UW Today

April 20, 2011

UW professors visit to family in Libya gives him front row seat to revolution

News and Information

When Hussein Elkhafaifi left Seattle for Libya on Feb. 16, he was going to be with his mother who was dying of kidney failure in his native Benghazi.

Hussein Elkafaifi sits in front of a mural in Benghazi created by a young man subsequently killed by a pro-Gaddafi sniper. Similar cartoons have appeared all over Benghazi.

Hussein Elkafaifi sits in front of a mural in Benghazi created by a young man subsequently killed by a pro-Gaddafi sniper. Similar cartoons have appeared all over Benghazi.Courtesy of Hussein Elkafaifi

A UW associate professor of Arabic and applied linguistics, Elkhafaifi arrived as protests sweeping the Middle East reached Libya. In Benghazi, Libyas second-largest city, a crowd armed with rocks and gasoline bombs protested outside a government office, demanding the release of a human rights advocate. Troops loyal to dictator Muammar Gaddafi responded with bullets, and scores of people were either wounded or killed.

“People were really angry. It was like sitting on a volcano,” recalls 62-year-old Elkhafaifi.

But he was focused on his family, particularly his mother. Soon after arriving at the Benghazi airport, Elkhafaifi drove with his brother, sister and nephew to Jamahiriya Hospital, where his mother lay.

“The room wasnt fit for rats,” recalls Elkhafaifi. All over the hospital, built in the 1930s by Italians occupying the country, windows were cracked, linens filthy, and staff in short supply.

A young opposition fighter stands atop a Gaddafi tank burned outside Benghazi.

A young opposition fighter stands atop a Gaddafi tank burned outside Benghazi.Hussein Elkafaifi

Thats the problem with Libya, Elkhafaifi said. Gaddafi and his family have abused the country for 42 years, pocketing the revenues from Libyas resources so that basics such as education,  healthcare and infrastructure have crumbled. “Its happening in a country that should be the richest in Africa – so much oil and natural gas,” he said.

On the way home from the hospital, Elkhafaifi and his family drove past the Italian consulate where five years before, Libyan soldiers shot demonstrators during a protest. Elkhafaifi had anticipated that a commemorative demonstration would be launched, and indeed, they were the beginning of the revolution.

At the consulate, Libyan soldiers waited with clubs and shields. One of them spotted Elkhafaifis nephew in the back seat of the car taking photographs.  “Hey,” the soldier yelled, “you arent supposed to do that,” whereupon he flung his helmet at the car, and another soldier threw rocks.

Elkhafaifis brother hit the gas, whipped around the corner and zoomed away.

A day or so later, Elkhafaifi saw photographs of corpses at the scene. “If the riot police had caught us, we might have been tortured and killed,” he said.

As the days passed, good mingled with bad.

Hussein Elkafaifi stands with a tank in Benghazi. The Arabic on the tank says, “Gaddafi’s gift to Benghazi.”

Hussein Elkafaifi stands with a tank in Benghazi. The Arabic on the tank says, “Gaddafi’s gift to Benghazi.”Courtesy of Hussein Elkafaifi

On Feb. 20, for example, a usually quiet, middle-aged manager crashed his car, packed with gasoline cans, into the front gate of the Katiba, a large military garrison near the Elkhafaifi home, leading the way for fellow citizens to rout the Libyan army and mercenaries.

That night, residents of Benghazi, including members of the Elkhafaifi family, celebrated in the streets. At one point, however, they heard a large explosion. A young man had stepped on a land mine.

Elkhafaifi had gone inside the garrison and was returning to his family outside. When he reached them, his sister noticed spatters on the back of his jacket. Touching them, she realized they were clumps of human flesh.

Benghazi is a big city, about 800,000 people, but word of the hundreds of deaths traveled very fast because many Benghazi families are related. Many people attend funerals for those killed, whether they know the deceased or not, out of respect and solidarity with the revolution, and funerals are getting larger and larger. “It adds fuel to the fire. People want Gaddafi and his family gone,” Elkhafaifi said.

 

On his jacket, Elkhafaifi wears a pin with a photograph of Omar al-Mukhtar, who in the early part of the 20th century led the Libyan resistance against Italian colonization. The pin carries al-Mukhtar’s motto, adopted by Libyan freedom fighters: “We will never surrender. We will win or we will die.”

On his jacket, Elkhafaifi wears a pin with a photograph of Omar al-Mukhtar, who in the early part of the 20th century led the Libyan resistance against Italian colonization. The pin carries al-Mukhtar’s motto, adopted by Libyan freedom fighters: “We will never surrender. We will win or we will die.”Hussein Elkafaifi

Word on the street, he added, is that Gaddafi not only wants Benghazi flattened and everyone killed, but that soldiers have been instructed to look for male residents 10 to 40 years of age, who constitute a large part of the population. As potential participants in the revolution, they are targeted for arrest and execution.

Elkhafaifi recalled his own youth in Benghazi, where in 1971 he obtained an undergraduate degree in Arabic language and literature from the University of Libya. He left Libya several years after Gaddafi took power in 1969 but over the years has heard about Libyan agents invading homes, sometimes in the middle of the night, to interrogate and abduct residents. The government hanged several students in public and citizens were required to attend the executions.

Agents have visited the Elkhafaifi home a number of times. Their son had a government scholarship for graduate studies at the University of Utah, but was regarded with suspicion simply because he was abroad.

Elkhafaifi lost his scholarship in 1976 when he ignored a summons to return to Libya. “There were indoctrination meetings we were required to attend. Indoctrination via the Green Book,” Elkhafaifi explained, referring to Gaddafis book of socialist and nationalist philosophy.

When checks from the Libyan government ceased, Elkhafaifi obtained a teaching assistantship at Utah, finishing his doctorate in 1985 and becoming an American citizen.

Hes married to Susan Benson, a lecturer in the UW Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, and they have two daughters, Zahra at Western Washington University, and Leila, a student at Redmond High School.

During the nine weeks her husband was gone, Benson spent many sleepless nights. For 12 days, she had no idea whether he was dead or alive, as the Gaddafi government had disabled Internet connections and cell phone towers. Benson finally learned her husband was alive and wel
l in a phone call from Ali Tarhouni, a senior lecturer at the UW Foster School of Business who is now oil and finance minister for the Libyan opposition.

Online in March, Benson read about Gaddafis troops massing outside Benghazi. Rumors were that Gaddafi and his sons wanted an unimpeded view from the city of Ajdabiya to the Green Mountain. Benghazi lies between them…

Meanwhile, Elkhafaifis mother had died and been buried. His siblings urged him to go home, to get out of the country while it was possible. However, on some days, it was too risky to leave the house at all. “Snipers shot mourners as they carried their dead to the cemetery,” Elkhafaifi would later write in an email. Moreover, Islamic tradition calls for 40 days of family mourning after a death. “I could have gone at various times during this period,” he said, “but I did not want to just leave my family before marking this important date. I also wanted very much to be present to celebrate the end of the Gaddafi regime, but that was not to be.”

Finally, after 40 days, Elkhafaifi rented a minivan with six other people and drove to Cairo, where he boarded an airplane for Amsterdam and then Seattle, arriving April 11.

On his jacket, Elkhafaifi wears a pin with a photograph of Omar al-Mukhtar, who in the early part of the 20th century led the Libyan resistance against Italian colonization. The pin carries al-Mukhtars motto, adopted by Libyan freedom fighters: “We will never surrender. We will win or we will die.”