The Free Shores of Tripoli

Libyans are ecstatic about the overthrow of Qaddafi, and they love America.

TRIPOLI, Libya — Adham had never picked up a gun before, never mind fired one. But all that changed on Aug. 20, when the tall, lanky, 26-year-old Tripoli resident was handed a weapon and a grenade to fight against the 42-year regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. "It was the first time for everyone," he tells me.

I meet Adham on Friday, Aug. 26, in a darkened alley not far from the Mediterranean coast. It is just after sundown, and as the power went off in Tripoli earlier in the day, it is almost impossible to see anything. After I tell him I am a journalist, he welcomes me to a small, impromptu iftar dinner and gives me an impression of how, block-by-block, the Tripoli underground managed to seize nominal control over most of the sprawling capital in just two days.

On the evening of the 20th, a Saturday, the uprising within Tripoli began with men chanting anti-Qaddafi slogans at the central Ben Nabi Mosque. This was the "zero hour," as another rebel fighter would tell me. For weeks, rebels had smuggled guns into Tripoli and left them in safe houses; some of the guns used by rebels were also purchased directly from members of the kataib, or Qaddafi militias. With the Aug. 13 fall of Zawiya, a strategically located city about 30 kilometers west of the capital, all the pieces were in place for rebels to take Tripoli.

But before that could happen, the capital's citizens would have to rise up first. Upon receiving orders from their neighborhood commander, Adham and his fellow rebels immediately began to set up roadblocks with whatever materials were available. "Everyone took their place," he says, in a pattern replicated across the city, while NATO military advisors reportedly coordinated the overall battle plan with rebel commanders outside Tripoli. The fighting on Adham's block was intense, and about four or five pro-Qaddafi soldiers were killed over the course of 48 hours. The rebels in his neighborhood captured 35 Qaddafi loyalists, all of whom, Adham says, were taken to the local rebel council that had been set up in advance of the uprising as a shadow government to seize control of the city as the regime fell to pieces. "If someone fights, we shoot, but we never kill someone who gives up," he tells me when I ask about reports of reprisal killings.

Soon, we are joined by Nasser, a middle-aged rebel fighter. Hearing that I am an American, he immediately tells me a story that, given the fog of war, may or may not be true. Just the other day, he says, rebel soldiers apprehended four Americans -- an elderly woman and three men -- trying to flee Tripoli by boat to the Mediterranean island of Malta. They were public relations consultants working on behalf of the "son of a bitch" Yusuf Shakir, a regime propagandist, Nasser says. When the rebels who had arrested the Americans turned them over to the Tripoli council, its leaders determined that the Americans should be kept at the downtown Corinthia Hotel. "The council treated them with respect," Nasser tells me. The practical difficulties of communicating with sources and venturing around Tripoli make this tidbit of information impossible to confirm.

I HAD ENTERED Tripoli the morning of Thursday, Aug. 25, three days after rebels claimed to have gained control over most of the city. That might have been the case, but Tripoli did not exactly feel secure for those of us journalists driving its empty streets. Having spent the previous evening sleeping on thin, dirty mattresses in an abandoned apartment building in Zawiya (a town where, we discovered upon our arrival, four Italian journalists had been kidnapped just hours before), a few colleagues and I convinced two Libyans to drive us to the Corinthia, where we knew many journalists were staying. Rebels had set up checkpoints at what seemed to be every other intersection, so a trip that should have only taken about 20 minutes turned into an hour. Along the way, we passed the headquarters of the Khamis Brigade, named after Qaddafi's youngest son, which rebels had overtaken on Aug. 21. Everywhere lay the detritus of armed combat, from burned-out tanks to spent bullet shells. Arriving at the Corinthia, we were told by the unflappable man behind the front desk that the hotel was full, so we asked our drivers to take us to the Radisson, the other hotel where journalists were shacking up. We made it out right in time; 15 minutes after we left, we later discovered, a huge firefight erupted just outside the Corinthia between Qaddafi loyalists and rebel fighters.

We were told that the Radisson was just down the road from the Corinthia, so we knew something was wrong when we entered a neighborhood where a giant painting of Qaddafi covered a building wall and posters of the Brother Leader hung on lampposts. Given that everywhere else we had ventured in Tripoli had been marked by anti-Qaddafi graffiti, this must have meant that we had entered a neighborhood that had yet to fall under rebel control. Our fears were confirmed when we drove by the giant, bullet-strewn walls of Bab al-Aziziya, Qaddafi's massive compound, which, though the rebels had claimed to have captured it, was still the site of on-again, off-again battles between the two sides. Up ahead we saw a roundabout where an encampment of some sort had been demolished. Freshly dead corpses lay everywhere.

