(REUTERS – February 19) Reduced to rubble in parts, the once-impenetrable fortress of Muammar Gaddafi inTripoli now has dozens of new residents.
Six months on after Tripoli fell to Western-backed rebels and Gaddafi was toppled from power, families have moved into the few standing, charred remains of the Bab al-Aziziya compound, setting up homes amongst the debris.
The clatter of women washing clothes in a courtyard is a now normal scene in the compound, where before only workers or members of the toppled Libyan leader’s inner circle could see inside.
Most say they have moved here because of cost reasons, but some say the conditions are tough.
“It’s bad and not healthy to live here. And it’s cold and there is no electricity or water – there is nothing in here,” said, 24-year old Saja Mohammed al-Sahali who lives with her husbandHaithem in a room that once passed for an office.
Rebels forced Gaddafi to abandon his Tripoli stronghold, a huge complex of houses, offices and storage buildings targeted by NATO warplane several times during the war.
They burned, looted and defaced what for years was a forbidding symbol of the autocratic leader’s power.
The National Transitional Council, which is struggling to impose its authority on a country awash with weapons, has yet to announce concrete plans for Bab al-Aziziya but there has been talk of turning the complex into a park.
“We hope the government will be fair and just. Even if living conditions aren’t good or if they want to change it to a park, for sure if they move these people from here they will find them a place. They won’t throw them out onto the street,” resident Zaki Salem, who acts as a spokesman for the families, said.
Some residents say they have permission from the nearby neighbourhood military council to live and that they have sent off letters to local authorities to let them know they have moved in.
Regardless, they clearly seem at home: the children riding bikes and running around fallen basketball hoops and empty ammunition boxes.
“Before you wouldn’t dare to even look at the walls from outside, and now we are living inside. I feel like a real Libyan citizen, with pride and dignity, to be able to live like that. No more taboos or sacred places I can’t go to. As a Libyan it’s my land and I can live wherever I want and go wherever I want,” Salem said.
After the eight-month war that ended with Gaddafi’s capture and killing last October, nowhere is the Libyan rebels’ victory more apparent than in the complex from where the former strongman used to taunt his foes.
The names of the rebel brigades who captured the compound are now commemorated in graffiti sprayed all over the walls.
Most of the rubble left by the fighting, however, still needs to be cleared away.