Libyans chant 'we're free' as decades of terror at an end
AS the words were finally spoken, the crowd burst out with three days' worth of joy, mixed with four bottled-up decades of pain and grief.
In the place where the Libyan revolution started and was nearly crushed, around the corner from where Muammar Gaddafi himself seized power, his 42 years of terror were brought to a close with two sentences: "Raise your head high. You are a free Libyan."
As Abdel Hafiz Ghoga, the deputy leader of the National Transitional Council, spoke the magic words, he was echoed by tens of thousands of voices. "You are a free Libyan," they chanted.
Across the border in Tunisia, they were lining up in even greater numbers outside the polling stations, for the first democratic elections in the country's 55-year history.
But not everyone in Benghazi's Victory Square was chanting. A few, I could see, were in tears. Others stood quietly, such as 29-year-old Rabia Saleh al-Agoury, holding up a silver-framed picture of her brother, Mohammed. He was arrested in 1989, "for no reason", she said.
Mohammed's family never set eyes on him again, though apparently he was held in Tripoli's Abu Salim Prison for seven years before being slaughtered, with 1,200 others, in the jail's massacre of 1996.
"They only came and told us he had died in 2009," said Miss al-Agoury. "Today, I feel relaxed for the first time since Mohammed was arrested."
As I moved through the vast crowd, my shoulder was clapped and my hand shaken, dozens of people wanting to congratulate someone from the Western countries whose air forces helped free them. And in the middle of the throng, two young men waved a huge Union flag. "I am Libyan and I am British," said Eamonn Gallal, from Norwich. "I am proud that the British people stood with us and I am thanking them for standing with us." His friend, Anas el-Gheriyani, wore a shirt from his father's Royal Navy bowling team, acquired in Portsmouth. "He hid it away for a long time because Gaddafi would do him harm if he wore it," he said.
President Obama welcomed the scenes. "The Libyan people can now celebrate their freedom and the beginning of a new era of promise," he said. But not everything in Victory Square was as congenial to the West. "We as a Muslim nation have taken Islamic sharia as the source of legislation, therefore any law that contradicts the principles of Islam is legally nullified," said the NTC leader, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, adding that Libya would set up an Islamic banking system.
The road from tomorrow will not be easy. But for today, they could still congratulate themselves on the triumph they had won. (© Daily Telegraph, London)