Minutes later we reached the now-infamous Rixos hotel, where some 35 journalists had effectively been held hostage for a week by Qaddafi gunmen. The hotel had only recently been secured by rebels; there was still fighting going on within the Tripoli Zoo, on whose grounds the Rixos is located. We realized at this point that our drivers had not understood us; they had confused the Radisson for the Rixos. After some hurried and emphatic communication with the rebel fighter in charge of guarding the Rixos, we made it to our destination without incident

THE NEXT MORNING, I venture out into Tripoli. An eerie sense of calm seems to have enveloped most of the city. Tripoli looks like a cross between South Central Los Angeles at the height of the 1992 riots and Sierra Leone during its civil war. The only people on the streets are young men -- and boys -- carrying guns. They are dressed in street clothes and look like gangbangers, and would be more intimidating were they not so friendly (REO Speedwagon T-shirts and Hawaiian shorts are not soldierly affectations). Save a bus with some women and girls, not once do I see a female Libyan outside.

All the Libyans I meet tell me that there was minimal looting during the period of unrest, a remarkable fact given that food and water have begun to run short. The preservation of order may also have something to do with the organizational structures that Tripoli residents had established in preparation for the uprising. Neighborhoods began organizing councils at least three months ago, several Tripoli residents tell me, not just for distributing weapons and planning for the seizure of key sites within the city, but for essential, noncombatant activities such as food and water distribution.

The revolution was truly from the bottom up, and the intimacies of neighborhood life enabled anti-Qaddafi Libyans to organize effectively and covertly. Although political organizing was next to impossible in the police state Qaddafi had established during his four decades in power, the slow progress of the rebels, the ongoing NATO bombardment, and the widespread international condemnation of the regime seem to have spurred Tripoli residents to perform a degree of underground coordination that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. "We know the opposite guys; we know each other," Mohammed Abou Gabha, a 21-year-old training to become a pilot who is now manning a checkpoint, tells me. "We know who wants Qaddafi and who doesn't want Qaddafi, and we got together."

The councils plan to start collecting the very guns they distributed just a little over a week ago from rebel soldiers for whom weapons are no longer essential. "If you leave a weapon in the hands of a civilian, this will be very complicated, very difficult," Abdullah Ahmed Bilal, a gregarious commodore in the Libyan navy, tells me. "We have seen what's happened in Iraq." That task will be easier than it sounds, at least judging by the faces of the young men strutting around with a feeling of power and accomplishment that they've certainly never felt before.

Although Libyans would not have won this revolution without outside intervention, the magic of the relatively limited NATO effort is that it has largely left the task of post-conflict internal rebuilding to Libyans themselves. There are no foreigners dispatching provincial reconstruction teams as in Iraq and Afghanistan; Libyans are already performing this civic work by clearing their streets of rubble and organizing neighborhood watch shifts. The war is one that Libyans fought very hard to win; I get the distinct impression that the vast majority of them are eager not to let this moment -- 42 years in the making -- slip through their fingers. They want to rebuild their country, and given the dire circumstances, it's impressive that there has been no outbreak of mass chaos.

The other remarkable thing about Libya is that it is the only Arab country where America is not just liked, but loved. (Speaking with Libyans, I never feel I have to lie and say I am Canadian, as I sometimes do in other Arab countries to avoid potentially dodgy situations.) That its people love America precisely because their country has been bombed by it is all the more noteworthy. In Libya right now, Americans are the recipients of precisely the sort of admiration and gratitude they thought they would receive in Iraq eight years ago. One hopes that by playing a limited role in the country's stabilization and reconstruction, they will be able to maintain that gratitude.

Whether or not Libyans can preserve their unity will be crucial to the country's future. For more than four decades, Qaddafi subsumed any genuine sense of national unity to obligatory worship in his cult of personality. In just six months, though they lack many of the traditional institutions of a state (like Egypt's fabled military), Libyans have nonetheless forged a shared consciousness by fighting together, and working together, to kick Qaddafi out. This may be shaky ground on which to build the foundations of a functioning democracy, but it is something. When I ask Adham about the concerns many in the West have about Libya's "tribal society," he bristles at the question. "This is untrue," he tells me with a frustrated tone. "There are no tribes. Libya is united, Insha'Allah."



Pregnant in Putin's Russia

An expectant mother's journey through the modern Moscow medical system. 

