In the 1980s, Gaddafi’s regime was taking large areas of unused land and splitting it up to distribute as part of what they called a programme of self-sufficiency. In 1988, when Salah Youssef Haddar was 23 and had recently returned from the United Sates where he had been living for ten years, the regime came after his family’s land.
“We saw the caterpillar at the end of our street and knew it was coming our way. We wanted a few weeks to create a fence around our forefathers’ land so they wouldn’t come and take it, so we asked a contact in the local council to arrange it. He surprised us by saying that ‘if injustice prevails, oppression becomes justice’.”
While working to divide neighbouring lands, the caterpillar would, without permission, be parked overnight in Haddar’s uncle’s driveway, next to the land he was trying to protect. One night, Haddar took a set of cutters and cut a series of cables in the caterpillar that rendered it immobile. This gave him and his uncle four months to fence off the land with barbed wire.
While they may have saved their property on that occasion, Haddar’s family had in previous years lost buildings and businesses under different schemes known as ‘the house belongs to its occupier’ and ‘partners, not employees’ respectively.
Haddar’s father, Youssef Haddar, had made his money from drilling water wells between 1961 and 1975. In 1976 however he returned to the specialisation he had studied in the United States, drilling for oil. He opened a business with a partner in Tripoli and within two years had over one hundred employees and, his son recalls, “a fabulous ice cream machine”.
“They took the business in 1978, with all the equipment my father had invested in, without any compensation. The American consultants left, and the Libyan labourers. I don’t know what happened to them or the business.” The next year, his father invested in a Kleenex factory, the first of its kind in Libya. The first batch of boxes had been produced and were being prepared for distribution when in 1979 the government nationalised it. Ownership was handed to the workers in 1988, who to this day profit from its production.
While one law was used to appropriate Haddar’s businesses, another enabled the government to seize his properties at around the same time.
In the late 1970s, Haddar owned two residential buildings, one of which had apartments that he rented out to residents and shop owners. With the introduction of law no 4 of 1978, which stated that tenants became owners of the property they occupied, Haddar lost the building to his tenants. The second building was still under construction when in 1980 the government took ownership of it and, completing its construction using the same plans Haddar had commissioned from Greece, turned it into a culture and media centre.
“They took almost all that our family owned in the space of three years and we received no compensation for any of it. Not the buildings, not the factory, not the business.”
Despite this, Haddar built himself up after returning to Libya in 1986, first working in agriculture and then in poultry farming before opening a restaurant. He later moved into the distribution and sale of foods and then electronics. In the 1990s he owned two properties, the home he lived in with his wife and another that he rented out.
“By then the government wanted people to invest in Libya. They needed it, and didn’t threaten to impose law no.4. People didn’t get their properties back, but they didn’t fear losing them the same way many had done in the 1980s.”
Despite this, Haddar was increasingly frustrated by early 2011, particularly as it had become evident that Gaddafi’s son Saif al Islam would be assuming power. This sense of fatigue made Haddar start planning to emigrate from Benghazi, despite his evident love for the city in which he, his father and his forefathers had been born and buried. To his delight, the revolution interrupted his plans.