Defiant Tripoli neighborhood endures crackdowns

AP News
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Posted: Mar 01, 2011 5:46 AM
Defiant Tripoli neighborhood endures crackdowns

In the middle of last week, anti-government protesters set out from the Tripoli district of Tajoura for a march to neighborhood's central square where they were quickly boxed in by six militia vehicles and came under gunfire so heavy it shook the earth and illuminated the night sky.

"They opened fire everywhere from anti-aircraft guns. We felt it was an earthquake," said one of the marchers. Another described barrages of gunfire that lit up the sky "like lightening." Those who managed to flee saw bodies of slain protesters dumped on the back of pickup trucks and taken away.

On other days, neighborhood residents said they were fired on by armed and masked men, saw their neighbors dragged from their homes at night and faced the anxiety of injured relatives disappearing from their hospital beds. Some said they are still searching for bodies of slain relatives to bury, but can't find them.

In a city that remains tightly in the grip of longtime Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, Tajoura is a rare pocket of defiance.

And it is paying the price. Residents say at least 17 people in the neighborhood have been killed in the crackdown and the fate of at least six others is unknown.

Anti-Gadhafi activists and renegade army units have seized about half of Libya's coastline, including a number of major cities in the east. But they have made little headway in western Tripoli, the regime stronghold that is home to about a third of the country's six million people. Pro-Gadhafi militias have been particularly harsh in suppressing any dissent in the capital _ much of their violence targeting anti-regime protesters in Tajoura.

The neighborhood of about 100,000 on Tripoli's eastern edge is one of capital's oldest and largest, made up mainly of poor and middle class Libyans. It is dotted with two- and three-storey residential buildings, with an open-air fruit and vegetable market and garbage piling up on the streets.

All shops are shuttered and residents say they are on strike or afraid to open them. The buildings that represent government authority, including a police station and a telecoms office, have been torched and their walls are covered in black soot. But perhaps the neighborhood's most distinguishing mark is the graffiti scrawled on walls all over that derides Gadhafi as a "dog" and declares: "We will not retreat: Either victory or death."

Residents hack down palm trees and scatter rocks in the streets to keep pro-Gadhafi forces out. During marches, they cover walls the walls with more graffiti.

Each morning, the militias clear the roads and repaint the walls. But just as soon as they leave, the protesters scrawl new graffiti.

Residents told an Associated Press reporter who visited the neighborhood Monday of their many attempts to hold anti-Gadhafi marches over the past ten days and the regime's swift and brutal moves to suppress them. All the residents and witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.

One young man said they tried to march on three days last week, the final time on Friday, which they dubbed "the day of massacre."

On Wednesday, they marched to Tajoura's central square, but quickly found themselves surrounded by militia vehicles and under heavy fire from anti-aircraft guns. The next day, they marched toward the sea that borders the area, only to take cover in a graveyard from militia gunfire, witnesses said.

The neighborhood rallied for a larger march on Friday after Muslim midday prayers.

A mobile phone video shot by a marcher showed thousands marching, holding the flag of Libya's pre-Gadhafi monarchy and chanting" "The people want to topple the regime" _ the rallying cry of protests who succeeded in bringing down leaders in Libya's neighbors, Tunisia and Egypt. One protester said women cheered on the marchers from their balconies.

A second video showed protesters scattering under heavy gunfire, screaming "God is great!"

Gunmen in pickup trucks, ambulances and white taxis with female soldiers in them fired wildly into the crowd, spraying them with a hail of bullets, residents said.

A third video showed protesters carrying a man who had been shot, his bloody head leaving a trail of red liquid smeared on the street.

At night, pro-government forces raided local homes, dragging a few activists off to unknown locations.

Gadhafi and his son, Seif al-Islam, have denied repeatedly that force has been used against demonstrators.

But Tajoura's residents say it's all a big lie.

"They talk about negotiations and talks," one resident said. "They know no language but weapons."

One man said his 43-year-old uncle was shot in the shoulder during the Friday march. The family took him to the hospital, but he disappeared the next day.

"The whole family is in fear," he said. "They know nothing about my uncle. We can't even ask because if we ask, we might join him."

Another family called a doctor to their house to remove a bullet from a man's knee, fearing that he, too, would disappear if he went to the hospital.

Those killed are quietly buried nearby, residents said, since relatives fear the regime is removing bodies from morgues to hide the unrest's death count.

Several hundred people marched on Monday, but dispersed quickly when forces came.

But their defiance takes smaller forms, too.