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Three Columbia residents share strong ties with Libyan rebels

Tuesday, September 6, 2011 | 8:51 p.m. CDT; updated 7:52 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, September 7, 2011
Ahmed El-Tayash's cousins Badir and Farag Bujazia and others wait at a bus station in Benghazi, Libya, for their ride to the port to aid Misrata, Libya, on June 3.

COLUMBIA — The flags of the revolution are painted on lamp poles. They hang by the hundreds in the streets. They're pasted on tree bark, painted on the sides of buildings, flown from the roofs of homes whose families only a few months ago would have feared arrest or worse for displaying them.

Ahmed El-Tayash of Columbia, who visited Libya in May and June, was shocked at the change he saw in the nation of his father's birth. He last went to Libya in 2003, when Moammar Gadhafi still held the grip of power over the people.

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“In 2003 everything had been green, Gadhafi's color,” he said. But this time, “as soon as I crossed the border, I saw the revolution flag.”

After walking across the mile-long border from Egypt to Libya, the flag — which had been the Libyan flag before Gadhafi's dictatorship — signified a welcoming. Libyan guards at the border crossing hugged El-Tayash before he fell to his knees and kissed the ground. 

El-Tayash was born in the U.S., but his father and mother emigrated from Libya to Columbia in the 1970s after seeking political asylum as Gadhafi dissidents. Their family now owns Campus Eastern Foods and Casablanca Restaurant.

Now 29, El-Tayash had not seen his family since his last visit. Their hometown of Benghazi has changed dramatically.

The revolution in Libya officially began Feb. 15. In Benghazi, the protests became enormous. During the early days of the uprising, El-Tayash's cousins joined the marching crowds and eventually made their way to the front lines.

“When I would talk on the phone with them they would say, 'We smell freedom.' You think that it’s just a saying. But you really can smell freedom,” he said.

Not all of his relatives escaped the fighting with their lives. The cousin of his wife, Fakhri Al-Sallabi, was one of the only jet pilots bombing Gadhafi's army as it advanced on Benghazi early in the revolution. His plane was hit after he had attacked the dictator's ships and tanks. Rather than jump to safety, he guided the plane away from the city. He died when it crashed.

“(My wife) had a rough couple of days” after hearing the news, El-Tayash said.

Enthusiasm for the fight was apparent everywhere El-Tayash went. Once, when stopping at a convenience store, he met a group of men traveling in a truck to the Misrata battlefront.

“They were so excited to fight,” he said. “They look like they're going on vacation, and they're going to one of the bloodiest wars in history.”

Now everyone is involved in the uprising, El-Tayash said. Women open their kitchens to soldiers; others clean the streets, bring water to fighters or keep children active in a time without school; and boys as young as 14 volunteer for the revolutionary army.

“Now people hold doors for each other,” he said. The tribal and regional loyalty of the past has all but vanished. “It's all about helping each other survive.”

El-Tayash visited a training compound for the rebels. There, he witnessed brigades practice marching and lining up. They cleaned guns and learned to shoot them in training sessions that lasted from two to four weeks. The facilities used were old training centers for Gadhafi's soldiers.

“You just want to shake their hands,” El-Tayash said of some new recruits he met. They stood waiting for their training, wearing T-shirts and jeans. Most had never fired a gun.

El-Tayash stayed in Benghazi for a little more than three weeks. He left Libya in June. On his way out of the country, some soldiers stopped him, ordered his driver to leave, then searched his things. They took him to their car, where he sat next to a teenager bearing an AK-47 and staring at him, motionless.

El-Tayash didn't know if the men were rebels or loyalists. He knew the stories of torture under the Gadhafi regime. He had visited Gadhafi's compound. The underground jail was filled with prison cells, some with scratched patches of dirt where the prisoners had been forced to dig makeshift toilets.

El-Tayash had decided from the beginning of his trip that he would rather die than be tortured. Under the eyes of the young soldier, he began to devise a plan for getting them to kill him rather than take him prisoner.

Eventually, the soldiers — who were rebels — realized he was not a suspect and let him go. They had been searching for Gadhafi loyalists and the men responsible for bombing a hotel. Once it was clear he was on their side, El-Tayash and the soldiers took pictures together, and he crossed into Egypt.

Now back in Columbia, El-Tayash feels the return home was bittersweet. After learning of the fall of Tripoli, he felt the pang of missing the triumph that had only been a hope months before.

“It was the best day of my life,” he said. “I wish I was there. I'd give anything to be there.”

He and his family called relatives in Benghazi but could barely understand them.

“They were so happy they couldn't even speak,” he said.

Although Tripoli may belong to the revolution, the end of the war is far from over. A government must be put in place before the country regains its stability. El-Tayash has faith in the ability of the National Transitional Council to transfer power to an elected government.

“Anything is better than Gadhafi,” he said.

Ty Cacek

At the same time El-Tayash celebrated the fall of Tripoli with his family, Ty Cacek made desperate calls to editors in an attempt to get himself and his camera there.

“I wanted to witness some sense of closure,” he said. “Just to see people feel the final moment of freedom.”

Cacek, a 20-year-old MU photojournalism student, had been to Libya twice in February and March. He took pictures in hospitals and on the front lines, traveling with journalists in Benghazi as the fighting reached its peak.

Cacek had been in Uganda on another assignment when the revolution erupted in Libya. Only 13 days later, he was there. He had never covered a conflict zone.

