Have you ever met a real-life revolutionary freedom fighter – someone who took up arms to overthrow a dictatorial regime?
It’s not every day you meet someone who not only talks that talk, but walks that walk.
But Libyans who have done just that live here in the Northwest.
Last year five Seattleites from Libya traveled back to their homeland to join the uprising against country’s longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
When Gaddafi’s bombs began raining down on his family’s city, Dr. Omar Reba flew straight there after years in exile in the US.
He told his mom, “I’m going to die with you.”
“My wife wouldn’t let me hold a weapon or go to the frontline,” Reba, seated next to fellow revolutionaries, told a packed audience at the Swedish Cultural Center on Wednesday night in a panel discussion hosted by the World Affairs Council.
For weeks, Reba put his medical expertise to use: treating fighters and civilians (including children) wounded by bullets and landmines. Audience members gasped as he clicked through a gruesome slideshow showing several of his patients.
After that emotional punch to the gut, Reba concluded on a high note, thanking everyone for their solidarity with Libya. “I used to think people who went down to Pioneer Square to protest were weird,” he said.
But after attending a Libya solidarity event following his trip, he says he acquired a newfound appreciation of people who make their views known in public squares.
All the panelists shared his optimism about the future of Libya, although many questions still remain four months after Gaddafi was pulled from a drainage hole and killed by rebel fighters.
“After the revolution, you can see the change. One thing we have in common now is that it’s our country,” said Yousef Elberkawi, an slight engineer with slicked-back hair who was exiled from Libya at a young age after speaking out against Gaddafi.
He visited the frontline where battles were taking place and coordinated the delivery of medical equipment to the rebel army. Some of it had to be smuggled over mountains in small trucks.
Mazin Ramadan has set aside his life in Seattle to focus on contributing to a liberated Libya.
He comes home for short stints to visit his family, running errands and hanging out with the kids. Then he heads back to North Africa.
Ramadan was put off by skeptical questions from the audience about tribalism and the oppression of women. “It’s fair to say everyone contributed to this revolution. They may not be visible on the TVs, but women were working alongside the men,” he said, running media committees and logistical operations.
Although panelists painted a rosy picture of the revolution, a UN investigative panel is poised to report that both sides in Libya–both Gaddafi’s fighters and the rebels–committed serious war crimes.
So what does the future have in store for Libya?
“Everyone is focused on the June 23 election,” Ramadan said, adding, “The more I look at Syria, the more I appreciate what Libyans have done.”
After the panel, I caught up with local business owner Rita Zawaideh, who is from Syria. I asked her what elements of Libya’s experience are applicable to the turmoil engulfing her country now. “Nothing,” she said bluntly. “You cannot do in Syria what was done in Libya…people don’t realize how many different ethnic groups there are.”
In other words, it’s more complicated than you think.
And really the same is true for Libya, which now faces a tough transition from autocratic rule to multi-party democracy.
But the men who spoke of their revolutionary struggle seemed to have an iron-clad devotion to seeing their homeland flourish.
For more on Libya, check out CLP correspondent Sebastian Meyer’s reporting from the front lines of the revolution.