The outcome of Libya's stunning revolt remains uncertain, as I wrote about today (see story). But a few hours in the eastern city of Tobruk shows how much the country ruled by Muammar Qaddafi for 41 years has changed in just a week.
Foreign reporters like myself, viewed with fear and suspicion here for decades (since talking to one would likely earn a visit from the secret police, if not worse), are practically accosted by happy residents who want to tell their stories.
Consider my visit with a few other reporters today to a quiet shopping street, mostly shuttered, on a quest to buy Libyan phone cards.
A local man, who’d been helping to informally guard the central Tobruk square – where protesters with stones confronted, and defeated, Qaddafi’s police last week – acts as guide.
He knocks on doors, finds friends. One says he knows a guy and disappears down an ally. In the meantime a tray of Turkish coffee and china cups appears. A small group gathers. The friend returns with cards to add pre-paid minutes to Libyan phones, but not the SIM cards that are needed. He takes off again.
At this point about 20 Libyans have gathered, young and old. One’s brought the all-green Libyan flag introduced by Qaddafi after his 1969 coup, driving a car covered with a homemade version of the flag it replaced. As lighters come out to set it on fire, they heap abuse on Qaddafi.
“It’s all been inside for 41 years,” says our middle-aged guide. “Now it’s BOOM – like TNT!”
After their brief protest, we try to pay for the phone cards and SIM cards. The locals refuse all payment.
“The spirit here is just enormous,” says Saleh, a promising soccer player who played in the youth ranks at Barnsley in the UK and a few big clubs in the Gulf before his career was derailed by a knee injury. He was entertaining hopes of reviving his career when he moved back to Tobruk a year ago, but laughs when asked about his plans now.
“Football? I can’t even think about right now,” he says. “I’m here for Libya, and to make a real change.”