< Connecting Through a Revolution


Friday, August 24, 2012

BOB GARFIELD:  This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. One year ago this week, Libyan rebels took control of the capital city Tripoli, ending the 42-year rule of Muammar Qaddafi. When the Libyan uprising first began in February of last year, OTM Producer Sarah Abdurrahman took a holiday from straight journalism and became involved with something called @Feb17voices, a Twitter feed intended to keep information flowing out of Libya in case of a media blackout. Last month, she went to Libya to witness its election and to meet the people behind the voices.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  The @Feb16voices feed involved contacting people in Libya and recording their eyewitness accounts.


INTERPRETER:  We were unarmed but we were met with live ammunition in the streets.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Their stories were difficult to hear.

MAN:  They killed a woman who was outside her doorsteps screaming for her son. She wanted him to come home; they shot her down.

WOMAN:  And we couldn’t do anything but listen.


MAN:  You shooting at us something real ugly. Call me back. We’ll give you all the details.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  That last message was left on a Google Voice account by my husband’s cousin Osama. Like me, my husband Abdulla is the child of a dissident and, out of fear of endangering family back home, had never spoken to many of his relatives, including Osama - now suddenly a connection, a deep one.

INTERPRETER FOR OSAMA:  If we could get our hands on weapons, Abdullah, I swear to God we would get rid of this dog. You’re my uncle’s son. I have never laid eyes on you. This is the first time I’ve ever spoken to you. I swear to God, Abdulla, I swear to God, since I was a little kid, I dreamed that I would be able to talk to you. I used to be afraid to even have thoughts about talking to you.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  The February 17th Revolution brought people together in ways we couldn’t imagine. When the situation was desperate, we used the Internet and social media to get information out. But ultimately, we used it the way people do every day, to connect. And finally in Tripoli, on my way to meet one of my regular contacts during the Revolution, Hisham Buhagiar, who participated in last year’s protest. Here’s how he sounded then:

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  We saw the cars coming with a lot of soldiers. They started shooting immediately. I saw two people were shot, one of them in the head, was two meters away from me. I saw even one machine gun that’s mounted over a truck that was used to fight aircraft. That was used against the demonstrators.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Our connection was made through my father who Hisham had contacted shortly before the uprising began.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  I told him, listen, in a few days we will start something. Maybe it will end up in a big revolution, and can you help? We were thinking about a peaceful demonstration, and we will get the security by the media coverage, because if the media sees who we are, Qaddafi cannot hurt us. That’s what we thought at that time.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  How did you know in advance of February 17th to expect something?

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Through Facebook. I saw a lot of talking and people were outspoken and the talk was louder and louder. I confident something was gonna happen.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Hisham never used his real name with me. He knew the regime was watching. So he sent videos and updates with fake Facebook and Skype accounts.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  If you know a little bit about the communication equipment and the surveillance in Libya, you can work safety. Through our own satellite station, we can send or receive information through the Internet. We don’t open it all the time. You know, how I used to do it, I only open like for one hour, do my work and then shut it down.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Hisham was able to protect his communications but not himself. On February 25th he helped organize a peaceful demonstration after Friday prayer. He decided to talk to the police outside the mosque first.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  I was talking to the police in a nice soft voice, and their reaction was astonishing. They took the shotgun and immediately they shot at me. I was – I was really shocked, eh?

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  So I called you right after you got shot. You were apologizing to me, saying, Sarah, I’m sorry, I can’t really talk right now, I just got shot, but I’ll call you later. [LAUGHS]

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Yeah. That was also a hard day.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  I remember hanging up with you and saying, I can’t believe he’s apologizing to me. He just got shot!

