Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Libyan Prisoner Lives to Tell His Story


The New York Times

September 3, 2011

A Libyan Prisoner Lives to Tell His Story



HE was my confidential source in the Libyan military this spring, an officer who passed on secret information about disaffection in the ranks of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. And then as the Libyan revolution spread, he made bombs and smuggled weapons into Tripoli to help overthrow the Qaddafi government.

But then Salem al-Madhoun, 47, was arrested three weeks ago, captured after the Qaddafi forces detected his Thuraya satellite telephone transmissions. I received an urgent message about his capture, and I assumed that by now he must have been tortured and executed. On arriving here in Libya, I set out to comfort his widow.

That proved unnecessary.

When rebels liberated the Abu Salim prison in Tripoli, they found Madhoun: skeletal and tortured, but alive. Now he is the hero of Tajoura, the suburb outside the capital where he lives, and in long conversations in his office and home he recounted the full story of how he came to help overthrow the government.

Madhoun studied electrical engineering in France, and as an engineer he rose in the ranks of the navy. When the Libyan revolution began in February, his ship was ordered to attack Benghazi, but he, instead, plotted to defect and sail his ship to Malta. Through an intermediary at that time, he asked me whether he could get American protection while the ship was at sea.

I’m not in the business of providing air cover, but I wrote a blog post then urging the Obama administration to create a safety corridor to protect Libyan ships seeking to defect. Then Madhoun heard from fellow officers that he was about to be arrested, and he changed plans. He recorded a video on board his ship, announcing his defection and calling on other military officers to join his mutiny.

I was in Cairo then covering the revolution at Tahrir Square and received a frantic call: Would I put the video online? I agreed to do so but asked about Madhoun’s family. He was in hiding, but what if the government took revenge on his pregnant wife and three children? I didn’t want that on my conscience, and I suggested that Madhoun think it through carefully. He consulted with his wife, Samah, who was outraged at the way he was placing his family at risk.

“I told him it’s a big mistake,” she recalled to me. “ ‘Why don’t you think before you do this?’ ”

Somewhat sheepishly, Madhoun sent word that I shouldn’t mention his name after all, and we dropped the idea of showing the video. He disappeared into hiding, along with his family, and began to help organize the underground resistance in the Tripoli area.

Working with a force that he says consisted of around 1,200 underground rebels, he smuggled weapons in by boat and bombed security offices. He sent targeting data to French government contacts so that NATO could bomb military sites.

Libyan women have received little attention in the uprising, but, behind the scenes, they played a significant role. Even Madhoun’s daughters, ages 11 and 14, volunteered to sew rebel flags, which other family members then hung from mosques and schools to spread the message of resistance.

“This is the time to fight Qaddafi,” Madhoun’s 18-year-old niece, Rehab, remembers telling him, and she pleaded for any assignment in the underground. An engineering student who speaks excellent English, Rehab also began painting dramatic anti-Qaddafi graffiti around Tripoli — sometimes in English so that foreigners would know that the opposition was alive. She also used her engineering skills to tap into the Internet, which the government had blocked, to send messages to the outside world.

In May, Madhoun was picked up in a routine police sweep, but he lied about his identity and claimed to be a simple vegetable seller. After four hours and a beating, he was released. But then, on Aug. 10, police found Madhoun’s hide-out, and his world collapsed.

“When they arrested me, I knew I was going to be killed,” he recounted. He says he was subjected to horrific electric shocks in interrogations overseen by Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, one of Muammar’s sons.

“What helped me endure torture was reciting the Koran,” he said, adding that he never gave up names. After less than two weeks, rebels stormed the prison and named Madhoun the military commander of the newly liberated Tajoura area. He now has an escort of bodyguards as he strolls through the neighborhood — rapturously greeted by neighbors.

Americans are wondering and worried about who Libya’s new leaders are, and whether they can knit the country together. In truth, these new leaders include all kinds, but I’m reassured and inspired when I meet those like Madhoun. It’s impossible to know what lies ahead for Libya, but Madhoun’s story is a window into the grit and vision that made the entire Arab Spring possible, from Tunisia to Syria. Yes, the movement was facilitated by Facebook and Twitter, but so many people lost lives or limbs. This was no armchair revolution.

Madhoun acknowledges that the hard work is only just beginning. Yet he is guardedly optimistic that Libya can build a modern multiparty democracy — and he hopes that President Obama will soon come to Tripoli so that the Libyan people can thank him and all Americans for their support.

“My death was inevitable,” he said, “but I am alive thanks to God and NATO.”

I invite you to comment on this column on my blog, On the Ground. Please also join me on Facebook and Google+, watch my YouTube videos and follow me on Twitter.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218.  Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] Go to


"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs


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