Paradise Lost

The squatters living in the late dictator Muammar al-Gaddafi's former pleasure palace

Arts+Culture Feature
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Taken from the July Issue of Dazed & Confused:

We're around 60ft up, sitting on the roof of a partially collapsed building. All we can see in every direction is rubble, broken concrete, crumbling towers and thickets of trees. A Toyota Hilux creeps down one of the hundreds of paths that thread their way through the shattered landscape. It's one of the many patrols that regularly sweep through this area. In the truck are militiamen of some kind, possibly members of the same militia that tried to kick us out a couple of hours ago. But from up here the Toyota looks tiny and completely harmless.

This wasteland is all that is left of Muammar Gaddafi's Bab al-Azizia compound. Before the revolution, the place was a 6km-square mass of impenetrable luxury. It not only provided a home for the Libya leader and his family but also contained barracks and all the amenities of a large town: a cinema, a swimming pool, gyms, gardens, a mosque and a football pitch.

Now all that is gone. After the liberation the new revolutionary government sent in bulldozers to finish the job that the Nato bombers had started, but never succeeded in flattening it completely. The plan was to build a public park on the site, which lies just on the outskirts of Tripoli, but it hasn't materialised, and the ruins are now home to over a thousand squatters, driven here out of desperation in the wake of the country's revolution.

In many ways Libya has fared better than other nations that rose up during the Arab spring. It has avoided a prolonged bloody conflict like the war that's still raging in Syria, and its oil wealth means it hasn't ended up in a desperate economic situation like Egypt. Nevertheless, it's still a long way from being able to offer security and political stability to its people. Assassinations occur on a monthly basis, guns are everywhere and the nation's politicians are locked in a precarious struggle for power.

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Over recent months Libya has seen armed protests and brawling in the streets as the country argues about how far a purge of officials with ties to Gaddafi should go. Ahead of a vote on the issue in Libya's congress, gunmen laid siege to the ministry of justice and ministry of foreign affairs for a whole week, barricading the entrances with trucks armed with heavy weapons and calling for a strict exclusion policy that could see thousands of officials stand down. This chaotic political climate means looking out for the country's poor is low on the list of priorities for those in power.

As we drove into the compound we were stopped by a crew of immigration officers who told us we shouldn't enter but let us pass anyway. Next we were stopped by a member of the Supreme Security Committee, an organisation made up of a number of different rebel militias that fought during the revolution and which the government is struggling to phase out. He got agitated when he saw our camera and sped off in his truck to get his boss.

After half an hour of wrangling and presenting various official-looking pieces of paper we eventually convinced the boss to let us through, but he told us not to talk to or take photos of anyone. "The people living here are not what they seem," he said. "Many are not Libyans, and many have two homes. They just pretend to live here to try and extort money from the government."

As we crossed the peripheries we saw untended, smouldering fires. We passed through partially destroyed concrete archways and clambered around upside-down, burnt-out buses. We also spotted uncovered entrances to an underground network of tunnels that, rumour has it, includes escape tunnels that reach to the sea, a couple of miles away, and into the old quarter of central Tripoli.

My Libyan friend Moe was dismayed. Moe was among the rebels who laid siege to the compound in the days that preceded Tripoli's liberation. He drives past the compound almost every day, but this is the first time he's been back inside since it was seized from Gaddafi's forces. "We try to make it safe to live here, but it's still not a safe place. Recently we found four bodies, three women and one man. Each one had been shot in the head. When we gained control of the area there were signs of a fight but it wasn't like this," he said. "The lawns were perfect and the buildings still had a certain grandeur even after all the bombing. Since then the buildings have been looted for all they're worth, and people from miles around come here to dump their rubbish.

We passed piles of broken toilets, broken glass and rusting machine parts. There were palm trees with holes bored all the way through them, as if they'd been blasted by some powerful projectile.
At first it seemed deserted apart from the patrols, but after a while we started spotting signs of life, such as a curtain across a doorway and a washing-up bowl outside a hut.

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When we got about a kilometre into the compound, we started climbing up buildings to try to make sense of the landscape around us. We finally reached the top of one of the taller towers; it may be missing walls and windows and the marble staircase may be cracked but the building itself still seems quite solid. While we're looking around a series of loud bangs ring out across the wasteland. I ask Moe hopefully if someone is setting off fireworks, but he says it's a Kalashnikov being fired.

Coming down from the tower, we decide to approach one of the militiamen who have been watching us. Unlike the other men who stopped us he isn't wearing any kind of uniform, just camouflage trousers and a black t-shirt. He tells us his name is Abdul Baset Al-Shibl and gives us a vague explanation about his role at Bab al-Azizia, saying it's something to do with the interior ministry. He seems pretty friendly and tells us that one of the buildings we just climbed used to be a library and another was a home for some of Gaddafi's family members. He offers to show us around, and we jump in his beat-up Mitsubishi.

As we trundle deeper into the compound down its narrow paths, Al-Shibl tells us his militia helped to create a database of everyone living in the compound. He says there are more than 300 families, each with a number that has been sprayed on the wall next to where they're living. Al-Shibl says they gave a copy of the database to the interior ministry but so far nothing has been done about the situation. "Before we started patrolling this area there was a lot of trouble,"he tells us as he drives.

"We try to make it safe to live here, but it's still not a safe place. Recently we found four bodies, three women and one man. Each one had been shot in the head."

Eventually we drive into one of the compound's wooded areas and park up next to a small yellow block of rooms. Washing is hanging outside and children are playing, racing on their BMXs while their mother watches over them.

After showing us around some burned-out underground rooms that, he says, used to be prison cells, Al-Shibl introduces us to the family living next door. The woman tells us to call her "Abdullah's mother," and says she's been living in Bab al-Azizia for six months. "Living here is a big problem," she says, "especially for the children. There's rubbish everywhere and people get sick all the time."

Abdullah's mother is dressed in a crazy pink dressing-gown with cartoon faces all over it, and on her feet she's wearing multicoloured sandals with beads all over them. At first she talks slowly, as if she's so weary she can hardly speak, but she slowly becomes more animated. Before moving to Bab al-Azizia she lived in the old town in the centre of Tripoli, but they couldn't afford the rent and had to move her family out. 

She tells us she hated having to bring her children here to live, but there is a certain sense of justice in reclaiming the compound from Gaddafi. "I wish we weren't living here, but in a way it's good that normal people are putting the place to good use."

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