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Yeah, I thought part of our war against Qaddafi was a media war, so I – I thought I’m doing my job. And it got to the point where I can’t do it anymore because I was shot.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Hisham fled the scene with 11 bullets in his leg but he couldn’t risk a trip to the hospital.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Because if they see the wounds, of course, they will arrest me and most probably, most probably they would kill me, eh? And this is what happened to a lot of people.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Hisham needed surgery, so he hopped the last commercial flight out of Tripoli, ending up in Belgium. That’s when I finally learned who he was, not a stranger, practically an uncle. He sent me a photo.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  It was a picture of you in Seattle, in probably 1985, at a picnic, and you were holding me.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  And I was one or two years old.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  And that’s when I first knew who you were.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Oh! Well, you’re the daughter of my friend and I feel like you’re my family, and I thought, okay, I should give you some confidence of knowing who I am.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  The surgeons were only able to remove some of the bullets in his leg, and Hisham anxiously returned to Libya. He says he couldn’t stand by and watch as the regime’s propaganda machine tried to convince the world that nothing was happening in Tripoli.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  We had to do something to show that Tripoli was against Qaddafi, to use the media, like Qaddafi is using it.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Early one morning Hisham and nearly three dozen others gathered at a well-known landmark in Tripoli. They blocked the streets with their cars, covered their faces and filmed themselves holding up anti-government banners, while a spokesperson read a statement.


HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  We said that Tripoli is not with Qaddafi and, we are not afraid of you. Okay, you are much powerful now but you will have to understand Tripoli will be like a burning stone under your feet.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Hisham says videos like that one broke the fear barrier, and protestors around the city began making symbolic gestures to show the world, and one another, that they were still around.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Symbolic things like, okay, the falling flag. You take a flag, dip it in water, put it in the freezer. And then at night we put it over a bridge. When the ice melts, then the flag drops immediately.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  So that there’s nobody there when the flag actually falls.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  Of course, of course. If they see you doing the flag, you – you’re gone, eh? Balloons – hot air balloons also with the flag, it was distracting for the government, so much. I saw one time, when the balloon came with the flag, maybe one-thousand bullets went to that balloon, I mean, just to, to try to get it down. For us it was an energizing thing to do.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Eventually, Hisham and many others took up arms and, along with NATO, defeated the regime. He also got shot in the legs a few times.


Today, Hisham has returned to a mostly civilian life, running his carpet and restaurant businesses. And as more exiles return to Libya, Hisham continues to make connections, reuniting with old friends.

HISHAM BUHAGIAR:  We have a meeting that we do every Wednesday in the, in the restaurant. Every time we bring somebody, it’s usually I didn’t see for 25 years, 30 years. And it’s really amazing, really amazing. It’s –


- it’s a totally different feeling.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Covering the Revolution on social media brought me together with someone with my past. For Ahmed Addarrat monitoring the Revolution on social media led him to a complete stranger, who would change his life.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  So I grew up in a Libyan exile community in Lexington, Kentucky, and all the people that I was around, they were all passionate about returning home to a free Libya. That passion really rubbed off on me.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  I’ve known Ahmed all my life. I also happen to be married to his cousin. In 2009, Ahmed and my husband Abdulla founded Enough Qaddafi, a group of second generation Libyan exiles trying to draw attention to the atrocities of the Qaddafi regime.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  Qaddafi and his son Saif were kind of starting to get a little comfortable with the West. Saif even tried to reach out to young Libyan Americans such as myself to basically jump on his bandwagon – you know, hey, come on this trip, basically trying to buy them.

RAHMA GIBANI:  I’m Rahma Gibani. I was one of those that was sucked up in the bribes they had for us, who actually were invited out for free, to come visit Libya for the summer.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Rahma Gibani was raised in California and went to Libya on a regime-sponsored trip in 2010, after which her family decided to move there. A year later, she watched with anticipation as the Arab Spring began in Tunis and spread to Egypt. When Rahma started seeing rumblings calling for a Libyan Day of Rage, February 17th, she created an image in support of the event and posted it on Facebook.

