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July 7, 2012: One of the most memorable and emotional days of our lives. Near the end of the day, I asked one voter how long he thought the ink on his finger would last. He answered, “I hope forever.”
This is it!
This is what we had come for. This is what Libyans had waited for for generations, and what far too many had died for. To say “excitement was in the air” is a pitiful understatement.
We were up before 6:00 am, and our 5 teams left to cover 5 different areas of Tripoli and region. We were very fortunate to be joined for the day by our Toronto friends, Dr. Ali Shickh, his daughter Fairuz, and Dr. Mansour Bendago. Although the whole observer team was sponsored by the Canadian Libyan Council, we felt that we could be called the “CLC car” as all of us but Oksana are CLC members, Dr Bendago is a vice president and Fairuz is a board member.
Our friend Khaled volunteered to drive one of the other teams.
Our role was strictly to observe, and to record. We were to see if proper procedures and regulations were followed, if voting was handled clearly, and if there were any violations, problems, or other issues. We could not report any of these to officials, stop anything from being done, and could not interfere in any way. We were free to ask questions, and to talk with voters – after they voted – about their experiences and thoughts.
We would record what we saw, and this information, along with that of thousands of other Libyan and foreign observers noted, would be used by the HNEC to assist them in improving the electoral process for future elections.
On the road
There are so many memories of that day that will stay with us forever.
There was the heat. Like most of our days in Tripoli, it was over 40C. But a stronger memory is of the sounds of the day…
From first thing in the morning, the streets were filled with the sounds of cars — often flying flags — honking. And everywhere, mosques were playing the Takbeer: a supplication (“God is great… There is no God but God”) played at Eid and other celebrations, but it is also associated with the Revolution and Freedom Fighters of 2011. No matter where we were in Tripoli that day, it was the constant backdrop to the events of this historic day.
People called to each other, and to us, “Allahu Akhbar” (“God is Great”) while flashing the “V” for Victory. As well, at every polling station we went we always heard the cries of “Welcome!” and “Thank You”. In the polling stations, periodically we’d hear the sounds of women ululating in celebration.
Those sounds were the constant backdrop to the visuals: red black & green everywhere, people smiling endlessly, inked fingers displayed proudly, and long lines of people standing in the sun. What’s another hour after waiting 42 years?
The polling stations
We reached the first polling station before it opened at 8 am. There was already a long line waiting to cast those first, historic votes. As we walked to the door, wearing our observer badges, we were greeted for the first time with those calls of “Welcome!” and “Thank You!”
All the polling stations we visited were in schools, and each school typically had several voting rooms, serving residents of different parts of the neighbourhood. There were separate voting rooms for men and women.
On entering our first room, we viewed the setup which would become familiar to us through the day. There were two sealed and labelled ballot boxes (orange for individual candidates, and blue for parties). The first voter finally signed in, received his colour-coded ballots, got his finger inked, and dropped the ballots in the boxes. Everyone in the room applauded, and I said to the others, “A lot of blood went into that ballot”.
It was our intention to talk with voters outside after they had cast their ballots, but we discovered that we rarely needed to approach anybody. They sought us out: to thank us, but mostly to tell us, in as forceful and passionate a manner as they could, how thrilled they were with Libya’s freedom and hopeful about its future.
Even more striking was how many people – on election day and at other times – insisted on making sure we knew just how evil Gaddafi was. They spoke at length, and looked at us intently to try to make us understand just how hated he and his family were. Young, old and in-between; in English, Arabic, or any other language they could muster. The most common words I heard all day besides “Welcome” were “Forty two years!” (The length of Gaddafi’s rule).
We “knew” all that, from our previous visits, our relationships with Libyan Canadians, and the news we had read over the years, but of course we didn’t – couldn’t – know it in the same way Libyans do. This trip has given me much more of an “appreciation” of the depths of Gaddafi’s evil. It was the cause of all that joy we experienced, it was visceral in the words and expressions of the Libyans who spoke to us. I’ve learned more about the depth and breadth of Gaddafi’s crimes in Lindsey Hilsum’s book Sandstorm which I read while in Tripoli (See final page) . Most powerfully, it seeped into our souls two days later when we visited Abu Salim Prison. (See next page)
We remember clearly the people standing in line for an hour or more, sun or shade, improvising whatever cover they could, and those lineups were long from the opening of the polls at 8:00 am. Those early lineups may have been to avoid the mid-day heat, but as the polling stations were relatively quiet in the cooler evening, it was most likely because people were eager to cast their first ballot.
There was plenty of security at all the stations, although neither we nor anyone else we spoke with saw any incidents. The level of security checks varied at different locations. We received the most thorough metal detection scans at neighbourhoods known to contain numerous Gaddafi supporters. (Those people did exist, and our friends remained puzzled why. Many of those supporters are poor. As we drove through the Abu Salim neighbourhood, looking at the conditions, Abdul Salam wondered why people who had “nothing” would support a leader who stole and squandered billions).
A few memories from that day
- We spoke with one man in traditional robe who had been part of a coup against Gaddafi in 1974. How could we understand what he felt today?
- A woman came in by wheelchair, looking frail and far older than her 86 years. Her son told us the family had urged her to stay home because of her condition. She would not. We spoke with an elderly man, whose grandson led him in by hand. Illiterate, he firmly placed his thumbprint on the registration form.