He was alone when he entered the country, with neither a translator nor a "fixer," a local guide who helps foreign journalists understand the culture. Cacek found his  way to Benghazi from the border by staying with families. One person gave him a coat; another gave him a cellphone when his didn't work.

After finding a fixer, Yusuf, he began to visit hospitals, mosques, funerals and street demonstrations. At one hospital — the one closest to the front lines — he saw children who had been shot by Gadhafi's men with machine guns as they tended sheep.

The hospitals were grossly understaffed, and Cacek witnessed medical students performing procedures beyond their expertise — on men, women and children.

“Everyone was vulnerable,” he said. People had no time to escape after Gadhafi swore no mercy on Benghazi.

As a journalist, however, Cacek felt a degree of separation from the carnage. He doesn't remember specifics of the hospital because he forced himself to focus on the art of his photos, viewing shapes rather than people.

“You have to think about the job over the pain,” he said.

For the first time in his life, Cacek approached the front lines in a conflict. In Ajdabiya, where four New York Times journalists were kidnapped in March, he stood beside trucks mounted with anti-aircraft and machine guns.

The most frightening moment came when he tried to get to the front lines with a Spanish journalist. The pair had one more checkpoint to get through, but it was surrounded by hundreds of trucks, half of them mounted with guns. Suddenly, they heard planes overhead. This was before the NATO bombing, so Cacek knew the planes were Gadhafi's.

“If we can hear them, we're probably already dead,” Cacek remembered thinking.

All at once, the machine gunners on the trucks began firing at the planes. The sound was deafening.

“I was rocked to the core,” he said. “The sound of the guns — you can't see that in a picture. Just knowing that a bomb could fall on us at any moment and hearing the blasts of the guns ...”

He opted against entering the battle zone.

Cacek feels an appreciation for the Libyan people, who fed and clothed him. He became very close to his fixer. People called Cacek “Son of Yusuf” because they were always together.

After leaving the country for a short time, he asked people all over Benghazi if they knew where Yusuf was. They eventually found each other through word-of-mouth.

“It was a running hug moment,” Cacek said.

The two have not seen each other since Cacek left the country. The likelihood of finding each other again seems remote given that Cacek has no phone number or address for Yusuf.

“I owe my life to him,” he said.

Cacek was impressed by Libyans’ dedication to their cause.

“They're some of the strongest people I've ever seen,” he said. “I've never seen people stand up for themselves on such a level.”

Rashid Kikhia

Rashid Kikhia is going back to Libya.

The owner of Rush's Pizzeria and Bakery in Columbia plans to sell his restaurant and help build his country.

“People call it rebuilding, I call it building,” he said. Kikhia believes Libya for the first time has an opportunity to create a real nation.

Kikhia works with the National Transitional Council, the agency in charge of the rebel forces and the creation of a new government. He comes from a politically connected family; his uncle Mansur Kikhia was the Libyan ambassador to the U.N.

Mansur Kikhiaresigned that position and joined the opposition in 1980. He began to reach out to the Libyan youth — including his nephew Rashid Kikhia — to join the cause. He was kidnapped in 1993 by the Libyan government at a human rights convention in Cairo.

Mansur Kikhia was executed by the Libyan government after his arrest; the U.S. State Department informed his family.

“He was my teacher in politics,” Kikhia said. “I wish he could have seen this moment.”

Kikhia came to the U.S. in 1996 as a political refugee. He remained active in the opposition movement here and met several members of the Transitional Council through his work with different resistance groups.

After the uprising in Egypt, Kikhia and other leaders of the opposition began to reach out to Libyans using Facebook, blogs and Twitter. They called for a protest on Feb. 17. It was one of the first of the official revolution.

The National Transitional Council and Kikhia continue using social media to mobilize and educate people on the cause and the need to build their country. Kikhia also uses the Internet to communicate with the council as it struggles to form a new government.

Kikhia advocates a transition to a republican democracy. It’s an idea that’s gaining popularity. It would divide Libya into five states and create a federal government under a reworked U.N. constitution that was in place before Gadhafi's dictatorship.

Drafting a new constitution could take months. Kikhia believes revising the old one would be faster and better for the fragile nation.

“If we do it now, it will help the future of Libya later on,” he said. He also feels Libyans will require education on voting and the nature of political parties.

“They have been ruled by 'Gadhafi, Inc.,'” he said. They don't know how to vote for themselves or how to create, maintain and vote for political parties responsibly, he said.

He is deeply skeptical of former Gadhafi regime members. Although some have suggested a mixed government of rebels and Gadhafi leaders, he questions their ability to make the transition to democracy.

“How can we trust them to change?” he said. “They were slaves to Gadhafi.”

Kikhia hopes to return to Libya as soon as possible and begin work with nonprofit groups to build up civil institutions and teach young people about the nature of democracy.

After working for more than 10 years with the opposition, the fall of Tripoli and Gadhafi came as an emotional shock to Kikhia and his family.

His mother, who lives in Libya, refused to talk to him at first. Having lived under the rule of one man for 42 years, she had trouble accepting Gadhafi's fall, Kikhia said. His father died several years ago, but Kikhia remembers hearing him say, “I wish God would show us a day when Gadhafi would fall.”

Although his father never got to see that day, Kikhia did.

“The Libyan people showed the strength to fight,” he said. “They freed their country again.”


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