Lindsey Hilsum In Conversation

Lindsey Hilsum was at the Frontline Club to introduce her book "Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution". In association with BBC Arabic, she gave a brief introduction to her book and took questions from Rasha Qandeel and the floor.

Havign not purchased nor read the book, I went quite skeptical, thinking I'd hear something simplified or Western biased, albeit from a very well-respected Channel 4 News International editor and journalist. How could she have really grasped the situation presiding in Libya during the Revolution or understand the personal histories of its people, most of whom suffered under the old regime.

But as soon as Hilsum recounted her time in Libya and how she directly spoke with the people, I realized she has more than truly engaged with her subject and got the Libyan character. In fact, her book honours the true voices of the Libyans and puts them centre-page with plenty of good-natured humour to boot.

Though am not a member of the Frontline Club, I am getting into this media hub that supports independent journalism and brings incredible material, for anyone interested in politics, current affairs or international news coverage.

Also, a video of the full interview is available on the Frontline website. Below are simply the notes I was able to take and give a flavor of the full conversation. Please note it is not verbatim and not necessarily in the exact order.

On the Revolution

Hilsum was in Libya from 23 February and explains: "2011 was exciting and as good as it gets for a journalist. There was huge momentum. And, I wrote the book for two reasons. The first was for a friend, Tarek Ben-Halim (son of Mustafa Ben-Halim, former Prime Minister of Libya during the Monarchy), who died a year before the Revolution. He used to tell me that there is no reason for the Arabs not to have democracy.

"The other reason is the story of the martyrs of the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996, when 1270 inmates were gunned down and executed. When I met the families, about thirty relations of the dead, they were in silence, holding photos of their sons, fathers, husbands and uncles. I knew this was something very important that I wanted to tell.

"In Libya, there were too many people, who saw the camera as an acknowledgement of their pain. So the men and women nominated others to tell their stories.

"One particular man told me how he used to make the long 600 mile journey to Tripoli annually to take toiletries and food for his brother-in law. He would leave the stuff at the gates. But for fourteen years, he did not know that his relative was dead. All this time, there was a glimmer of hope that he was still alive. I've never came across such false faith, an extraordinary kind of cruelty.

"Gaddafi was a buffoon. He was nuts! But, we [in the West] also failed to acknowledge how awful the regime was. He was a mad clown to us and a shape-shifter; at times, wearing his various army outfits and other times, his Bedouin robes.

"But, in 1969, he was popular. For example, I spoke with another man, Mohammed, a metal worker in the souk in Tripoli who makes copper half moons. In 1967, he said: 'We chased the Jews out of the medina. King Idriss was an old fart and we needed a strong leader, like Nasser in Egypt. We liked Gaddafi and there was enthusiasm to begin with. We thought we'd become a modern country.

'But later, between the souk and home, I would see people being publicly hanged. My assistant was also seized and for eleven years, forced to be in the army. He participated in the war in Chad, a most ridiculous war over the Oozo Strip.'

"Mohammed's story is that of Libya and its relationship to Gaddafi. This was the first time this metal worker could tell his story, like the many others who are the story makers of the book."

Asked about the Arab Spring, Hilsum replied: "Libya was the only true Revolution from the Arab Spring. Egypt was just a military coup. And Libya was very accessible for us. While Bahrain was the Cinderella of Revolutions. The Gulf has problems with Iran and it is very complicated. But Libya, I understood it.

"In Benghazi, people had hated Gaddafi for a very long time. It was shabby and so neglected. One day in October, after the Revolution, I was walking along the streets. I wandered around and drifted a bit and then I spoke to an old man. He said there used to be window boxes with flowers. In the East, they had been opponents of the regime for a long time. Gaddafi had emphasized the differences between the Libyans."

Western Involvement

Hilsum expressed "disgust" at how the West had more recently embraced Gaddafi. She said: "There was a zig-zag trajectory with him. While in the 1980s, Reagan called him the Mad Dog in the Middle East and the US bombed his compound in 1986. Gaddafi was involved with many terrorism activities in arbitrary fashion. He also fermented rebellion in West Africa that is the source of current violence.

"There was also Lockerbie and his support of the IRA, providing them with weapons. But after 9/11, he became a best friend and wanted to be rehabilitated. Being a pariah was not good to keep power. And, his son, Seif Al-Islam, worked to get him out of the cold.

