5:48pm

Mon February 28, 2011
Africa

Libya's Rebellion Spawns A Trio Of Unlikely Heroes

Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 10:19 am

It's only been a week since Libya's second-largest city, Benghazi, fell into the hands of pro-democracy rebels. But already the uprising has its own pantheon of heroes.

Among them are a human-rights lawyer whose arrest sparked the rebellion, an air force pilot who wouldn't bomb his own people, and a balding, middle-aged oil executive whose daring raid on a base dealt the final blow to the regime in Benghazi.

The Lawyer

Fathi Terbil wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and a black-and-white kaffiyeh — the checkered scarf made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He looks pretty scruffy as he sits down for a press conference in front of journalists from all over the world addressing matters of global importance. But he's earned the right.

Terbil is a lawyer who represents the families of those killed in a prison uprising against Moammar Gadhafi's regime in 1996. Human-rights groups say 1,200 people were slaughtered at Abu Selim prison — among them, three members of Terbil's family, including his brother.

For years, he held an often solitary weekly protest in front of the courthouse, demanding justice. He was arrested seven times and says he was repeatedly tortured.

But Gadhafi's regime made a crucial mistake when it nabbed him again on Feb. 15 in Benghazi.

Protesters came out to the streets to demand his release, lighting the spark of revolution.

Now he spends his days in meetings as part of the transitional governing council of Benghazi. But he retains his humility. At 39, he says he's never had time for a wife. His only pleasures are watching sports.

He has no desire to lead Libya, he says. When this is all over, he just wants to meet a girl and settle down.

The Pilot

One of the most dramatic incidents in the uprising took place over the skies of Benghazi. Capt. Abdul Salam Al Abdely, a 49-year-old air force pilot, was told to bomb rebel targets in eastern Libya during the first days of the rebellion.

When he refused, his co-pilot put a gun to his head. Instead of complying, Abdely ejected from the plane. His father says he told him, "I couldn't bomb my own people."

The Oil Executive

The most unlikely hero of the Libyan rebellion may be Mahdi Ziu.

Across Benghazi, a huge picture of the bald, overweight, bespectacled man is attached to the gates of the state oil company. Ziu was a middle manager and father of two girls who worked in a cubicle. He suffered from diabetes.

Mohammed Abdelhafif was one of his closest friends. He says Ziu joined the protests in Benghazi as soon as they happened, but he became furious and saddened by the bloodshed.

Many of the pro-Gadhafi forces were holed up around the main military base in the city; they used their guns to mow down protesters, witnesses said. The demonstrators were having no luck breaking into the heavily defended compound.

Ziu's wife says he would come home with his clothes smeared with blood from carrying dying and wounded comrades.

On Feb. 20, sickened by the carnage, he loaded his black Kia with propane cylinders without telling anyone.

He drove to the base and rammed his car into the front gates, blowing them up.

Hamed Salah, 20, was outside the base, protesting. If it weren't for Ziu, Salah says, the demonstrators would not have been able to take over the base: He sacrificed his life for them.

Salah's brother, who was being held inside the base after being arrested by Gadhafi's elite forces, echoes the praise, saying he is sure he would have been killed if the base had not fallen.

It proved to be the turning point in the battle for Benghazi. A few hours later, the base was overrun and the city was in the hands of pro-democracy forces.

Ziu's wife, Samira, says she is proud of him. She has no son to carry his name — but such are the blessings of God, she says, that his name is now written in the history of this city.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

It's been only a week since Libya's second largest city fell into the hands of rebels but already, the revolution in Benghazi has its own pantheon of heroes. They include a human-rights lawyer whose arrest sparked the uprising and a balding, middle-aged oil executive who led a daring raid that dealt the final low to the regime there.

NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports now from eastern Libya.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Fathi Terbil wears a New York Yankees baseball cap and a black-and-white keffiyeh - the checkered scarf made famous by the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

He looks pretty scruffy as he sits down for a press conference in front of journalists from all over the world, addressing matters of global importance.

Mr. FATHI TERBIL (Lawyer): (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's earned the right. Terbil is a lawyer who represents the families of those killed in a prison uprising against Gadhafi's regime in 1996. Human-rights groups say 1,200 people were slaughtered at Abu Selim prison - among them, three members of Terbil's family, including his brother.

For years, he held an often-solitary weekly protest in front of the courthouse, demanding justice. He was arrested seven times, and says he was repeatedly tortured.

But the regime of Moammar Gadhafi made a fatal mistake when it nabbed him again on the 15th of February in Benghazi. Protesters came out to the streets to demand his release, lighting the spark of revolution.

Mr. TERBIL: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Now, he spends his days in meetings as part of the transitional governing council of Benghazi, but he retains his humility. At 39, he says he's never had time for a wife. His only pleasures are watching sports.

He has no desire to lead Libya, he says. He just wants to meet a girl when this is all over, and settle down.

One of the most dramatic incidents in the uprising took place over the skies of Benghazi. Forty-nine-year-old air force pilot Captain Abdul Salam Al Abdely was told to bomb rebel targets in eastern Libya during the first days of the rebellion. When he refused, his co-pilot put a gun to his head. Instead of complying, Abdely ejected from the plane. His father says he told him: I couldn't bomb my own people.

Possibly though, Libya's unlikeliest hero is Mahdi Ziu.

Across town, attached to the gates of the state oil company is a huge picture of the bald, overweight, bespectacled man. Ziu was a middle manager, father of two girls, who worked in a cubicle. He suffered from diabetes.

Mohammed Abdelhafif was one of his closest friends.

Mr. MOHAMMED ABDELHAFIF: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Ziu joined the protests in Benghazi as soon as they happened, but became furious and saddened by the bloodshed.

Most of the pro-Gadhafi forces were holed up around the main military base in the city, using their guns to mow down the protesters. The demonstrators were having no luck breaking into the heavily defended compound.

Ziu's wife said he would come home with his clothes smeared with blood from carrying dying and wounded comrades.

On the 20th of February, sickened by the carnage, without telling anyone, he loaded his black Kia with propane cylinders. He drove to the base and rammed his car into the front gates, blowing them up.

Twenty-year-old Hamed Salah was outside the base, protesting, and saw the whole thing.

Mr. HAMED SALAH: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He says Ziu sacrificed his life for us. We would not have been able to take over the base if it wasn't for his courageous act.

Hamed's brother, who was being held inside the base after being arrested by Gadhafi's elite forces, echoes the praise, saying he's sure he would have been killed if the base had not fallen.

It proved to be the turning point in the battle for Benghazi. A few hours later, the base was overrun, and the city was in the hands of pro-democracy forces.

Ms. SAMIRA ZIU: (Speaking foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ziu's wife, Samira, says: I am proud of him, but we have no son to carry his name. But such are the blessings of God, she says, that his name is now written in the history of this city.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro NPR, News, Benghazi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.