RAHMA GIBANI:  I was like, yay!.  We’re finally next in line, it’s our turn now.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  So this girl named Rahma, I saw her post this February 17th graphic that she made, you know, Come Out, Protest. And then I found out she was in Tripoli, and I was like, what is she doing. So I messaged her, I was like, what are you doing right now? You’re in Tripoli and you’re doing stuff like this.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  After that meeting on Facebook, they decided to stay in touch. And a few days later, Rahma, with her father and brother, joined an anti-government protest in Tripoli. She called Ahmed.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  And she’s all excited, “Oh my God, we’re protesting! There’s like 300, 500 people here.” That was the first time that she called me, the first time we actually spoke on the phone. I hung up, I was like, oh my God, this is freakin’ awesome!

RAHMA GIBANI:  And sooner or later, all I see is the SWAT team shooting. Everyone just disperses. And a guy comes, I mean, he’s like, “you run.” So I just starting running, and that’s when I called Ahmed.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  And she’s like [BREATHING] out of breath. She’s like, “Oh my God, they started shooting, oh my God.”

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  As she was running away, Rahma let us record her for the voices feed.

RAHMA GIBANI:  They just brought the cops. We were about 300 people, and the cops came and they started shooting gun fires at us. So we’re trying to just – escape.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Rahma continued to give regular updates, to Ahmad, to @Feb17voices and to the international media.

FEMALE JOURNALIST:  Rahma is a Libyan activist. She joins us now on the line from the Libyan capitol Tripoli. Rahma, thanks for speaking to Al Jazeera.

RAHMA GIBANI:  In the Green Square there’s been riots. There’s sniper shooters on the rooftops, ready to shoot anybody who does any suspicious movements…

RAHMA GIBANI:  I just felt like, you know, I need to do something on my part. I had CNN and I had Al Jazeera International. I had BBC. They would literally call me all day. Later, we started hearing that people were getting taken in because they were calling news media.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  At that time, I was like, man, that girl’s, she’s got some guts, man! That was that first spark of attraction. She would give me regular updates as to what was going on. Every time she would hear the NATO strikes, she’d be like, yeah, I heard at least ten or twenty strikes, one after another. Then after that, the strikes started to become a regular thing. So it just started to become, hey, I’m checking up on you, and then it would turn into a regular conversation.

RAHMA GIBANI:  I was like, oh, who’s this guy checking up on me and caring, and once in a while he would call me ‘Sweetie’ and I would get like butterflies in my stomach.


And I’m like, oh my God, he called me ‘Sweetie. ‘[LAUGHS]

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  The conflict wore on for months, and they grew closer every day. Rahma was careful, talking only in secret and swapping SIM cards in her cell phone. But Qaddafi forces confiscated her phone after seeing her use it to film a long line for gasoline, a common sight those days because of the fuel shortages. She thought she was safe. Just the week before, water had damaged her old phone and her new one had no contact numbers and no incriminating messages. But she didn’t know that one of her cousins, with her face covered, had taken a picture of herself in front of the revolutionary flag, using Rahma’s phone. When the soldiers saw the photo, they pointed a Kashnikov rifle at Rahma and her 14-year-old sister, all the way to the detainment center.

RAHMA GIBANI:  And the whole time I was like panicking. I looked at my sister and she’s wearing the same exact jacket as the girl in the picture. So I told my sister, I was like, oh I’m really cold, give me your jacket. And I was holding her hand tight, and I told her I love you, and we just started praying.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  After hours of questioning, Rahma was able to convince her interrogators that she wasn’t the girl in the picture. She and her sister were released, but her family decided it was time to leave. They eventually made their way to the Eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, which Qaddafi forces had lost early on in the uprising. In the months that followed, Qaddadi was killed and Ahmad went to Libya for the first time in his life.

