Saleh* owned a shop in Tripoli’s famous Souq Tholatha before the government knocked it down without warning in 2009. “Forty thousand families benefited from that souq. They gave us no notice and no compensation.”
It wasn’t the first time Saleh had suffered a harsh financial blow at the hands of the regime. “My father owned businesses and we lived affluently. I remember how in 1969 our neighbours would come over to our home and watch the American films.”
After Gaddafi’s coup of 1969, the family continued to live comfortably. Trade increased and until 1973 all was well. “My father was a trader in building supplies. He owned large storage and sales facilities not far from Gaddafi’s Bab al-Azizia compound. Gaddafi wanted the land and so, in 1973, fifteen armed men from the security forces came in and took it by force. We left only with the clothes on our backs. This happened immediately after the infamous Zuwarah speech of April.”
At that time Nassir, then 15 years old, and his older brother would work with their father after school hours. His uncles also worked in the business, which hired many Libyan and foreign workers. “We participated in the construction of Libya in a big way. We supplied cement and iron and wood and all building materials.”
The facilities that were confiscated, without negotiation or compensation, comprised 3,000 square metres of internal storage facilities and offices. “We then turned our attention to six shops that my father owned in the old Souq Tholatha on Maari Street from where the business had begun.”
Fearful of a 1979 legislation that saw businesses confiscated and nationalised, Saleh's family applied for a manufacturing license and began producing and selling tents and car coverings. “We also owned two shops in the new Souq Tholatha in Section Toughar 77 which we turned into garages servicing cars and selling spare parts.”
The six shops on Maari Street were confiscated in 1993. Twenty years later, Saleh is still overwhelmed with tears when he recounts the day the head of the Tripoli council came and gave three days notice to vacate to the owners of 100 shops on the street. “In truth, we felt we were not Libyan that day. A grave injustice was done, and we were thoroughly offended. With our own strength and hard work, and without anything from the government, we built a good life. They came and took it all away.”
Saleh’s father lay on the ground of his shop in protest. This image, and recalling how the incident led to his father’s illness, pains Saleh deeply. “Abdelsalam Zadma was a spiteful man who did Gaddafi’s bidding. When he saw my father’s protest, he shortened the notice period to 24 hours.”
The family rented cars and emptied out all the equipment and materials from the six shops. Half of it was damaged as they took it to their farmland.
“My father died three years later. So many tragedies befell us. We wanted to build Libya. It should have been one of the most sophisticated countries, given its geographical location and wealth.”
The six shops they confiscated in 1993 remain to this day as they were then, untouched and unused. “The government didn’t benefit from them, nor did they allow us to benefit from them.”
Saleh continued to work out of the two units they owned in the new Souq Tholatha, until 2009. “Exactly what happened to my father, happened to me. The perpetrators were the same, though this time Zadma’s role was played by Baghdadi Mahmoodi. All that changed was the date and the location.”
The regime’s people had, over the previous few years, been threatening to tear down Souq Tholatha, but the shop owners had resisted and negotiated and were shocked to find, one afternoon on a Friday, bulldozers knocking down the shops “with all the merchandise and money still in the shops. We felt as though we might be in Gaza or Sabra and Shatila or Jenin.”
Saleh has not earned any money since 2009. He has been unable to find work and not received any compensation or support from the government. In addition to losing his childhood dreams and ambitions and his opportunity to earn a strong education and income, Saleh lost thirteen years of his life serving in the Libyan armed forces. “I joined the armed forces in 1980. Three years military service was obligatory then. I served thirteen years. Coming and going, I spent a total of three years in Chad seeing my friends die around me, in a war that served no purpose to Libyans. Gaddafi couldn’t have been a Libyan, treating his kinsmen as he did. If I treated my children in such a way, I could not be considered their father.”
*Saleh is a pseudonym used to protect the interviewees identity.