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They were all political prisoners, arrested under the wide umbrella of treason. Every last one of them wanted nothing more than to see Gaddafi go down.
GlobalPost correspondent James Foley spent 44 days in captivity inside Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. This is the fourth chapter of his story. For the full series, click here.
Megdi and I were shoved into a dingy office with steel cabinets, where a prison guard rifled through our clothes looking for contraband. The guard was especially rough with Megdi. In tears, he tried to explain that he was a journalist with MBC.
“Sahafa?” the guard said, “Sahafa this!” he shouted, sticking up two middle fingers.
We were led down a concrete hall past a puddle of filthy water, and down a long hallway lined with cells. An outer door was unlocked. There were two cells on either side of a small courtyard littered with breadcrumbs and cigarette butts. We had arrived at Al Jadida, a general prison.
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The guards opened the door on the right and I caught my first glimpse of my future cellmates. They were all on the floor, huddled around wooden bowls of macaroni. I had no idea what to expect. But they were welcoming. Megdi introduced us and explained that we were “Sahafa.”
“Welcome Jim!” a big Libyan named Abdullah said. Within minutes these guys, all of them Libyan, were treating me like a guest. After all the confusion and show of the courthouse, and bouncing around Tripoli on the rough planks of a paddy wagon, a feeling of calm swept over me. These, I thought, were my people.
They gave me a choice piece of chicken and I was offered a cigarette. They were all political prisoners, arrested under the wide umbrella of treason. Treason meant many things — from being from the rebellious cities of Zawiya or Zawara, to sending text messages, to possessing rifles. Every last one of them — there were eight Libyans in the cell with Megdi and myself — wanted nothing more than to see Gaddafi go down. It might be the only way they’d ever see their families again.
Rdwan, a 24-year old from Zawara, had the build of a soccer player and scars on his nose from continuous beatings. He showed me where the electro-shocks had been attached to his index finger. The rebellion in his fishing village near the Tunisian border had been stomped out in less than two days by a line of Gaddafi tanks. “I just want freedom,” Rdwan said. “We experienced 20 days of it before the tanks came. It was beautiful.”
From the cell across the courtyard, I talked to Mamoud, 31, who had been busted for texting, “Fuck Gaddafi,” to a friend. “They pulled me over and found three text messages,” Mamoud said in surprisingly good English. He said he had been an engineer for an American oil company. Others had been swept up by roving vans that were monitoring phone conversations around Tripoli.
On that first night, Walid from Zawiya offered me his bunk and took the floor. The others stayed up half the night talking and smoking. Sleeping with a blanket over my head would become routine. Women were being kept in a separate wing, but I wanted to see if Manu was in the same wing as me. I asked Mamoud’s friend, Tarik, if he’d heard of a Spanish guy being held in Al Jadida.
“Manu, Manu!” Tarik yelled, pushing his voice out the bars through the courtyard door. Amazingly, Manu shouted back from what sounded like the depths. “How are you bro?” I yelled. “Ok, and you?” he replied. I could tell just by his voice he was coping with the situation the same way I was — keeping friendly, and staying hopeful.
In that 12-by-15 foot cell, together with nine others, all you could do was go to the bars and look at birds clinging to the steel grating above the courtyard, or gaze up at the stars over Tripoli, or lie on a sofa made of woven rugs, waiting to smoke part of a shared cigarette. It dawned on me that this prison might be more removed, more insulated, than the first.
The cell wasn’t awful, just overcrowded. We had a functioning sink, a separate stall for a toilet and a shower. Al Jadida had been a criminal prison and outfitted