- These were people whose memories go back before Gaddafi, before the King, to the Italian occupation. They spoke about their joy today, but words (especially if translated) likely couldn’t do justice to their thoughts and emotions that day.
- Another grey-haired man came up to me, speaking in rapid Arabic. Dr. Bendago gave me the brief translation. “He wants you to know what an SOB Gaddafi was”.
- Some election officials said they had been up all night, in a mix of preparation and excitement. It would be a long, hot day. Polls were open for 12 hours and the count would be long with two ballots, many of which contained more than 100 names.
- The staff wiped sweat from their faces, and offered us tissues to do the same. (However, we were able to take a mid-day break, and returned to the hotel to shower and change).
When we finished our work, Ali drove us back to our hotel – with some difficulty.
When there is something to celebrate, Libyans love to celebrate in the streets, driving and… celebrating. The main roads were clogged as we got closer to the centre of town. Cars crawled, horns honked, flags waved, the “V” was flashed – especially with inked fingers — and “Allahu Akhbar” was in the air everywhere. People were happy!
After getting something to eat, I knew I had to get out and celebrate with everyone else. This was a moment I too had dreamed of, but never thought I would get to witness, much less be a part of.
I left the hotel around 10pm, and just followed the stream of celebrants. I knew I’d meet people along the way, and before long, connected with three young Libyan men who parked their car and were walking to the centre of town, to join the party.
Martyrs Square is the heart of Tripoli. Renamed Green Square during the Gaddafi years, it’s reverted to its original name, now more meaningful than ever. During the day, it’s remarkable most for its complete un-remarkability. The square itself looks like a parking lot, and there is nothing remotely attractive to it. It is however, where happenings happen. In the past, and especially last year, Gaddafi would make his “inspiring” speeches to his followers. If you saw videos of people bizarrely clutching photos of the Leader, and crying out their undying devotion to him, those were from Green Square.
Tonight, though the celebration was for the end of that era. By the time I got there, the crowds had begun to thin out a bit (but the party would continue through the night). It was still crowded enough though that the cell networks were jammed, and I wasn’t able to phone or text Khaled who was somewhere there.
On a side street, a rapper sang to a crowd gathered around him, dancing, and while most of the people out there, especially as the night went on, were young, there were many grandparents with grandchildren and parents and kids. I saw one car driving down a side street with an old man standing up through the sunroof, holding up the Libyan flag, beaming at everyone, even though he was blind.
My new friends and I walked between Martyrs and Algeria Square a few times, up and down the various streets. We talked about the events, who they voted for, and concerns for the problems Libya would still face, with the sounds and sights of celebration and joy the background everywhere we walked.
It was indeed, “A night to remember”.
Sharing the Moment
It was such a momentous day for Libya, and we had been so fortunate and honoured to be witnesses to it. We had thought we knew what this election meant to Libyans, but the experience of being in the middle of it, finally overwhelmed us with the raw emotions we shared the Libyans we met that day.
But it wasn’t just the people in Libya who were experiencing this. Libyans around the world — most exiled in one way or another because of Gaddafi — were also a part of this historic day.
Many of those Libyan citizens had fled because of political persecution, often to save their lives. Others fled freely, knowing there was no future for them in the oppressive Gaddafi-Libya. During the years in exile, they lived in great apprehension: for the future of their homeland, the safety of their family still there, and for many, in very real fear of spying or even assassination or kidnapping. We had learned over the past year or so how Libyan exiles abroad always had to be wary of other Libyans. There were many spies around them; Gaddafi’s reach extended around the world.
Here at home, Canada was one of six countries that hosted overseas voting by Libyan citizens. The voting had to be held in each nation’s capital, so Libyan-Canadians made their way to Ottawa. The experience of being able to vote freely — just to speak freely — was as emotional for overseas Libyans as it was for those we met in Tripoli.
The CBC reported the reaction of Salah Dau after voting in Ottawa:
“To be able to be free and express myself, express my opinion, to say what I feel about anything, it’s just unimaginable.”
We had spent so much time in 2011 with the Libyan-Canadian community at rallies, fundraisers, dinners and other events, that now we felt incredibly lucky to spend most of election day with some of our Libyan-Canadian friends with whom we had shared those moments, with whom we had shared a seemingly impossible dream. Now, it still seemed a bit unreal.
After all we had been through, I wanted to share a bit of the moment with our great friend Ibrahim Momen of the CLC. He had been involved in this struggle for many years, and it seemed virtually spent all of 2011 dedicated to the cause of Libyan freedom. So at one point on election day, I phoned him just so we could together savour what the day meant. He was at that point, driving home from Ottawa and we couldn’t talk long.
He tried calling me later that night, but while out on the streets of Tripoli, I missed his calls, and couldn’t call back, as the cell networks seemed to be saturated. Finally, in the wee hours of the morning, I returned to our hotel and went to bed. Sometime afterward, my phone rang. I knew it had to be Ibrahim. So did Oksana, so just after I answered, she called out “Allahu Akhbar”. So Ibrhaim told us later, he knew, hearing her, that there was no problem calling at that hour.
That night, indeed, the cliché was true. “It’s all good”