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Published on 25 August 2011
I never thought I would see inside this place. I will tell my grandchildren of this day
It was the day when the ordinary people finally got to peer beyond the fortified concrete walls.
For the first time, Tripoli’s citizens discovered how Colonel Gaddafi had lived a life of opulence and surreal fantasy while they cowered under his bloodthirsty rule.
After the rebel fighters had overrun the tyrant’s massive sprawling compound, yesterday it was the turn of normally law-abiding Libyans to ransack and loot his properties. And they could scarcely believe what they saw.
One group of young men chose to tour the Bab al-Aziziya compound in the dictator’s preferred mode of transport – the very same electric golf buggy he rode in to rest his 72-year-old legs.
Even as they made their way through the shattered buildings, they could see for themselves sufficient remnants of the bizarre Michael Jackson-style Neverland park, complete with fairground and zoo, that Gaddafi constructed in the heart of the capital city.
First there were the creature comforts. In one of his palaces, expensive murals and art work hung from the walls and rooms were filled with replica 14th century furniture.
Vast bathrooms with bidets and sunken baths adjoined most sleeping quarters.
At the centre of the compound is the ‘House of Resistance’, Gaddafi’s former residence which was partially destroyed by a U.S. bombing raid in 1986.
Now it is a mausoleum, its furniture preserved untouched for 25 years within glass casing as a reminder of the attack.
If there was any morsel of sympathy to be gleaned for Gaddafi, it was from the ghostly bedroom of his adopted daughter Hana, who was only a few months old when she was killed in the raid.
There also appeared to be a shrine in honour of the little girl – a set of missiles ‘hung’, perhaps inappropriately, from the ceiling as though just fired from American jets.
Not far from a cluster of buildings used by Gaddafi’s family as sleeping quarters was a cinema where he would join his family to watch the latest western movies. The most outlandish sight in this whole bizarre fantasyland was the fairground in the gardens.
It featured an old-fashioned carousel, with children’s seats on chains, and a roundabout decked out with a cartoon-style teapot and spinning cups for youngsters to play in. Some rebels could not resist posing for pictures in the giant teacup rides and laughing with incredulity that the dictator had taken flight from his own compound.
But one could only stare in disbelief at this theme park within a warzone. He snorted: ‘Libyan children have no childhood, their lives are destroyed by Gaddafi. But his children, his family, have everything.’
As if all this wasn’t enough, Gaddafi had also used some of the estimated £300billion he has plundered from the country to build a zoo, stocked with animals supplied by fellow African dictators.
Amid chaotic scenes, as snipers loyal to Gaddafi took pot shots at the looters from high buildings around the compound, people grabbed at anything they could get – sheets, bedding, curtains and whatever else was once owned by Gaddafi.
Rebels at the gate implored them not to pillage or destroy the palace, saying it should be kept for the Libyan people. But they could not resist stripping the compound of everything they could carry, including Gaddafi’s home cinema system, his table football games and a stereo.
A boy of ten struggled under the weight of his raided booty – a replica gun, a satellite television receiver and other spoils he carried in a suitcase he had taken. A soldier yelled at him to stop, but others shouted him down, saying: ‘Let him take what he wants, it belongs to him.’
Others proudly held aloft the dictator’s ‘blingy’ artefacts, including jewellery and a gold-plated gun. They also tore down a massive Bedouin tent, where the tyrant liked to sleep during the hot summer months (and before Nato started raining bombs on his compound).
It had been erected in world capitals during trade visits after supposedly renouncing violence in 2003. While one tent was torn down, another – even bigger in scale – was set on fire and razed to the ground.
Some spat on the ground as they entered the previously-forbidden zone, but others simply wanted to rejoice at their symbolic victory over a man who had brutally controlled their lives for so long.
University student Nidal, 20, said: ‘I never thought I would see inside this place. I will tell my grandchildren of this day.’ Holding up one of Gaddafi’s personal photo albums, a group of women flicked through the pages of Gaddafi alongside world leaders.
‘I can’t believe we are here!’ cried Falima, 23, whose father disappeared almost a decade ago after being caught speaking out against the regime. ‘He had everything he needed – and you people, from the west, helped him stay in power until you saw sense.’
But, even in defeat, Gaddafi is not finished killing. As liberated Libyans cavorted around the complex, loyalist gunmen opened fire and mortar shells rained down inside Gaddafi’s lair. Such is the vast scale of the compound – 2.4 square miles in its entirety – that while looters were joyfully running amok in some areas, in another part rebels were engaged all day in a fierce gunfight with Gaddafi loyalists guarding the tunnels.
As people ran for their lives, the barrage was a clear sign that the end of the war may be near, but the battles go on.
Rebel fighters believe the attack was part of a deliberate strategy to prevent them from entering the 2,000-mile tunnel network Gaddafi constructed underneath his complex.
Amid fears of booby traps, and with loyal members of Gaddafi’s bodyguard unit firing from the entrances, the rebels were last night still engaged in fierce gun battles as they tried to follow the fleeing dictator. So where has he gone?
Some believe the tunnels lead all the way to Sirte, Gaddafi’s birthplace stronghold 200 miles to the east, and the location of a stockpile of 200 Scud missiles, many of them armed with chemical warheads.
As rebels fought to gain entrance to the tunnels, amid claims that Gaddafi’s retreating forces were trying to destroy each section they passed through to prevent any pursuit, their comrades were rushing in armed vehicles to Sirte, hoping to catch the dictator should he come up for air there.
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