Photo: Krista Bremer
Passengers who had chatted with one another across the aisles on our short plane ride from Milan to Tripoli hugged their bags close and spoke in low tones, glancing furtively at a huddle of middle-aged Libyan men in cheap business suits, who watched us pass through customs. The air was thick with mutual suspicion.
"You must understand, Krista," my brother-in-law Adel explained later, as we stepped gingerly over patches of crabgrass in an abandoned field near his home, "this country has been run by a psychotic leader for so long that all Libyans suffer from mental illness."
Ahead of us, my 5-year-old daughter, Aliya Rose, hid in a small cluster of palm trees—the closest thing to a playground we could find.
A gaunt man with square, outdated glasses and the broad, lopsided smile of a boy, Adel was an electrical engineer who worked for the military. The best year of his life, he said, was the one he spent in the former Yugoslavia, pursuing his master's degree.
On our first night in Libya, he showed us pictures of his simple, well-lit apartment in Belgrade, with its kitchen cabinets full of food; the manicured parks in which he and his new young wife strolled each weekend; the beautiful, well-maintained architecture of the city.
His favorite stories about Yugoslavia revolved around freedoms so familiar to me that I no longer recognized them as such: the dinner parties they hosted for Yugoslavian friends, during which heated political debates took place at the table and laughter like music filled their apartment until late into the night; the evenings when his wife slipped out of their apartment alone and wandered the city to clear her head.
Adel spoke more freely in that barren field than he did in the privacy of his own home—as if his words were too dangerous to be trapped inside, as if he needed the gentle breeze to sweep them away. "Our mental illness comes from having to tell so many lies to ourselves and others just to survive another day," he said.
In a country where the government was the main employer and even the smallest criticisms of the regime led to disappearances, prolonged incarceration without legal representation, or torture, an enormous amount of pretending was required to try to lead a normal life.
At 36, Adel had only one dream: to experience life outside Libya once more. But like an old man who mumbles wistfully about the past, he spoke as if he knew this dream was beyond his reach. In spite of everything Libyans have lost during the nearly 42 years of Qaddafi's brutal reign—freedom of speech and movement, freedom to access basic goods or to improve one's life —Libyans remain rich in their connection to one another.
The day we arrived in Ismail's hometown, a steady stream of friends and family passed through my father-in-law's home for five hours straight, warmly welcoming Ismail and inspecting his American wife and daughter. And each day we were there, many more neighbors and relatives visited.
Their strong family and community bonds make many Americans look poor in comparison—yet Qaddafi has turned their most precious resource against them: Every Libyan knows that to speak out against Qaddafi is to put loved ones in Libya at risk, which is why even Libyans living abroad are afraid to challenge the regime. There is nowhere on Earth they can escape their bondage to Qaddafi.
We Hear You!