Thousands of people in Tripoli live in fear of secret police as they struggle with a shortage of food and fuel approaching a humanitarian crisis, several current and former residents of the Libyan capital said Tuesday.
As protests against longtime dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi have erupted across most of the North African nation since early February, the regime has terrorized most residents of Tripoli into submission, they told The Washington Times.
Security forces have rounded up a large number of residents, and parents have kept their children from school to avoid prying questions from teachers about loyalty to Col. Gadhafi. Facing a shortage of bread and gas, Tripoli is on the brink of a humanitarian crisis, many Libyan sources said.
Even a simple telephone call from an unknown person can cause panic among Tripoli residents.
“It is very dangerous. I could be in big trouble for talking to you,” Rehna, whose last name has been withheld out of concern for her safety, told a Times reporter calling from Washington.
Then after a brief pause, she explained: “Youre a journalist. And youre calling from America.”
Rehnas reaction is a symptom of the pervading fear described by residents of Tripoli and their relatives in the West.
They said security forces routinely arrest people on the mere suspicion that they have corresponded outside Libya by computer or phone.
Mohammed Ghennewa, a Libyan-American who worked at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli until he was evacuated in February, said the city is under siege.
People living in high-rise buildings tell him that pro-Gadhafi snipers have occupied the top floors. Mercenaries loyal to the regime are seen occasionally in the streets.
“Gadhafi has most of his security apparatus in the city. Tripoli was always tightly controlled by Gadhafi, and now it is even more,” said Mr. Ghennewa.
“People are afraid to talk to their neighbors because they dont know if they support Gadhafi.”
Mr. Ghennewa was kidnapped by Libyan intelligence agents in 2007 and accused of being a U.S. agent. He was kept in custody for 14 months.
Tripoli residents said the main reason for the absence of a full-blown uprising in their city is that they have no arms to take on the regime.
“In Tripoli, most people are against Gadhafi. But they don’t have weapons, so they can’t do anything,” Mr. Ghennewa said.
Dr. Esam S. Omeish, director of the Washington-based Libyan Emergency Task Force, said the fear is worse in Tripoli than when he grew up there.
“People feel they are being held hostage. They are living in extreme fear,” he said. “They cannot risk a comment. They cannot risk to be seen in places where there have been protests in the past.”
“That is the sense of fear that I remember as a child,” he recalled. “That was pervasive throughout Gadhafis rule, and now, with everything else, it is even more the case.”
Unlike in other parts of Libya, there are no distinct tribes in Tripoli, which makes it difficult to tell where peoples loyalties lie.
“None of our family is pro-Gadhafi, but nobody can say that,” said a Libyan-American who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The uprising, which started in Benghazi in the east, has spread to other parts of the country. The rebels now control most of the eastern half of Libya. The civil war has sparked large waves of refugees fleeing the fighting. More than 380,000 have escaped, most to Egypt and Tunisia.
Heavy fighting was reported from the eastern oil town of Brega on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, in Misurata, the only rebel-held city in the western part of Libya, pro-Gadhafi forces shelled the port, forcing rebels to evacuate the area, said Mohamed, a rebel spokesman whose full name is being withheld out of concern for his safety.
Mohamed said some aid ships that were on their way to the city had to turn back because of the heavy fighting.
T. Kumar of Amnesty International USA said the “intense crackdown and suppression of freedom of expression and movement may have contributed to the absence of any public display of [Tripoli residents] feelings.”
“We have seen support [for the regime], but opposing views have been silenced.”
Even some parents fear sending their children to school. Pro-Gadhafi teachers often interrogate students about their parents’ support for the regime, their stand on the civil war or even what TV channels they watch.
“The questions can only be interpreted as trying to gauge what side the parents are on, so parents are keeping kids at home because they are afraid the kids may say something and they will get apprehended because of that,” said Malak Adams, a Texas-based Libyan-American who has family in Tripoli.
Libyans and human rights officials said a large number of people have been arrested in Tripoli since the outbreak of protests on Feb. 17.
A human rights activist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said thousands of people had been detained. However, no official count is available.
“Amnesty International is extremely concerned for civilians in Tripoli and other places,” Mr. Kumar said. “Large numbers have been arrested.”
Tripoli was the scene of peaceful protests at the start of the uprising. The regime responded with force by shooting unarmed protesters in the streets. The brutality of that crackdown has left its scars.
Small groups of demonstrators still gather in parts of the city, but under the cover of darkness. Graffiti messages against Gadhafi are the only signs of their rendezvous when daylight breaks.
Meanwhile, Tripoli residents say there is a shortage of bread and gas.
The violence prompted people to panic and buy large supplies of food. Now those supplies are running low.
Some families have been forced to ration their food, while those with babies have it the hardest because of a scarcity of milk and infant formula. Long lines form daily at gas stations.
With most banks reportedly shut, Tripoli residents are scrambling to buy U.S. dollars, which are now worth almost three times a Libyan dinar, on the black market.
“Some families are eating just one meal a day. They are starting to panic,” said Ms. Adams. “People are too afraid to step out of their homes, let alone to go out and protest.”
They fear their houses will be taken over or looted by the regimes thugs in their absence, she said.
Many foreign firms have left Libya since the start of the uprising, putting a lot of Libyans out of work.
Abdul, a Libyan-Canadian whose daughter recently returned from Tripoli and whose full name has been withheld because he still has family in Libya, said Col. Gadhafis forces still have a strong grip on Tripoli.
“For the residents, it’s now down to surviving one day at a time,” he said.