By Andrew Gilligan –
They were the Tripoli rebel underground, the people who kept the resistance fire burning in the heart of Gaddafi’s capital.
For six months they dodged from safe house to safe house – hunted and sometimes caught and tortured, by the regime. They fed intelligence to Nato, staged acts of defiance and laid the ground for “zero hour,” the stunning night exactly two weeks ago when Tripoli broke free.
And one of their main leaders was a NHS dental surgeon from Cardiff.
“I was sitting in my living room in Wales, watching the uprising in Martyrs’ Square,” said Nizar “Niz” Mhani, 30, who has lived in Britain for ten years.
“I thought I’d missed the revolution. But then Saif Gaddafi made his speech, promising to eradicate the regime’s enemies. As soon as he’d finished, I just threw some stuff in a bag and got the first train to Gatwick.
“I emailed work from the train, saying I hoped I wouldn’t be long but this is my home, I have to go back and play my part. They were great: the clinical director of my hospital said they’d take it out of my annual leave for the first two weeks, then take it day by day.”
This very British young man, born in Libya but holding joint citizenship, educated in Wimbledon, Ealing and Guildford, was about to be plunged into the most dangerous days of his life.
At the Tripoli airport that February night, the dissent was still so fresh and raw that arriving passengers said Gaddafi was finished, right in front of the security men checking their bags.
But they were wrong. On the Friday, the 25th, Niz and his family were praying in a friend’s house.
“It was like a scene from a movie,” said Niz. “As we started to pray, we heard the first gunshots. An older man walked in, and said time to go guys, our local mosque has been telling everyone to take to the streets. And that was it.
“Everyone was buzzing, but really, really scared – and then the security turned up. There was no attempt at crowd control. They just started firing straight at us. They were aiming quite carefully, taking their time. The tracer fire was coming horizontally down the street. It was vicious, it was murderous, but it was successful.
“It took a while for me to accept after that that Tripoli was not going to rise in an orthodox manner, like [Egypt’s] Tahrir Square. We realised we had to do something more planned and structured, more under the radar.”
By then, all international civilian internet connections had been severed by the authorities.
But Niz’s cousin, Mukhtar, an IT expert in a government department, hacked in to the Libyan regime’s own computers and set up a clandestine link to the outside world through his ministry’s own satellite dish.
“The department was deserted. No-one was coming to work because of the Nato bombing,” said Niz. “Later, we decided we needed to borrow the dish for ourselves, so we just went in one day and dismantled it from the roof.”
Establishing a headquarters in an abandoned apartment, Niz, Mukhtar, their cousin Hamza and others set up the Free Generation Movement (FGM), co-ordinating with other opposition groups, carrying out acts of defiance and using their purloined satellite dish to spread the message to the rest of the world.
Through a closed Facebook page, accessed through secure internet redirection mechanisms called proxy servers, Western journalists in Tripoli’s Rixos Hotel – including this correspondent – could keep in touch with the activities of the group, receive video and get a different perspective even while shepherded by government minders.
For their safety, we did not refer directly to FGM’s existence at the time, but it helped inform our picture of a capital that was less pro-Gaddafi than generally supposed.
“There were a lot of different rebel groups – based on families or individual streets,” said Niz. “They were highly organised within each group, but there was not much organisation between the groups. Trust was the biggest problem.”
FGM itself was non-violent, organising demonstrations, burning flags and engaging in humanitarian relief work, but it also served as the main channel for distributing news and pictures of the rebel resistance in Tripoli.
“At night, they would engage [regime] checkpoints with Molotov cocktails, Kalashnikovs,” said Niz. “One Gaddafi fighter passed us a video of regime forces shooting people and leaving them to bleed to death. I was worried it could be an operation to trap us, but I’d known the source for many years and I had enough faith in him to take the risk.”
Perhaps its most important role, however, was as a provider of intelligence to Nato forces which were daily bombarding the capital.
“We would give them logistical advice – there’s a tank here, artillery there, this area’s not well defended, this is where katiba [military units] are being housed,” said Niz. “We were also in touch with the [rebel] military council in the western mountains and they would tell me about their progress and when they expected to be in Tripoli.”
The satellite dish also had more mundane uses, proving invaluable in the management of Niz’s Health Service career.
“I had applied for a promotion to registrar at the hospital and they actually interviewed me by video link over the secure satphone in Tripoli,” he said.
“I got the job and I think what sealed it was when they were asking me a question, there was a big Nato explosion – and they said are you OK and I said I’m fine and we just carried on.” (Guardians of the taxpayer’s money, by the way, can be reassured to know that Niz’s NHS leave is now unpaid.)
Despite all the precautions, the regime inevitably learned of FGM’s activities.
For months, Niz and his friends lived the age-old terrors of the conspirator. Houses where they’d filmed videos were raided and the residents detained, entire neighbourhoods locked down, in the hunt.
“State TV was denouncing us as rats and saying it was totally lawful to kill us. We had to move our HQ four times,” Niz said. Eventually, an informant told the regime about Mukhtar. The security forces descended en masse on his house, detaining his father and sisters, then trapping Hamza.
“Neither Mukhtar nor I was there but they found Mukhtar’s passport and inside it was my military service card,” said Niz. “And then they had my name.”
Hamza was tortured with electric shocks to reveal more about the group. Held with him was another young man detained simply for having the same first name as Niz. But by then, the other FGM leaders had moved on.
“We went to a house in Souk al-Juma [a rebel-sympathising neigbourhood of Tripoli]. The regime was trying to triangulate our phones to find us [tracking the signals from phone cell to cell] but the triangulation was only accurate to about 200 yards and the area was densely populated. We noticed a lot of activity around our hideout, a lot of security, so we abandoned our phones altogether,” Niz said.
Yet, perhaps aware of the way events were moving, the regime efforts to break them seemed to slacken. Their relatives were released unharmed.
And by then, from their contacts with the rebel leadership, the FGM had grounds for hope that the end was near.
“We knew a week ahead that the 20th of August [when the rebels entered Tripoli] was going to be a focal day,” Niz said. “It was planned to be a day when mosques would call from the minarets, God is great, God is great, to empower people to come on to the streets. It was the same cry as in the liberation of Mecca [in 630 AD], and the same day, the 20th of Ramadan, and it’s a story every Muslim knows.
“We also knew about a week before that the commander of one of the key regime brigades, the Katiba Emhemid [which guards Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound and the TV station] had staged a silent defection, staying at his post but planning to order his troops to abandon their posts.
“But it wasn’t as organised and preplanned as the east [the NTC leadership] would have you think. Opposition fighters, as warmly welcomed as they were, came into Tripoli and found already liberated streets. What they did is ensured that Tripoli stayed liberated – and they liberated places we couldn’t have done, like Abu Salim.”
FGM is now transforming itself from protest movement to voluntary group.
It is running civil society campaigns, including one to stop the dangerous, indeed fatal, practice of celebratory gunfire. In Martyrs’ Square, it has erected a memorial to the dead of the fighting, including Niz’s own cousin, Suleiman. After a month in detention, Hamza was freed during the collapse of the regime.
“I feel like I can finally sleep, like I haven’t slept for six months,” Niz said.
Almost next door to his Tripoli family home – where he is now able to live safely again – is another symbol of the days he helped banish: the former residence of Gaddafi’s daughter, Aisha.
The graffiti on the walls proclaims, perhaps ironically, its new role: a community health centre. Will there be a vacancy for a dental surgeon?