AHMED ADDARRAT:  And I had like this out-of-body experience. I couldn’t believe it. I was lookin’ around, I was like, I’m in Libya. I’m in Libya right now. It was like a dream


RAHMA GIBANI:  July 1st, 2012, we got married. [LAUGHS]

AHMED ADDARRAT:  July 1st we had our wedding ceremony.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  What the hell are you guys gonna talk about now? I mean, your courtship happened during a, a revolution, a revolution that nobody imagined would ever actually happen in Libya. I mean, gonna talk about groceries now? Like life’s gonna seem so boring now. [LAUGHS]

RAHMA GIBANI:  Oh, I’m gonna call him and be like, yeah, there was like five airstrikes, you know, just to heat things up.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Ahmed and Rahma’s wedding also marked the symbolic end to exile for many of the guests, who traveled from everywhere to attend. The party was epic, but an even bigger celebration was coming.


It’s Election Day in Libya.


I’m standing in the middle of Martyr Square, formerly Green Square. That honking that you’re hearing is the melody of a chant that people here have been singing during the Revolution, and it goes [ARABIC] [رفع راسك عاليا، وكنت ليبي الحرة], and that means “Raise your head up, you’re a free Libyan.” And so, all over the city today people have been honking that melody as part of the celebration and the festivities.


Now, for me, this story isn’t about media anymore. It’s not about people connecting online, on Facebook or on Twitter. It started there, but it ends here –


- with people connecting to their homeland, specifically my dad who, after more than 30 years in exile, was finally able to return to Libya last year. I’ve barely been able to see him during this trip because since November he’s been serving as the country’s Minister of Higher Education. But Election Day is a national holiday, so we’re sharing a rare moment together. He’s taking me to see his old elementary school.

MR. ABDURRAHMAN:  Which was the only elementary school in this part of the city.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Did you guys do your homework on stone tablets?

MR. ABDURRAHMAN:  I – no, actually, it was much more advanced then than now. We had much better classrooms and we even had school buses. We don’t have any of that now. And there used to be a, a church here in this corner of the school and a post office on this corner. And that’s the school.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  How do you still remember where everything is? It’s been more than three decades.

MR. ABDURRAHMAN:  You don’t forget these things.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Today’s election marks the first time since 1965 that Libyans have been able to vote, and on this day three generations of my family went together to see democracy in action.


My grandfather says he’s been waiting for this day his whole life. But he finally feels pride for his country.


And my normally cranky grandmother:


I’ve never seen her as happy as when she talks about voting today.


And my aunt, snapping her photo, as she dropped the ballot into the box.


So I see my mom coming out of the – area right now. She’s waving her ink-stained finger. How was it?

MRS. ABDURRAHMAN:  I felt I did something right for my first time in this place here.


So I’m so excited. I feel I want to jump and do things like a little girl. [LAUGHS] I’m so excited, so happy. I want to cry too.

SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  Okay, and now my dad just came out. He’s wiping {LAUGHS] his finger. So how was it?

MR. ABDURRAHMAN:  It was good. These are very special times for Libya and Libyans, of course, to be able to vote for the first time after so many years. People paid a very high price for this moment.

MRS. ABDURRAHMAN:  I can feel the, the people who are, who are not with us now, that’s painful. And I wish – I wish they were with us so, they can see or they can feel that they start. Inshallah. We’re going to be – fine.


SARAH ABDURRAHMAN:  The Election Day celebrations went on into the early morning, and this month Libya saw its first peaceful transition of power, when the National Transitional Council passed the baton to the newly elected General Assembly.


Libya is collectively healing from months of war and decades of oppression. Institutions are being built from scratch. A phrase I frequently hear is, Libya Hurra or Libya is Free, often just used to justify doing whatever you want. And most Libyans here have no real memory of what freedom is. But maybe, as my father said about his old school, “You don’t forget these things.”  For On the Media, I’m Sarah Abdurrhaman.



Ahmed Addarrat, Hisham Buhagiar, Mariam Eddeb, Naeem Gheriany and Rahma Gibani

Produced by:

Sarah Abdurrahman