Seattleite in Libya witnesses historic jubilation

Oct 20, 2011

It’s a “privilege” to be in Libya at the height of its transition from the now-dead leader Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s rule to that of the rebels, said Anna Knutzen, an emergency program manager for Mercy Corps in Tripoli, who grew up in Seattle.

“Martyrs' Square … was a sight to see. People were just piling in to celebrate the news, and it’s still going on. You might be able to hear it in the background,” Knutzen said in a phone interview Thursday afternoon.

Earlier at the airport in Tripoli, Knutzen said she first witnessed reaction to reports of Gaddafi’s capture:

“Somebody in a military uniform came out with a computer. He opened the laptop, held it up high in the air, and people just started yelling “Allah Akbar” and running towards him. It turns out they were looking at the initial photo of Gaddafi’s alleged capture. The narrative evolved over the course of the day from ‘they’ve found him’ to ‘they’ve captured him’ to eventually a solidified report of his death,” she said.

Gaddafi's end 

Muammar Gaddafi was killed in the crossfire of a battle between his supporters and fighters loyal to the opposition that topped the dictator's regime, Libya's interim prime minister told NPR Thursday.

"Nobody can tell if the [fatal] shot was from the rebel fighters or from his own security guard," Interim Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril told All Things Considered host Robert Siegel.

The New York Times reports that cell phone videos of Gaddafi taken before and after his death, which became sensations on the Internet, suggested he had been abused and summarily executed by gunshots at close range.

The future of Libya

Knutzen said Libyans appear to be “cautiously optimistic” about leadership under the National Transitional Council.

“The good news is that the average Libyan is more aware of that than I realized. People know how much work is ahead of them, and if they are worried, it’s because they’ve seen cases like Iraq where things haven’t gone as well as they hoped. There’s a great fear of that falling apart, but for the moment the NTC is doing a good job of keeping things together,” she told KPLU.

Helping the children survive

Knutzen started working in Libya in May, first in Benghazi and then in Tripoli. Mercy Corps is there to provide relief and protection to displaced populations around Libya, she said. She is focused on programs that provide social support for children and adult caregivers.

“When you have a traumatic event, people – and in particular small children – it can be incredibly disruptive. Schools stop and there’s a drawn out period of instability or volatility. It can be incredibly disruptive,” she said. “In Libya, kids are witnessing a huge influx of weapons, people being killed or an increase in the number of funerals and death. They’re hearing things that are really scary, and part of what our psychosocial programs are built to do is to help kids turn to natural coping mechanisms like playing, going back to a schedule, learning activities and structured places.”

Mercy Corps has been in Libya since March, shortly after the rebellion began, the organization reported in a press release. In Tripoli, Misurata and Benghazi, the Corps efforts have focused on providing relief and protection to displaced populations, helping children recover from the psychological effects of the conflict and “nurturing the country’s nascent civil society.”

They have distributed blankets, diapers, hygiene kits and kitchen sets and food in Misrata with the Libyan Red Crescent and UN World Food Program.

The other Seattleite in Libya

Ali Tarhouni, 60, a lecturer at the University of Washington since 1985 and a favorite among students for his engaging style and dry wit, reported The Seattle Times, left Seattle on Feb. 27 to join the rebels' shadow government in Libya and was appointed its finance minister and oil minister. He later became the transition council’s deputy chairman.

Crowds have been reported to greet Tarhouni, who fled Libya in 1972 and was put on a Qaddafi hit list, as a celebrity at political events.

Turns out, he and Knutzen, who attended Seattle Pacific University, had been “practically neighbors” in Seattle.

“I’ve heard really wonderful things,” she said of Tarhouni. “He certainly came in during a time of incredible transition and he’s lead the ministry of finance with incredible courage. He has a huge amount of responsibility on his plate. … I can’t say much beyond that because I haven’t met him in person. I’m certainly impressed by the caliber of people in his department.”

Anxiety before the fall

Libya is a wired country, with lots of people packing smart phones, Knutzen said.

There are also a lot of people packing guns, and for many months the country teetered on the brink of rebel control and Gaddafi control.

“There were moments when a lot of us thought that this was just going to fall a part, but it hasn’t,” she said. “People have really stuck together. I find a great deal of hope in the fact that Libyans tell me that they will stick together.

“They stuck together through the armed uprising and they will continue to stick together politically. When people say pessimistic things about the future, I find hope and solace when Libyans say otherwise. What we witnessed is really extraordinary and I wish them all the best.”