NEW YORK (Reuters) - Award-winning British journalist Lindsey Hilsum has reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo and the front lines of the Iraq war embedded with a U.S. Marine unit, but Libya’s revolution last year marked the first time she set foot in that country.
Now she is responsible for another first: her “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution” is the first book to tell the story of the 2011 uprising that overthrew longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi through the eyes of Libyans.
“Every now and then I think it’s valid to tell our own story, but on the whole, the point is that one gets to meet all these amazing people,” Hilsum, 53, told Reuters.
“Sandstorm,” released in the United States on Monday, shares personal accounts of Libya’s revolution and the history and events that led to it.
The perspectives are not only from revolutionaries, but from all parts of Libyan society. They range from a family that lost their father in Gaddafi’s infamous 1984 Abu Salim prison massacre to the daughter of an assassinated Libyan exile responsible for a failed rebellion and the displaced people of Tawergha, who have been persecuted for their ties to the old regime.
For example, Mukhtar Nagasa recounts how he traded his life as a dentist living in Bath, England for the opportunity to be a part of his country’s revolution. Though he had no military training, he took up arms and found himself in the home of Muammar Gaddafi’s brother, Saadi, after a battle.
Libyans like Nagasa were motivated to join the fight against Gaddafi by events like the prison massacre at Abu Salim, an event that killed 1,270 people and instilled heartbreak and anger in many Libyans.
In the book, Fouad Assad Ben Omran recalls how he used to accompany his brother-in-law’s wife and children to Abu Salim to bring him food and clothing, though they were never allowed to see their relative. “We did this for fourteen years before we were told that he was dead,” said Omran.
Hilsum credits the momentum of the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere in the Middle East for giving Libyans the confidence to challenge Gaddafi’s 42-year reign. But she says Libya’s rebellion was different than its neighbors’.
“With Libya, it’s a true revolution because the whole system of state is being turned upside down,” she said. “Everything has been changed by the demise of Gaddafi. That’s what makes it different from the other uprisings, I think.”
Accordingly, Hilsum says the nature of Libya’s revolution also brings its own unique challenges and rewards after its success.
“It’s like year zero in Libya,” she said. “That, of course, means the danger is of a void, and that’s more or less what you have at the moment. Interim authorities really have very little power, and they don’t have enough legitimacy to govern.”
Hilsum’s comments proved prescient on Monday as militiamen from al-Awfea Brigade seized control of Tripoli’s airport, where they struggled with other militias before the government took it back and reopened the airport on Tuesday.
Elections for a Public National Conference are slated for June 19. The Conference will draw up a constitution, which will be put to a referendum, and approval would pave the way for general elections.
“The most important thing is the system that comes in, rather than who wins,” Hilsum said. “Whether the system becomes robust and you get proper institutions of state. All of this is up for question in Libya.”
As Libyans clamor to have a hand in shaping their new government, Hilsum acknowledges their complex and sometimes contradictory ideas for the country’s future.
“Libyans say, ‘We want to live in a normal country,’ and you say, ‘What’s normal?’,” she said. “By normal, they mean not repressive, and somewhere where you can go out, go shopping, go to a restaurant and so on. Yet it’s a very conservative Islamic culture, and so normal is also a life that continues to be very centered around the family.”
Fears about the emergence of radical Islamic factions have tempered Western enthusiasm for the Arab Spring revolutions, and Hilsum believes the triumph of such groups is a possibility.
She said secularists in Libya tend to be in fragmented groups, while the Islamists are well-organized, which is one reason they have increased power in some of the other countries affected by the uprisings.
Still, she takes a long perspective where Libya and its future government are concerned.
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Libyans and the Egyptians had an Islamist phase, if that was what democracy threw up initially,” she said. “The question is whether they move through that phase, or is it the old cliché of ‘one man, one vote, one time?’”
Reporting By Andrea Burzynski; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Dan Grebler