By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
TRIPOLI (Reuters) - It used to be the impenetrable fortress of Muammar Gaddafi's regime. Only workers or members of the toppled Libyan leader's inner circle could see inside.
Now, six months after Tripoli fell to Western-backed rebels, dozens of families have moved into the few buildings still standing in the charred remains of Gaddafi's Bab al-Aziziya compound, setting up homes amid the rubble.
Their move, largely for economic reasons they say, highlights the collision between two parts of Libyan society.
On one side are the pro-Gaddafi elite who benefited from his largesse, and on the other are ordinary people who, while not poor by regional standards, only saw a small share of Libya's huge energy wealth.
Rebels forced Gaddafi to abandon his Tripoli stronghold, a huge complex of houses, offices and storage buildings which was targeted by NATO warplanes several times during the war. They burned, looted and defaced what for years was a forbidding symbol of the autocratic leader's power.
Days after the walls of the Bab al-Aziziya compound came tumbling down in late August, school chemistry teacher Majid moved his wife and seven children into one of its villas believed to be once occupied by one of Gaddafi's officers.
"Before, when I would drive past Bab al-Aziziya, I wouldn't even dare to look at it, we were afraid to even talk in the car," the 50-year-old said as he walked around his new large four-bedroom house with its separate guest quarters.
"We never imagined we would even enter this place; now I am living here."
Majid said he found the house in disarray when he arrived and has since been working to restore it. He has repainted walls but a corridor is still charred. As a pot of stew steams on a cooker in the kitchen, his family sit next door watching television in a living room. Outside, a toilet lies in the grass, nearby, pieces of a broken wooden cupboard lie scattered.
"It is much better than where I lived before," he said.
MAKING A NEW HOME
Others are not as comfortable. Behind Majid's villa, 24-year-old Saja Mohammed al-Sahali and her husband Haithem live in a room that once passed for an office.
Teapots, plastic cups and plates on a tray and suitcases of clothes, lie scattered on a carpet. Plastic flowers and plants stand in vases around the room.
"There is nowhere else for us to stay. We can't keep on paying rent, that's why we came here. We don't have anybody," al-Sahali said, fighting back tears.
"To be honest, it's not healthy, there is no power, no water, it's cold. There is nothing. But what can we do?"
While the residents may not have deeds to their property, Haithem presents a document signed by a nearby neighborhood military council that gives them permission to stay. It does not mention Bab al-Aziziya specifically, but cites Haithem's needs for accommodation.
The families have inhabited the last standing buildings of the sprawling complex. In front of them, piles of rubble have yet to be moved. Children ride bikes and run around fallen basketball hoops and empty ammunition boxes.
The black, green and red flags of the now ruling National Transitional Council (NTC) dot the landscape.
"THE HOUSE OF RESISTANCE"
After the eight-month war that ended with Gaddafi's capture and killing in 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.
A statue of a golden fist crushing a fighter jet, a memorial Gaddafi erected outside a building that was bombed by the United States in 1986 and he dubbed "the House of Resistance," has been moved to the coastal town of Misrata.
The families that have set up home are not the only ones who have taken up the premises. On Fridays, vendors set up stalls selling everything from food, clothes to electronic goods.
The NTC, which is struggling to impose its authority on a country awash with weapons, has yet to announce concrete plans for Bab al-Aziziyah but there has been talk of turning the complex into a park.
Zaki Salem, a spokesman for the families, said they had sent letters to local authorities saying they had moved in and hoped the government would re-house them if it redeveloped the site.
Like Majid, Salem said that he was afraid to stop his car anywhere near Bab al-Azizya before.
"How do you think I feel that I am now here inside in his castle? I truly feel that I am a Libyan citizen," he said.
"I have dignity, I have freedom. There is nothing, no restrictions, it is our land and we can live anywhere."
(Editing by Sophie Hares)