On February 15th, small groups of protesters, emboldened by similar movements across the region, peacefully took to the streets in Benghazi, Tripoli and other cities in Libya requesting constitutional reform and the removal of notorious dictator Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Gadhafi responded with bloodshed. Reports coming in from Tripoli and Benghazi over the following days spoke of unchecked violence. Groups of foreign mercenaries roving the streets beating and shooting those who oppose Gadhafi’s regime. Lybian fighter jets strafing and bombing the main square of Benghazi and Tripoli where the protesters had taken up residence.
Gadhafi and his sons defiantly spoke to their nation, swearing to fight to the last bullet and threatening the west with civil war before Gadhafi’s regime is made to leave the country. In less than a week since the worst violence broke out on February 17th, Gadhafi controls only Tripoli and the surrounding areas. At the cost of more than 1000 lives, according to CNN International. Benghazi and the rest of the country’s east is now under the control of pro-democracy Libyans who are trying to rebuild after the chaos.
A man waving the Palestinian flag leads the chants decrying Col. Moammar Gadhafi on the morning of February 23rd at Speaker’s Circle on the University of Missouri’s campus in Columbia, Mo.
Like the rest of the world, Lybians and those of Lybian decent here in Columbia, Mo. have eagerly watched the events unfold. On the morning of February 23rd, they organized their own rally held in Columbia’s busiest square, Speaker’s Circle, to raise awareness of what’s going on in Libya and support their cousins, aunts and uncles fighting for reform.
The rally was not exactly Tahrir Square in January, but the about 30 or so in attendance were just as vocal. Those gathered there brought signs showing images of those killed by Gadhafi’s mercenaries and chanted “down with Gadhafi” and other revolutionary slogans in Arabic and English.
Ahmed El-Tayash and his brother Osama, like other Libyans in Columbia, watched the uprising unfold on their laptops in Lybian refugee and Lybian National Council of Opposition member, Rashid Kikhia’s pizza shop, Rush’s Pizzera and Bakery, which has been made into a de facto headquarters for Libyans in Columbia.
Osama El-Tayash of Columbia, Mo poses for a photo at the rally held to raise awareness of the struggles of his Libyan relatives.
The pair have been in sporadic contact with their relatives in Libya over the phone and more often via facebook and twitter. Osama El-Tayash said it has been an emotional rollercoaster, watching the events unfold with no way to help directly.
“It’s tough. You feel helpless. You can’t send them relief,” Osama El-Tayash said. “This [rally] is the least we could do.”
Ahmed El-Tayash had been in contact with his relatives in Benghazi who described horrific scenes of carnage and chaos in the days following the 17th of February. Ahmed El-Tayash said African mercenaries paid per the kill and Libyan army helicopters were openly firing on those organizing against the Gadhafi regime.
He visited his family in Benghazi in 2003, when Gadhafi’s reign was still unchecked. He said signs of dictatorship were everywhere. Army and government officials openly brandished AK-47s and dissent is harshly punished.
“Everyone is scared to criticize the government,” Ahmed El-Tayash said. “They are scared for their lives.”
Now, Benghazi is under the people’s control, and Ahmed El-Tayash said it feels like the dawn of a new era.
“They are so happy,” Ahmed El-Tayash said. “The first time they’ve ever felt freedom was yesterday.”
Ahmed El-Tayash added that people in Benghazi are now trying to put their lives back together and rebuild after the choas. He said some of the protesters and army members who defected are trying to go to Tripoli, but a mercenary army stands between them and Gadhafi’s stronghold.
Ahmed El-Tayash communicated with his relatives in Benghazi during the uprising using social media like twitter and facebook. He said the sites have been instrumental in his international communication.
Ahmed El-Tayash explained that the mercenaries have come as a favor to Gadhafi, who spends large amounts supporting fellow African autocrats calls himself the “king of Africa.” He added that Libyan soldiers will not kill their own people.
Rashid Kikhia, a Libyian political refugee since 1996 and Columbia resident since 2002, was also at the rally. He spoke with a marked Libyan accent and his years of exile were written in his tired eyes and graying beard.
Kikhia comes from an affluent Libyan family with connections to the Libyan government. His uncle, Mansour Kikhia, was a ambassador for Libya that resigned and soon began criticizing his former employer. For his dissent, Mansour Kikhia was abducted from a human rights conference in Cairo on December 10, 1990 and has not been seen since. Rashid Kikhia, who was studying abroad in the United Kingdom at the time, decided that it was not safe to come home and sought political asylum as a refugee.
He said living as a refugee has been very hard on him and his health, but he’s never been happier than he is now.
“We’ve been working so long for this moment,” Kikhia said.
Kikhia’s restaurant has become the center for Libyans living in Columbia. Every day he says people gather around their laptops and cell phones and try to piece together what happening with their relatives in Libya. Kikhia is a vocal critic of Gadhafi and a media representative for the Libyan community in the United States at large, appearing on broadcasts of Al-Jazeera English and CNN Radio to speak about the Libya.
Even though he knows Gadhafi’s tactics well, he was still shocked by the images coming from Libya.
“Gadhafi is bloody. He makes Hitler look human,” Kikhia said. “We couldn’t believe what we saw.”
Rashid Kikhia, 39, left, said his life as a refugee has drained him, but he added he feels rejuvenated after hearing news that Libya is overthrowing its dictator. Kikhia pledges to return to Libya after Gadhafi is deposed.
Kikhia was disgusted with numbers of the dead reported earlier in the morning. He said over 1000 had been killed in five days of protest, with women and children among the dead. However, he thinks the killing “crossed the red line” and will end any support Gadhafi would have had among world leaders and conservative Libyans.
Both Ahmed El-Tayash and Kikhia are optimistic for the future like never before, but they know there are plenty of challenges in between the anarchy of a revolution and a stable, democratic Libya.
However, both men have faith in their Libyan relatives.
“The people will succeed it’s just a matter of time,” Ahmed El-Tayash said. “There’s no turning back. The lives they’ve lost would be wasted otherwise.”
Kikhia said he was impressed with the progress of the social network led revolutionary efforts. The protests brought down three dictators in two months, something no military in the world could do.
“It is an army with the weapon of freedom of speech,” Kikhia said.
Though Gadhafi and his family have warned of civil war before they leave the country, neither Ahmed El-Tayash nor Kikhia believe that will come to pass. Ahmed El-Tayash predicts nothing but celebration and unity like never before seen in Libya.
Rally attendees display their signs pleading for the removal of Moammar Gadhafi. One protester displays a sign with bodies of those killed by mercenaries loyal to Gadhafi.
Kikhia said Gadhafi has no support in the country. He said his regime is a radical sponsor of terrorism and religious extremism that does not reflect the thoughts and feelings of the average Libyan.
He is not threatened by Gadhafi’s pledge to “die a martyr.”
“The Italians couldn’t break us. Gadhafi will never do it,” Kikhia said. “He can’t threaten us. We will win or die.”
Kikhia and others on-hand at the rally urged the U.S. government to take action rather than make essentially empty statements. Kikhia specifically recommended that the world community put more pressure on African countries that sponsor Gadhafi.
Ahmed El-Tayash and Kikhia were adamant that troops should not be sent to Libya.
For now, the situation in Libya is uncertain, but Gadhafi’s grip on power appears to be slipping. Kikhia and Ahmed El-Tayash said their realitives in Benghazi have never been so happy, that there is hope like never before.
Kikhia himself thinks its almost time for him to end his life as a refugee and come home. He said though he is grateful for the freedom the U.S. has given him, he must return to his homeland.
“15 or 16 years now I have been working,” Kikhia said. “I can retire happy. I will go back.”