Three weeks after gangs of anti-Gaddafi rebels began congregating in the deserts of Libya, a different form of protest took shape in the North London suburb of Finchley. It was here, in a ten million pound mansion, that Muammar G's second son, Saif Gaddafi, used to base his operations (oil deals and eyeballing shots of tequila with the Blairs).
Compared to the palacial abodes the Gaddafis are used to pottering around in back in Tripoli, it's a modest bachelor pad – just the ten bedrooms complemented by a swimming pool and a sauna – but to Topple the Tyrants, who gained access on March 9th, squatting it is quite a coup.
The group – whose members all have some amount of Libyan blood in their veins – have claimed the home for the Libyan people. It is now a sort of prep school and halfway house for Libyan emigres. I went down to see what blood money can buy you these days.
When I first arrived, the house was surrounded by a swarm of freelance journalists, TV crews and crusty squatters trying to get inside. After an hour or so, a guy called ‘Oz’ emerged from a ground floor window to tell the masses that this was “not a party squat,” before making it pretty clear there was also a strict AJAB (All Journalists Are Bastards) policy in place. No one was getting in. The drunkest crusty registered his anger by pissing at the assembled media and on Saif's front door.
Topple the Tyrants did not appreciate this.
A month of emails and phonecalls later, though, and I managed to convince Topple the Tyrants to let me come over to their sweet pad. As you can see, they’re pretty keen on rules, and I was quickly told that specific questions about the house would not be answered, and I’d only have access to certain rooms.
I was escorted through to the garden, where I was introduced to two of the people who now occupy the house and help organise the daily protests at the Libyan embassy. Billy*, originally from Benghazi, and Azrah*, who’s half-English and works for an investment bank in Mayfair. Billy explained that they’d taken control of the house so that people who wished to go and fight in Libya had a place to stay before they went to the airport. The idea was that they’d put the money they would have spent on hotels into the rebel kitty once they were back in their homeland.
I asked if the group had had any run-ins with pro-regime supporters, and Billy told me about a Libyan guy with a perfect English accent and a £5,000 suit who came to see them in the early hours. “When we first started chatting he seemed really nice, but then his tone changed and he started accusing us of being thieves and telling us that our families would suffer because of what we’d done. He suddenly offered me £40,000 to leave right away. I told him I couldn’t accept the offer because it’s not my house, and it’s not Saif’s either – it’s up to the Libyan people to decide what to do with it. He left pretty quick.”
In the kitchen there was a plate of chillies on the side, which was either pure coincidence or a pretty subtle wisecrack if you get the context. Throughout the conflict, Gaddafi has constantly painted the rebels as deviant desert berserkers who can only bear to go up against his forces if they fill their mouths with LSD first. In reality, the only hallucinogenic substances the rebels have been ingesting are copious amounts of mind-altering green chillies. They offered me a taste, but, after conferring with my timid English palate, I politely declined.
Both Billy and Azrah have family in Libya. Billy’s uncles and brothers are currently fighting in Misurata, dodging snipers and taking in the child soldiers Gaddafi has been using to defend his crumbling tenure. Azrah’s family are currently on lockdown in Tripoli, where the regime has everyone on constant surveillance and arrests are made every day.
“What you have to understand is that this isn’t war,” explains Billy. “It’s genocide. When the Allies attacked Iraq and Afghanistan, they weren’t invited by the people – that’s war – but in Libya, people are pleading for the West to get involved. It’s not always all about oil, as so many critics here think. We’d happily give away the oil if it meant the West could save more civilian lives.”
Everyone currently living in this bloody testament to Mamon reserves particular scorn for the man who brought in the Bose speakers and Smeg fridge, Saif. He was considered by many to be the least criminally insane Gaddafi, but that might just have been because he was dressed by Saville Row.
“Saif was actually the one who sorted out the £2bn compensation for the families of the Lockerbie victims." says Azrah. "I remember him complaining that they were being greedy – ‘what an arsehole,’ I thought at the time. Gaddafi definitely ordered [the Lockerbie bombing]. Now we can talk openly about this, but before Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi [the only man to be convicted of the bombing] was released, you couldn’t say he was guilty. Phones and calls made out of the country have always been tapped, and Pay As You Go SIM cards are only handed out to people who are happy to have their passport details authorised first. Freedom of speech is a very new thing in Libya.”
"Saif was meant to be our hope for a better Libya" continues Azrah. "He was Western-educated and would always talk about reforms, but when that video came out of him wielding an assault rifle, calling the rebels ‘dogs’ and saying that al-Qaeda were all on drugs, that hope died pretty quick. It made occupying this house feel so righteous.”
The conversation came to a natural close when I asked Billy what the ideal outcome of all the fighting would be. "It would be best if the current regime just stepped down and surrendered immediately," he said, "but if that doesn't happen, then I'd be happy to see Gaddafi and all his family rounded up and shot. I'd be so happy. That's what they deserve."
And at that point a load of men turned up shouting and I was shoved out of the house. Worst. Squat party. Ever.
*names have been changed to protect identities. The guy in the photo is neither 'Billy' nor 'Azrah', but he is very friendly and cooks a mean plate of chillies.