Libya: The Price of Freedom

Posted September 7th, 2011 at 6:22 pm (UTC+0)

Arm chair generals watching Libya from afar ask: why are the rebels dragging their feet in attacking Sirte?

The birthplace of Moammar Gadhafi, this Mediterranean seaport is the last holdout of Gadhafi loyalists on the coast between Tunisia and Egypt.

In the last desert war to sweep across Libya, British 8th Army soldiers died in 1942-1943 in a campaign to end Italian colonialism in Libya and Nazi control of North Africa. From Britain, India, Sudan, and South Africa, soldiers are buried in Tripoli's War Cemetery. VOA Photo: James Brooke

Gadhafi lavished public works spending on his hometown, building an assembly hall where he proposed that Sirte serve as administrative capital for a “United States of Africa.”

Last week, after losing control of Tripoli, Gadhafi proclaimed Sirte to be the capital of his Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.

Rebel columns now surround Sirte. But they have given city and military authorities 10 days to negotiate a surrender of the city. The deadline is now Sept. 10.

Friday afternoon, I got an insight into the reasons for rebels’
patience. I hunted down the Tripoli War Cemetery, a little visited reminder of World War II that lies largely forgotten behind apartment blocks in Tripoli’s Mansour district.

I went there because my father, John L.B. “Jack” Brooke, drove an ambulance during the North African campaign, essentially from Cairo to Tunis, passing through El Alamein, Tobruk and Benghazi. A volunteer for the American Field Service, he was attached to the British 8th Army.

Most of Commonwealth soldiers buried in the cemetery came from military hospitals set up in Tripoli after it was liberated from German-Italian forces by the 8th Army on Jan. 23, 1943. Undoubtedly, some of the men buried here passed through the back of my father’s ambulance.

Pallets of newly carved headstones await intallation to replace stones damaged by decades of desert winds. Work at British cemetery was suspended after Gadhafi mob partially burned British Embassy, protesting Britain's air war support for rebels. VOA Photo: James Brooke

The cemetery is well maintained, with drought resistant dull green grass that crunches underfoot. Date palms provide islands of shade in a sea of 1,369 tombstones — row upon row of sun-baked stones, honoring young men from Britain, Sudan, India, and South Africa.

One British headstone, probably carved in the late 1940s, memorializes a 19-year-old man who “will be forever cherished by his grandmother, mother and father, and brothers and sisters.”

Another, picked at random, reads: “Treasured memories of Bill. Loving husband of Peggy. Darling Daddy of Norma. We shall meet again.”

To ponder these rows of stones is to glimpse lives cut short, weddings canceled, children never conceived, children who never knew their fathers.

This year, Libya has lost an estimated 50,000 men in its six month revolt. That is a staggering amount in a sparsely populated desert nation of only 6.4 million people.

Libya’s uprising was a bloody, city by city revolution — not an urban riot over high bread prices, not a surgical military coup.

James Brooke, son of American Field Service ambulance driver John L. B. Brooke, stands at Tripoli War Cemetery. VOA Photo: Khaled Ben Yala

To the west, Tunisia, with twice Libya’s population, lost only 224 lives in its January revolution.

To the east, Egypt, with 10 times Libya’s population, lost only 846 in its February revolution.

In American terms, Libya’s fatalities would be the equivalent of 2.4 million lives lost in six months.

Yes, the rebel forces massed around Sirte can physically crush this last major stronghold of “Gadhafis.”

But no, rebel leaders do not want more lives lost in Libya’s costly civil war.

James Brooke
James Brooke is the Russia/CIS bureau chief for Voice of America. A lifelong journalist, he covered West Africa, Brazil, the American Rocky Mountain States, Canada, and Japan/Korea for The New York Times. A resident of Moscow since 2006, he was first Bloomberg bureau chief for the region. In 2010, he joined VOA. In addition to writing Russia Watch, his weekly blog, he also does video, radio and web reports from Russia and the former USSR.

5 responses to “Libya: The Price of Freedom”

  1. Aradia says:

    Biased journalism, anyone?

  2. S. N. Giggles says:

    What difference will the ‘rebels’ make? ABSOLUTELY NONE.

    Out with the old tyrant … in with the new.

    This will repeat itself in a few years.

  3. James Brooke says:

    To SN Giggles,
    I do not share your cynicism/skepticism.
    The Libyans I talked to are very relieved to have emerged from decades of kooky rule.
    In five years, I bet, Libya will be a boring, rich Arab country. Journalists will have to twist their editors arms to get funding for a visit.
    Kind of like Chile — hot in 1973.
    Now as exciting as Denmark.
    Boring for journalists, no so bad for the people who live there!
    Jim Brooke

  4. John Huffhines says:

    Very interesting. I think a good bit of time will pass before we know what’s it going to be like.

    We had an Egyptian Christian speak to our Methodist Sunday School class last Sunday. If Libya is like Egypt, according to this Egyptian we have a lot worry about.



James Brooke is VOA Moscow bureau chief, covering Russia and the former USSR. With The New York Times, he worked as a foreign correspondent in Africa, Latin America, Canada and Japan/Koreas. He studied Russian in college during the Brezhnev years, first visited Moscow as a reporter during the final months of Gorbachev, and then came back for reporting forays during the Yeltsin and early Putin years. In 2006, he moved to Moscow to report for Bloomberg. He joined VOA in Moscow in 2010. Follow Jim on Twitter @VOA_Moscow.



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