By Keith Somerville
Lindsey Hilsum, Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution
It’s all too common that when leading reporters and correspondents write their accounts of events, they become the key player, the focus of the action and their feelings, responses and interpretations become the prism through which the reader is invited to view events. One need only to think of John Simpson in his burqa and his personal liberation of Kabul to realise how the main story can be forgotten. So, it was refreshing as well as enlightening to read Lindsey Hilsum’s thorough, informative and, dare I say it, entertaining account of the Libyan revolution. This is not a whimsical or satirical account in the style of Bill Bryson or P.J. O’Rourke, it’s just that the elegance, pace and sheer quality of the writing make it not only a comprehensive account of events and, most importantly of all, of their context, but one written in a way that now again brings a wry smile to the reader’s face. A good example is when Hilsum discusses the Libyan revolution as part of the Arab Spring. She explains that “while the governments of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, Libya and Syria might be similar to each other in corruption and nepotism, and might employ the same brutal tactics…Every country was unhappy in its own way” (p. 19). Neat, concise but also incisive and avoiding the simplistic accounts you get of the Arab spring.
The book starts with the brutal, vengeful beating, sodomising and killing of Muammar Gaddafi. The account pulls no punches. The fate meted out to him was violent and hate-filled, but the writer neither descends into a stock condemnation of human rights abuses nor an apologia for the perpetrators, rather she sets out why it happened. The act is explained but not justified, as is the public display of his body. As a good journalist, Hilsum conveys atmosphere, feeling and explanation, placing Libyans at centre stage, not herself. We find out why these things happen, rather than their effect on the journalist.
The book is well-structured, moving from the death of the Brother Leader to an account of the strange, massively contradictory and bombastic nature of the man – a man who could denounce the West and all its manifestations on the one hand and, at the height of his denunciations, fund a Hollywood style film about a Libyan hero, Omar Mukhtar, in which the hero is played by Anthony Quinn. She captures his fascination but effective contempt for women but also some of the positive effects of his fascination – the allegations of his womanising are detailed but this is accompanied by a detailing of the progress women were able to achieve under his rule in terms of education and employment. The strangest of all the revelations in the chapter on his Strange World are those concerned with his crazed message to Madeleine Albright, the USecretary of State, to wear green when she’s on TV to show that she loves him or his obsession with Condoleezza Rice, who he referred to as his “African Princess”.
There follows a well-researched narrative of the rise and consolidation of the Gaddafi regime – with its rejection of parliaments, formal state structures and its interwoven system of Revolutionary Committees to both mobilise and watch over the population. Hilsum also charts the rise first of the secular and then the Islamic opposition to Gaddafi and his brutal suppression of the revolts, with first-hand accounts from witnesses of killings and of the infamous Abu Salim massacre, in which 1,270 political prisoners were killed.
From an Africanist’s point of view, the King of Kings of Africa is one of the most fascinating chapters. Again, we see the contradictory, almost schizophrenic, nature of his policies. But behind it all there is a logic and that is based on his view of the interests of his regime and his standing in Africa. He supported liberation movements in southern Africa when they most needed funds, weapons and training –for this he earned the undying gratitude of Nelson Mandela. For those bordering Libya or within what he saw as his sphere of interest in Central and West Africa, gratitude is not the word most would use for their feelings towards him – hatred, bitterness and contempt for his high-handed and mercenary policies would be nearer the mark. Here was a man who thought nothing of seizing the territory of neighbouring states (Chad), fuelling but then helping extinguish revolts by movements according to narrow self-interest and helping build up brutal killers like Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone and Charles Taylor in Liberia, not to mention his support for Idi Amin in Uganda. Gaddafi’s manipulation of the Tuareg, of the revolt in Darfur and of movements like Polisario show the way that his self-interest perverted popular or resistance movements, undermined African governments and complicated the already tangled legacy of colonialism.
Of key interest to readers now, will be the clear, empathetic but balanced account of the rising against Gaddafi, its progress, its dynamics and the challenges that now face the Libyan people. There’s no wide-eyed excitement and optimism that with Gaddafi gone all will be golden. The splits, rivalries and fault lines of the rebel movement (if it can even be called a movement) are revealed, providing an understanding of the clashes and fracturing of alliances now taking place. What is fascinating, too, is the account of why the West intervened (with guilt over Rwanda and Srebrenica mixed with less compassionate motives) and the role of Gulf states, particularly Qatar in that intervention – with nothing held back on why those states supported intervention in the hopes of averting intervention to stop the suppression of their own popular uprisings.
This is a compelling and comprehensive account of the uprising, its context and its complexity, uncluttered by jargon or the “big I am” tendency that mars many first-hand accounts by journalists of the chapters in history they have witnessed and reported.
Lindsey Hilsum’s Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution is published by faber and faber, London, 2012. ISBN 978-0-571-28803-8