aziza – Colonel Gadaffi’s former compound, now completely destroyed by NATO airstrikes. I finally saw the place I had first heard about as a teenager in 1986, when US President Ronald Reagan ordered airstrikes on it in response to the Berlin discotheque bombing authorised by the Libyan government. The area struck remained a broken shrine all those years.
Amongst the debris I found some physics notes. A student had been learning about mechanics. I wondered if it was one of Gadaffi’s grandchildren. Aiyman’s face was full of wonder and youthful excitement at seeing the inside of the compound for the first time in his life . It had been a place forbidden to enter or to even look at. And now he was walking within its walls-or what was left of them. He said he hoped the place would be torn down and instead a garden planted. It looks like his wish will come true. Locals tell me that there are indeed plans to transform into a park.
Aiyman confided that he was missing his brother Ahmed and was also worried about his other brother Akram – the fighter or tawar of the three.
Brother number 3 – the fighter
Akram, 24, was a dental student in Tripoli. When the Libyan revolution began he joined his uncles in the fight. Ahmed avers guns; Akram owns one.
Akram fought in the Bani Walid area, one of the two final strongholds held by forces loyal to Gadaffi. I did not meet Akram until the end of the war, but working on the frontline in Bani Walid as a doctor, I always listened for his name. I dreaded meeting him injured, or worse. I found out later that we both shared concern for each other: he had come to the clinic to check I was safe.
My eventual meeting with Akram came after the fall of Gadaffi. A smart, confident young man with a calm demeanor came through the door. He had an aura. I could tell he was Ahmed’s brother immediately, but there was a difference. He walked easily among the armed guards at the hotel security. He greeted them like comrades, which in essence they were. He had what so many other young fighters back from the frontline have – the swagger and confidence that comes from becoming a man on the battlefield.
Akram told me that now he was going to move on with his life, which included going to Egypt, to complete dental studies and then marriage. He has yet to find the right girl. It was time to rebuild his life. But he was not handing over his gun. It was going to remain hidden, out of sight but there just in case.
Like so many others, he felt that there may be a time when he would need it again.
An unwinnable war?
And here lies the long standing issue of the problem of guns. They just will not go away. It’s been six weeks since Libya was officially declared liberated, but still the guns fire late into the night. Anti-aircraft guns are in chorus as I try to sleep at 3am. Who are they shooting at, I wonder?
At Al Khadra hospital, Dr Emad Elmariami, an anesthesiologist, told me about a patient admitted following an armed robbery of his house. He had been shot in the abdomen and his property stolen. Such things are new to Tripoli.
In Abu Saleem hospital, the emergency room staff are overwhelmed by patients with fresh gunshot wounds. Some of these are accidents, some from celebratory fire and some from escalated arguments between individuals fueled by homemade local alcohol, known as bokha.
The exact number of guns out there remain unknown. The battle in Libya now focuses on trying to control their use. Libya’s interim leaders have set up checkpoints for gun return, and announced that all men who are not part of the army or official security forces must either turn in their guns in the next two weeks or leave Tripoli. Libya’s leaders have asked for some of Libya’s assets to be unfrozen, so it can bolster programs to disarm fighters. Of particular concern, as civilian flights have resumed over Libyan air space, are portable surface-to-air missiles. The U.S. has contributed $40 million as well as weapons experts to help destroy them.
So far, however, this war on guns is not being won. During a November visit to Libya, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern about the country’s weapons situation. Just Wednesday, Libya’s Attorney General said militia gunmen had stopped his car and threatened him for jailing their friends.
Grassroots gun control
One former fighter has been trying to redress the issue. Ali Basset is an oil engineer and prior to the war was working in the oil fields. During the revolution, he joined his local brigade in Gharyan, a town in Northwest Libya. He became a commander.
I first encountered Ali in Tripoli’s journalist hang out, the Radisson Blue hotel, home of the most expensive coffee in town. He was still in uniform, wearing a large kheffiyeh on his head. Ali had just assembled journalists and photographers to make a public event out of handing back his weapon.
We arranged to meet the next day for an interview. When he arrived I hardly recognised him. He looked much younger without his headdress, with his neat hair and trimmed beard, slick shirt and jeans.
“A lot of people know me now because of my work in the revolution,” he said. “I think I can use this in a positive way to encourage people to give up their weapons. We need to get the guns off the street and we need to go back to our normal lives.”
I ask Ali how he intends to do this. He hopes that by example alone he will have influence. He has just opened an office in Tripoli and is working hard to romance the local and international media with the hope they will help propagate his message. At the same time he has found a lucrative job as a media fixer.
Still, as I write this, gunfire has been my companion for the last hour. It’s an almost accepted, everyday sound, accompanied by the wail of ambulance sirens. The challenge to return to normal life is a significant one. And it may take longer than the revolution itself, requiring much more effort and thought than is currently being employed.
In the meantime, my friend and fellow doctor Ahmed will stay in Tunis. He and his brothers remain separated, one in Tunis, one in Cairo and one in Tripoli. It will be some time before they sit together in their family home.