Posted on Sun, Apr. 10, 2011
last updated: March 15, 2013 11:57:45 AM
CYRENE, Libya — To cover the war in liberated eastern Libya is to spend a lot of time speedily headed somewhere: fleeing the front line as soon as it's collapsed, moving toward a safe city, hurriedly going in and out of Egypt toward the news of the day.
So on our flight out of the country toward Egypt, we'd planned to stop only to search for a one-time al Qaida operative who's now leading a local council. But my friend and interpreter Osama, who was driving another reporter, our friend Suleiman and me on the long trip to the Egyptian border from Benghazi, wanted to show us the Libya that existed beyond front lines, the Libya that was immune to the whims of Moammar Gadhafi. He wanted us to stop and truly see the country.
The 28-year-old with the baby face and defiant spirit giddily insisted that we visit every major point along the highway to the border so he could show us some of Libya's treasures. We gladly capitulated and absorbed the history before us, transforming a six-hour drive into a daylong adventure.
As it turned out, Osama would learn something, too. National pride was beyond trying to overthrow the regime and set up a rebel capital in Benghazi. Libya's history is far richer then that.
After we'd climbed the temple of Zeus, which dates to 600 B.C., walked through ancient Greek and Roman cities along with scores of Libyan families, stood over Cleopatra's pool and explored parts of the lush Green Mountain, Osama said: "When I am in Benghazi I am not proud to be Libyan. But here I am very proud."
They were words I never thought he'd utter. After all, just a day earlier, we'd watched the ragtag rebels scurry away as soon as artillery landed, sending an eruption of sand into the air in the oil-rich town of Brega. Then there was the time we were caught in a firefight between ill-trained rebels and Gadhafi's snipers in Bin Jawwad, a moment that left us more fearful of the incompetence of the rebels than of the viciousness of the regime.
And what about the time a rebel yelled in English, "Moammar, game over," as he sped away from the front line?
It always ended the same: Osama was ashamed. Indeed, this is a nation that's been emasculated for 42 years, a place where one man was allowed to represent manhood, nationalism, Libya itself: Gadhafi.
"What game over? You are running away," Osama would say over and over as he recalled the retreating fighter, shaking his head.
The road out, however, is among the most peaceful Libya has to offer, filled with verdant mountains and 2,600-year-old ruins so accessible that we climbed on them as though they were monkey bars at a children's playground. Here's where Libya's long Italian occupation began and ended.
I felt as if I were being let in on a secret, a treasure only a few have had a chance to see during my lifetime because of Gadhafi's rule.
We began by exploring the Green Mountain, which pops up out of the horizon within miles of leaving Benghazi, a breathtaking sight of green hovering over that desert city. The air is crisp and clean, so wonderfully potent that a whiff can lift one's spirits.
The mountain is a sensory explosion: caves, rolling hills, meadows with blinding yellow flowers and bushes filled with berries, and, over yonder, the pristine blue waters of the Mediterranean. The colors are as bright as a Van Gogh painting with the clarity of a high-resolution photo. There are waterfalls and cherry trees and olives trees, all untouched by man.
Then there are parts defined by one man, Omar Mukhtar, the resistance fighter who was born here and was key to ending the Italian occupation. His image appears throughout today's revolution, on flags and posters in Benghazi. He even appears on the 10-dinar note, the only face on Libya's currency other than Gadhafi's. Mukhtar's famous words shortly before the Italians executed him in 1931 have become the motto for today's rebels:
"We will never surrender; we will only die."
"Look, that is where Omar Mukhtar fought the Italians," Osama pointed out at the mountain, at a spot stories above our heads. He then took us to two rusted Italian tanks miles away, seemingly left right where they'd been abandoned.
Along the way, we bought honey from the Green Mountain in a tiny shop run by a boy no more than 10 years old, whose black eyes and sly smile were so captivating and charming he somehow convinced us to pay $40 for four jars, the price of an expensive meal in Benghazi.
Nearby, the temple of Zeus peeked out of the greenery, with no warning at all that we were approaching history. While the ruins in Greece are protected sites, here there isn't even a guard shack to mark this ancient Greek settlement. The statue of Zeus that once stood here is long gone, and various occupiers and rulers have damaged the site over the years, including Gadhafi in the 1970s.
Osama immediately began climbing to the top. Other than the cow that ran by us, we were left alone to explore. There was no sign of Gadhafi's Libya other than the pile of trash on the other side of the road, left there because there was no government to collect it.
At the ruins of ancient Greek and Roman cities nearby, we saw scores of families and lines of children. There were more women and children at those ancient cities than I had seen during all my six weeks in Libya. It seems that this was where they came to escape being captives in their homes during the fighting.
The Greek and Roman sections are intertwined, even though the Romans came nearly 500 years after the Greeks. It's easy to see why both settled in the same spot: It's on the edge of a cliff, where attackers could be seen coming for days before they made it to the city.
The road that leads to the cities is lined with statues that are missing their heads, some of them, they say, beheaded by Gadhafi. But inside are sophisticated ruins with an amphitheater, houses and palatial baths. There are also old rail tracks from the time when visitors could take guided tours. Strolling families occupied every corner.
The liberated east is covered with anti-Gadhafi graffiti, but there's only one spot among the ruins that's littered with modern-day wall art, and it has nothing to do with the war. In the back of the cities is a cave, a nook where Libyan lovers meet for secret rendezvous, and to record their love: Fatma loves Saleh. Salem and Salwa are a couple, it seems.
We had one more stop to make: a rectangular pool in the ocean that was carved out of a reef, purportedly used by Cleopatra. As the sun set, Osama vowed that one day, when Gadhafi was gone, the whole world would come to Libya.
"We have everything in this country: mountains, water, oil. We only have one problem: Gadhafi," he announced at every stop.
We returned to the highway, and suddenly we were transported back to the modern day in the city of Tobruk, the last major city before the Egyptian border. It was the scene of major battles during World War II and there are French and British cemeteries, but it's hard to divine its historic importance.
Tobruk is run-down, neglected by the Gadhafi regime, as is much of the east. The Green Mountain and Libya's past were behind us, and once again we had to confront today's legacy.
In Tobruk, Libya seemed grimmer, given what was just an hour away. But it didn't matter. The chance to envision and experience Libya outside of Gadhafi's grip left us all feeling hopeful for its future.
At the end of the day, Suleiman, a 26-year-old Libyan far wiser than his years, turned to me and said: "That is the best time I have had here in months."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011