"So Tony Blair became a friend of Gaddafi and the notorious Deal in the Desert. It was a marriage of convenience, even though the human rights abuses continued.

"Then in 2011, the US and the UK felt that Gaddafi was on his way out. They wanted to be on the right side and he became public enemy number one again and back to his mad dog image."

Extraordinary Rendition

"I also spoke with Sami Saadi, who was a member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group. He did spend time with Bin Laden, but he was not a member of Al-Qaeda. The desire of his group was simply to overthrow Gaddafi. But, then, he was made to be seen as the enemy.

"Saadi was on the run with his family and children. The British MI6 and the Americans worked with Moussa Koussa to pick him up. This is Koussa, Gaddafi's black box, who was in London at the Embassy when Yvonne Fletcher was shot.

"So, they picked up Saadi in Hong Kong with Chinese guards. With his wife, they were bundled in an Egyptian plane and taken to a prison in Tajura. He was a diabetic and, yes, they gave him medication, but only to keep him alive; and, to be imprisoned, beaten, tortured and threated with hanging.

"The British officials, the Italians and the French also didn't set up a real inquiry. Saadi was in prison for two years. This is a man whose brothers were killed in the 1996 Abu Salim massacre. That is rendition for you!"

Abdullah Sanussi

"Abdullah Sanussi is mentioned five times in the book, being an ex-official and brother-in-law of Gaddafi. He thought he'd never be taken. He is the one most likely responsible for the Abu Salim massacre.

"I visited the prison and met a detainee who'd been there for 19 years. He was an eye-witness and said he'd seen Sanussi make the order to fire. But it is still an uncovered mystery.

"The International Criminal Court now want Sanussi for other issues. So I understand that the Libyans want to put him on trial for the many crimes committed over 42 years. Seif Al-Islam too. There is naturally a desire for revenge. The way Gaddafi was killed too. I don't have an answer or what is the best solution to this problem."

NATO's Mission and the Oil

"The West had a dilemma. I defy anyone, to go and see Benghazi and how people were treated under Gaddafi. The Libyan rebel fighters were the worst guerilla fighters in many ways and untrained. They were as young as 17 and using old weapons with pieces missing.

"There is no doubt that Gaddafi would have caused too many deaths. The Gulf had a role to play too. Gaddafi didn't have good relations with them; and, the Arab League helped the passage of the UN Security Council Resolution.

"Of course, the oil was a big reason for Western involvement and to have Libya as an ally. Yes, you can say the Shias in Bahrain paid the price for Libya's freedom in many ways. In the Gulf, the UK has a different policy. While Saudi was happy for Gaddafi to go, they won't put up with the same for the Gulf monarchies."

"NATO do want the oil and do want the corporations. Tripoli is ready for construction and may well be the next Dubai.

The Libyans

"The Libyans have a great sense of humour. In the book, for example, there is a quote about Al-Saadi Gaddafi's involvement in football: 'He is the only player in the world who is paying the team!' Also, there was a particular graffiti in Benghazi which read: 'Gaddafi, you are the weakest link. Goodbye!'

"The Libyans are in touch with the world and aware even of quiz shows. They are witty, even in their way of fighting. In the book, I recount the story of a civil disobedience group and a free generation movement, who did a stunt one day in May. They put music in plastic rubbish bins to sing the revolutionary anthem, right in the Fashlum area in Tripoli.

"The people were clearly not with Gaddafi. One lady, Mervat Mhani, who is a character in the book, said how she remembered the executions of the 1980s; and, in particular, that of Sadeq Shweidi. She said: 'I lost my fear.'

"On the television, it may have seemed a male Revolution. But, in truth, in Libya, neither the women nor the men had or have now any experience. But it is a fraught issue what will now happen to the women. As one young woman put it also: 'We all have a little Gaddafi in our heads.'"

Hopes for Libya

"In Libya, there is a big division between the religious and the secular groups. The law passed this week banning any party based on tribal, religion or ethnicity may well mean a change of name for the Libyan Islamic Brotherhood to possibly a 'Dignity' party.

"But, we may face the same problem as when Gaza was offered democratic elections and they chose Hamas. The West will have to swallow what happens. It is now up to the Libyans to decide and it is not for the West to choose.

