Dozens of Libya’s poor are celebrating the country’s first free Ramadan since the overthrow of Moamer Kadhafi in the shattered remains of the late dictator’s infamous Bab Al-Aziziya military compound.
“We can’t believe that we have a home and are celebrating Ramadan in a place that was once completely out of bounds,” says one of them, Surur Rabti.
The vast military complex was Kadhafi’s main base of operations until NATO-backed rebel forces stormed it on August 23, 2011 in a decisive battle for the capital.
It is now a giant field of gutted structures, trash and debris.
Rabti and her family moved into the compound in October, the same month that rebels captured and killed the strongman who ruled the oil-rich north African nation with an iron grip for more than four decades.
The family of eight, including three who earn paltry wages, is among the better off in a stretch of Bab Al-Aziziya where decent homes have been carved out of rubble but where fresh coats of paint do little to conceal thick layers of soot.
Some of the tiles in Rabti’s spacious yet basic house — once the residence of a high-ranking officer living just a stone’s throw from Kadhafi’s own quarters — are still cracked from the impact of explosives.
Yellow plastic sheets make up for missing windows. A recycled wooden door hangs on shaky hinges. Other doorways have been left gaping open or sealed off with cream curtains.
There is no breeze or air conditioner to take the edge of the summer heat.
The family says it is happy although its joint income is barely enough to cover the cost of food in general, let alone allow for the lavish meals that traditionally accompany the sundown breaking of the Ramadan fast.
“We are happy because the blood of the martyrs didn’t go to waste” says Rabti, who gave up her medical studies two years ago to help feed her family and now works as an administrative assistant.
Her mother, Zobra, says “this is the first time we celebrate Ramadan feeling relaxed and without fear, even if we are living it simply.”
That simplicity includes a garden patch of mint, tomatoes and bell peppers that she will use to flavour her feasts.
Other families are struggling in this maze of roughly 40 housing units.
Without glass in their windows to stave off the chill of the past winter, they are now growing restless in harsh summer temperatures, with thermometers pushing up to 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).
“We’ve been here almost a year — since September 13,” Umm Seif tells AFP.
“We endured a winter without windows and now we don’t have power for the air conditioner. We’d like a solution, just a small gesture from the state to know we have hope,” adds the housewife.
Umm Seif says the 400 Libyan dinars ($320/260 euros) earned each month by her fireman husband is barely enough to feed their children and that before setting up camp in Bab Al-Aziziya they had no choice but to live with her father-in-law.
Electricity and water are both in short supply, she complains, pointing to a thin cable that connects her home to the main power grids outside Bab Al-Aziziya and to plastic containers of water drawn from a pump outside the complex.
“My hope is for stability, whether the government moves me or keeps me here,” she says, adding that she is getting through Ramadan thanks to the “kindness of neighbours.”
Abdel Salam Segayer, a father of two, gets up early in the hope of getting odd jobs painting or fixing homes in wealthier areas. He takes great pride in what residents of Bab Al-Aziziya have achieved since last Ramadan.
“When we arrived it was all destroyed,” he remembers.
“We’ve cleared the corpses from the rubble and buried them. We’ve set up our own power lines and pipes. We have painted our houses. In the beginning, I couldn’t sleep because I was so overjoyed to have my first home.”
Ramadan, he says, has been a simple but joyful affair with men in the neighbourhood taking turns to host each other for tea and games of cards at night after breaking the fast with the family and prayers at the mosque.
“This Ramadan is completely different because we are unshackled,” he says.
In another area of Bab Al-Aziziya, residents living in destitute homes in a row of badly damaged barracks within the bombed out complex, are in no mood for visitors. They only want concrete help.
“We don’t want media, we want solutions,” one man snaps.