Andrei Netto Got Thrown in a Mid-Revolution Libyan Prison
In February 2011, Andrei Netto – the Paris correspondent for Brazilian newspaper Estadão – decided to travel to Tripoli to document the Libyan revolution, which seems like a reasonably simple thing to do, despite all the gunfire and bombs that were destroying the city at the time. The problem was that Andrei got to Ben Gardana, a small Tunisian town 200km from Tripoli, didn't have a visa and figured he'd just clandestinely enter the country anyway. That was a bad idea. Andrei was caught and sent to a Libyan jail, where he was blindfolded, beaten and forced to toy with the possibility of execution for eight days.
The happy news is that Andrei got a book out of it, The Silence of Muammar Gaddafi, which tells the revolution's story from beginning to end. Luckily his personal experiences didn't stop him from being impartial – he says himself that there are no angels in Libya's revolution – so the book acts as one of the most thorough, balanced guides to the most tumultuous months in Libya's recent history. Andrei was promoting the book in Brazil recently, so I went and had a chat.
VICE: The book begins in third person and then you start narrating in first person – why's that?
Andrei Netto: It was going to be written in third person, but I decided that it was a better idea to talk about my personal experiences, so changed it. But it's also a narrative tool so I can slow down and speed up throughout the story.
Are there any war authors who've inspired you to write the way you do?
I really admire Jon Lee Anderson – you can see a bit of his war narrative style in my book – and even though Michael Herr has a completely different writing style, full of slang and that kind of thing, I still incorporated a little bit of that. The two schools that inspired me the most were the American style of war narration, which came after Michael Herr; and new journalism from the 20s, 30s and 40s.
Cool. One thing that stood out to me is that, throughout the book, it becomes clear you don't believe that the rebels are any "better" than the Gaddafi supporters.
Yeah. I mean, revolutions are always full of war crimes. People tend to create a good guy and a bad guy in a war and, in Libya, the Gaddafi supporters were the devils and the rebels were the angels. Obviously the rebels were fighting to topple a 42-year-long tyrannical leadership, but that doesn't mean they didn't do horrible things to do so. Siraj, the guy I write about, is a rebel – so the good guy – but he wants to see a man, Gaddafi, die, then kicks him when he's down and pulls him by his hair through the streets. So I didn't want to create heroes on either side.
What would happen if the rebels were to take over the country now?
It’s going to be a complex future for Libya. Institutions were destroyed during Gaddafi's regime, so they need to reconstruct those, which could take years, maybe even decades. One thing it has going for it is the fourth largest oil reserve in the world, but that almost puts it more under threat. Some militias that were part of the revolution have turned into Islamic groups and could be a conservative, counter-revolution threat against the other revolutionaries who were fighting for democracy and openness rather than Sharia law. Saying that, I was in Libya for the last elections and there was a 70 percent growth of people going out and voting, so that has to be a good sign.
Libya's neighbouring countries have all gone through a similar process. What can we learn from them?
It's hard to say, because those countries will probably go in different directions. Unlike Libya's, Egypt's revolution didn't end in armed conflict; Tunisia's was far more peaceful and Syria's has sectarian groups, which could cause issues in the long run. The tipping point of each revolution was the same – years of oppression that all finally came to a head – but the ends will probably play out quite differently.
How do the revolutionaries see the West? Are they sceptical or do they trust the international support?
It varies from country to country. In Egypt, for example, the public opinion is very anti-America. They have a feeling that the military regimes – their last was Mubarak’s, but they had others before – were puppets of the US. I feel like Egypt have a desire for equal treatment – they don't want the States to keep treating them like their puppets in the Middle East.
And in Libya?
There isn’t a very strong anti-American sentiment there. It’s the opposite, in fact; there's deep admiration for the United States. The population of Libya is moderate compared to Egypt’s, and a large part of the population are actually pretty liberal.
What did the Libyans feel about the military support from the West during the war?
Even the ones who denied it were conscious that the revolution wouldn't have happened without an Western intervention. Some nationalists obviously say, “No, we were responsible for the revolution ourselves” – and it’s true, they started it – but without the international help, Gaddafi would have taken control of the country. Even the main people behind the Tripoli takeover knew that the revolution would fail without the Western help.
What made you want to write the book? Was it a feeling of moral commitment to the people you talked to, or just too many stories to fit in an article?
A little bit of everything. You can’t really tell the story of a revolution in a newspaper, so I knew I had to write a few more pages than a normal article. And yes, I also felt like I had a moral commitment to these people. The third motive was that there were a lot of people asking about my detention. And all of those things also formed my point of view on the revolution.
Yeah, how was your time in Gaddafi's prison?
If I had to summarise, I'd say anxiety. Brutal anxiety – an agony about the fact that I was missing, had no means of communication with the outside world and that people might think I was dead. I was completely unsure of what was going to happen at any given time. Freedom was the best possibility, execution was the worst. Anything was possible and, if I had to guess, I would say my chances were 50-50.
Finally, what lessons can the Arab youth teach their peers in the West?
The main lesson here is citizenship. I think the Western youth needs to realise that political activity can change lives, countries and destinies. I’m not here to be a political militant, I’m talking about having initiative and knowing that we can still change things. These guys are changing the world.
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