Salim Moussa Issa Kadiki works as a regulator of schools in Benghazi. He was a high school student when on 4 January 1976 students from the university passed by his school and encouraged the school students to join them in a street protest. “Benghazi had only two or three high schools then. Ours was called Salaheddin al Ayoubi. It was a small town and people all knew each other. There were some issues building up at the universities and at around 11am during our morning break some students told us that women from the university had come and asked us to join their protest. We didn’t know the reasons, but we went in solidarity, student with student.”
He and his fellow students walked three or four kilometres along a street that led to the old engineering faculty building. “We met with other students there and it was an amazing sight. The street was completely full. There must have been three or four thousand students there. Posters of Omar Mukhtar were held up. We joined the protest and walked towards the Shajara Square where speeches were being held. That’s when I learned more about the clashes that had happened the previous day at the university. We were shocked to hear that the students had been fired upon. Our parents had raised us to believe that universities were almost sacred places.”
Still engrossed in listening to the speeches and learning more about the plight of the university students, Kadiki suddenly noticed national guards surround the protestors. “It was the first time I heard gunfire. They just started shooting and it echoed throughout the square. There was confusion among the protesters; some tried to run, some hide, some grabbed stones. It was shocking and unexpected to be hit by gunfire. I had heard of the World War, but never of this kind of oppression in Libya. We were surrounded.”
Kadiki ran down Qasr Hamad Street off Amr bin Aas Street to find a place to hide from the gunfire. There was shooting even on the side streets. “I ran past the cinema and the fish restaurant before being hit. I fell. A bullet hit me in my shoulder and one hit my foot. I couldn’t believe it was a bullet. One might have expected stones or water, but not bullets. But a bullet in the chest area means it was intentional.”
Despite being hit, Kadiki was lucky. The fashion of the day, bellbottom trousers and high-heeled shoes, may have saved his leg, if not his life. “The bullet that hit my foot took a big chunk off the heel of my shoe and entered between my toes. It made me fall. Had I not, I might have received the second bullet in my chest because they were spraying bullets.”
As he lay down flat on the street floor he saw a university student he recognised hiding within the inches of a door-frame, his back flat against the door, trying to avoid the gunfire. “I asked him to help me and he came with two other students and they carried me to safety while I was bleeding heavily. A car then took me to the Jalaa hospital. They told me later that they were so covered in my blood when they arrived to their homes that their mothers panicked.”
Two men where shot dead that Sunday. There were more casualties over the following days. Meanwhile Kadiki was in hospital and his brother Nasser was out with the students who on the following Wednesday rioted in the city, setting buildings and cars on fire. “They said stones wouldn’t work anymore, and they wanted to fight fire with fire. They used the kind of gelatin sailors use to set things ablaze and I saw remnants of the burned buildings after I left the hospital,” remembers Kadiki.
One of the buildings that were set alight was the former cathedral near the Benghazi coast that was then being used as the headquarters of the Arab Socialist Union. The following year two teachers associated with the student movement were publicaly hanged next to the cathedral. “I saw the bodies of Omar Dabboub and Mohamed Tayeb hanging in the public square. It looked like the Italian or American gallows we used to see in old movies.”
The following year Kadiki joined the military academy “perhaps as a reaction to what had happened. As a civilian I had no power to change anything. Perhaps in the military I could.” He joined the navy and was based in Russia. In August 1982, with one year to go before graduation, military intelligence officers came to Kadiki’s family home, where he was on holiday at the time, and asked him to accompany them.
He was flown to Tripoli and questioned in relation to a conspiracy against the regime by opposition forces in which one of his fellow officers at the naval base in Russia was found to have been involved. That same officer had once proposed to his fellow conspirators that Kadiki might be interested in joining their operation.
“There was no real reason for them to think that I was part of the conspiracy, I wasn’t, but once they saw my shoulder had been shot they knew I was once a protestor.”
He spent the next six years in prison, four of them without sunlight. “Prison was not about a loss of freedom but about indignity and humiliation. We would be provoked and beaten randomly, our cells were very cold, and they withheld the asthma medication I needed.”
Kadiki saw a courtroom only once when, in 1988, he was released as part of a period of reforms and peace offerings by Gaddafi known as ‘Asbah al Sobh’ (the new dawn).