British Involvement

What happened with Tony Blair was spectacular and the documentary evidence now found is very embarrassing. Yes, the politics of the zig-zag appear here too. And, Human Rights Watch have found lots of documents in the British Embassy in Libya; for example, a letter from Mark Allen calling Moussa Koussa a dear friend.

"I've no doubt that Libya was a real Revolution started by Libyans. In our age, the shredding and deleting of evidence won't necessarily change policy. They just find better ways to get rid of it. I tried to speak with key officials here but they are not willing to speak up, as there are currently two pending cases.

"Seif Al-Islam is a black box too and the West may be afraid that he will spill the beans. He has now become a bargaining chip. But the Zintan boys don't want to give him up. The NTC say they want to put him on trial in June. The West of course don't want him up there talking about the Deal in the Desert. Though his son Mutassim got closer to the father towards the end.

"There is also the case of Abdullah Al-Sanussi who is wanted by the French. He was tried and convicted in absentia regarding the 1989 bombing of a passenger plane flying over Niger that resulted in the deaths of 170 people.


"We would be dreaming to think that from 42 years of dictatorship there would be a democracy. It is a rocky path ahead. As I quote in the book: 'They wept and quarreled. Freedom is so wild.'"

"Yes, also, the way Gaddafi was killed was horrific and appalling. But they were wild with anger. It was a savage act how they killed him. For the Libyans, it is hard to believe that he is dead and really gone. The way his body was taken to Misrata, as a rotting corpse was awful. But, for them, it was important.

"It was also a mobile and digital revolution. There are six million Libyans who are educated and there is plenty of gas and oil. They should be able to do it! Though today with the NTC power is diffused all over. There are no strong Libyan institutions and no strong Libyan candidates.

"As for Egypt, it is different, it has strong and long-standing institutions with a huge bureaucratic structure. They are also an eighty million population with lots of poverty.

"The youngsters in Libya also say: 'Walk like an Egyptian. Fight like a Libyan.' For the youth made the Revolution happen. The NTC though are old men running the country. It is very important for youth to work in civil society and to get their message across. They are 60% of the population."


"Syria is a difficult story. Visas are not being granted for Damascus and sneaking over the border is not a good idea. Also, I'm not brave enough to go to Syria. I've got my danger threshold.

"But there is the role of the citizen journalist. Syria will be a war for a long time. And Bahrain too, where suppression is going on.

Citizen Journalism

The Tawfik Othman Al-Shohibiy character in the book filmed the destruction of a concrete statue of the Green Book in Tobruk. He filmed it and went to an internet café to get the images out.

Inside Tobruk's only internet café, he uploaded the images on Al-Jazeera and on his Facebook page. He left a message that whomever found them, should post them on YouTube. He also added a message with his phone number, and a request for anyone should be interested in revolution in Libya to call him.

He told his father of this and sure that Gaddafi's people would find him. His father said to him: 'If you ride the camel, you can't keep your head down.'"

He was this young man in a duffel coat who spoke good English. But then at one point he also said to me: "From the vagina of the Revolution, true heroes are born!'


"Yes, there is resentment about the money Gaddafi spent in Africa and on the African Union, money seen as wasted. But there are racist feelings too towards sub-Saharan Africa. Is it possible to claw back the money?

"There is, for example, the story of a woman, Razia Sholeh, a protocol official in the Foreign Ministry, who was given one million dollars in cash by Gaddafi to spend on a day out to the market in Bamako, Mali. I asked: "Is it possible to spend a million dollars in the market in Bamako?'

"I think as long as the price of oil is high, there won't be money back from Africa. Gaddafi did give money, some good and not all bad. But the next Libyan government won't give a toss about Africa. They will want relations more with Europe and the Gulf.

Moussa Ibrahim

This Western educated spokesperson for Gaddafi during the Revolution was a relative of the family. And, yes, the regime was like a mafia with the god-father being Gaddafi. And lots of people benefited from it.

The Al-Qaeda Fantasy

There is a Jihadi streak in Libya. The group who recently desecrated the War graves and the Sufi shrines are of a Salafi bent. But we don't' know what will happen. Derna is involved in this. Extremism does exist in Libya, no doubt. But the historical divisions are between the East and West.