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Libyan Youth Voices: The Start of a Long Journey

09/04/2013 12:53 BST | Updated 05/06/2013 10:12 BST

This article is part of the Libyan Youth Voices series that the IPF is running in conjunction with theLibyan Youth Movement. LYV is an innovative project to give an international platform for young Libyans to talk, in their own words, about the past, present and future of their country.

'Libya? You mean Lebanon?' 'Oh Liberia?'

Before February 17, 2011 barely anyone who had asked me where I was from would know where Libya was. Most people would think I said Lebanon or Liberia, those who did know Libya, would automatically grin and say, 'Oh Gaddafi?' Most people who knew of Gaddafi, only thought of him as a harmless joke of a president. Barely anyone I encountered knew that he was the cause of widespread poverty, fear, oppression and ruthless authoritarian rule. No one knew he killed many young men based on pure suspicion. No one knew he killed my uncle, led to my grandmother's death and separated my family. It was hard for my family, who had fled Libya, to make friends with other Libyan families in fear that they may be linked to Gaddafi. After all, Gaddafi was known to go after his opposition whether they lived in Libya or abroad. I was always vaguely aware of my families disdain for Gaddafi.

The first time I became attentive to how my family felt about Gaddafi was when I was 10 years old and my paternal grandmother came to visit us. She would complain, cry and pray that her son would be released from Abu Salim prison after 10 years. He was imprisoned in September 1989, two weeks before I was born. His wife was 6 months pregnant with a son he would never see or hold. My parents never went into detail about Gaddafi or his crimes. So in my third year Human Right in History class, I decided to write an extensive report about the repression of civil and political rights in Libya. It was after thoroughly researching for this paper, using primarily Human Right Watch and Amnesty International as my main sources (since there were barely any journal articles written on the issue), and writing the paper, that I understood my dad's deep hatred for Gaddafi. I became frustrated. I wanted to change things. I would daydream of visiting Libya and going out at twilight while everyone was asleep and writing graffiti encouraging Libyan's to stay silent no more. To speak up against the injustices they had faced for 41 years. To reclaim their beautiful Libya. To live a dignified life with rights and freedoms. At the time, the very thought of optimism made me feel silly. How can a nation scared to even say the name of their authoritarian leader, frightened to flinch at the large posters of Gaddafi at every city checkpoint, afraid to criticize their living situation to their closest family and friends, how can this nation rise up and demand change?

I watched with baited breath and great admiration when the people of Tunisia and consequently the people of Egypt went out in protest against their authoritarian governments. I cried out of joy for them when they toppled their governments. I cried for Libya because I believed without a doubt that a revolution would never occur. Gaddafi had been in power longer than other rulers. He was able to control any opposition and Libyans were TERRIFIED of him. There was NO WAY Libya would have a revolution.

Then on February 15th, 2011, the citizens of Benghazi took to the streets demanding freedom and calling for the end of Gaddafi's 42 years of tyranny. Their peaceful protest was met with swift and violent action from the Gaddafi regime. Gaddafi's ruthlessness manifested itself into the mercenaries he hired to kill his own people. Libyan lives were in grave danger. I remember having extreme emotions. I was happy and excited that the Libyan people finally stood up to Gaddafi and his ruthlessness, but at the same time I was scared and worried about Gaddafi's reaction to the uprising. I remember my parents constantly calling our family members in Libya to get the latest news on what was happening on the ground in Benghazi. At first my family would be ambiguous in their responses to our questions because they still feared Gaddafi and believed the phones were tapped and that would be a target of an attack if they spoke ill of Gaddafi. However as the weeks progressed they were less and less afraid to disclose their hatred for Gaddafi and were increasingly more determined to join the cause in removing him from power. Here in Canada, Libyans felt the same sentiments; they tried to do whatever they could for Libya. We held fundraisers, protests; we sent shipments of basic needs to refuge camps and many Libyan doctors went to assist with the cause. Prior to the revolution the Libyan Canadian community was divided. The revolution brought us together, it created a sense of unity. I was exposed to not only Libyans in my area and across Canada, but also Libyans all over the world. Libyans inside and outside Libya worked together and did what they can with what they had to help. Race, locality, tribe...none of it mattered. The Libyan people had one common goal: To oust Gaddafi. To end 42 years of suffering. To live dignified lives.

Once that goal was achieved in October 2011, I saw changes. No longer were we as unified as before. Minute differences were causing deep divisions within our society. Libya was finally free but there was something missing. The Libyan people were misunderstanding the meaning of their newly found freedom. The lack of fear that I had witnessed during the revolution had once again surfaced in the form of uncertainty and extremism. People were no longer fearful of the government; they were afraid of each other. No longer did I see selflessness and unadulterated generosity. And the Libyans who want to make a difference and contribute to Libya's growth were met with laziness, lack of enthusiasm and corruption. This new post-revolution era has proved to be very painful for Libya. Everyone wanted Libya to fit their own beliefs and values. The weapons that were used against Gaddafi and his men were now used to kill each other.

These issues are an aftermath to a 42-year-old oppressive regime, which silenced its citizens. Everyone wants a say now. Everyone believes they deserve a say, even if it is at the expense of others. However, despite all the problems that Libya has faced and will continue to face, I still possess a glimmer of hope. It is not the same glowing and undying optimistic hope I had during the revolution, but it is faintly there. Libya has a lot of potential economically and politically and I know that it will take hard work and patience to get Libya to become a representative democracy, which protects its citizens and provides them with rights and freedoms. I pray that Libyans invest all the energy they are now using against each other towards uniting once again to create a better, democratic and free Libya.

This article was written by Khaoula Bengezi.