MOSCOW — "Russia needs babies" may as well be the unofficial slogan of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia Party. The country is in a demographic crisis, shedding 2.2 million people (or 1.6 percent of the population) since 2002, and the government is trying to encourage more women to bring Russian citizens into the world. This year, when I unexpectedly got pregnant soon after receiving my visa to work in Moscow, I became a test case.

Since the Soviet days, having a baby in Russia has been commonly understood as a nightmare of understaffed state hospitals and forbidding bureaucratic mazes. Feminist author Maria Arbatova's My Name Is Woman, an alternatively harrowing and hilarious account of childbirth in the 1970s, was the grim reality for many. Arbatova described being left completely unattended during the final stages of labor, which nearly resulted in her death and the death of her twin sons.

The fall of the Soviet Union did not improve matters. A 1996 Los Angeles Times article, titled appropriately "Childbirth in Russia Is Miserable," attested to Russia's "scruffy, ill equipped, and harried" maternity wards. The article described a health system caught in a straitjacket of leftover communist-era regulations, which even dictated the posture mothers must lie in to nurse their newborns.

These days, thankfully, maternal mortality is decreasing in Russia, according to the World Health Organization, but this doesn't mean that most women have renewed faith in the medical establishment -- horror stories still pop up in the press and the blogosphere.

It's only natural for the truly scary cases to make their way into the press, while the stories of regular birthing experiences remain generally untold. However, there are enough Russian bloggers out there recounting tales of being bullied and mistreated by medical staff to give a pregnant woman cause for concern.

Shortly before I gave birth, I was struck by a blog post by a recent mother, detailing a personal experience at a Moscow hospital not far from where I live -- yelling midwives, a doctor who was mostly busy somewhere else, and, for dessert, getting stitched up with no anesthetic by a staff member who threatened to walk away should she continue to squirm. According to the midwives, "it was my fault that I overshot my due date and was now screaming (and here I thought I was only moaning softly)," the author wrote.

That's not exactly good press if you're trying to get more women to give birth. This is why Putin is seen on the television news these days touring newfangled perinatal centers and holding high-profile meetings on maternal care -- to assure the childbearing public that the government is now watching out for them. The prime minister has also pledged to spend 1.5 trillion rubles (about $54 billion) over the next four years on demographics-related projects such as raising life expectancy and increasing the birth rate by 30 percent.

I hadn't planned on serving as a canary for Russia's new advances in state maternal care, but after my husband and I ran out of money, throwing ourselves on the mercy of free health care was our only choice. Last November, when I made my first appointment with an OB/GYN at the Norovkov Clinic, a private establishment in Moscow that came highly recommended by friends, my new doctor, Natalia Bovina, explained my options to me.

"You can pay for a special 'birthing contract' at a hospital that provides commercial services -- or you can call an ambulance once labor kicks in, but then it will all depend on luck," Bovina said. "Unless a nearby hospital is full, they won't legally be able to refuse to admit a woman in labor, but who knows what kind of doctors you will end up with?"

I sat across from her, still recovering from the shock of discovering I was pregnant a mere six months after coming to Moscow to work as a journalist, and said that I'd "definitely" be paying for a contract.

But by the time I was at 36 weeks, the stage at which most commercial birth plans are set up, my husband and I were struggling just to keep our apartment. A standard birthing contract costs $2,500 to $3,500, but we could not spare even this relatively modest amount.

I spent a lot of time bemoaning my fate. Marooned in Moscow! Pregnant and broke! Russia was supposed to be an adventure, like it is for most expat journalists -- not a dose of cold reality.

"It will work out," Alexey, my Russian husband, reassured me in his typical, carefree manner. "The gods are on our side."

Although I'm originally from Kiev, Ukraine, I spent most of my life living in the United States. My middle-class, private-school-educated, American self demanded order, not a reliance upon nebulous "gods" -- but I was too exhausted to argue. We decided to put our faith in the heavens, planning to forgo a birthing contract and give birth at City Hospital #70, which was directly across the street from our apartment.

We were hopeful: Not long before, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin had taken a well-publicized stroll through the hospital's modernized perinatal center at the maternity ward, or "birth house," as they are commonly known in Russia, handing out flowers to new mothers. I had been hospitalized there for a day and a half when my baby threatened to come early. The experience was decent -- the ward was renovated and clean, and the doctors were curt but professional, and appeared genuinely concerned for my welfare and the welfare of the baby.

As the weeks passed, however, and our baby overstayed his due date, I grew antsy. Thankfully, I still had Natalia Bovina, my doctor from the private clinic. According to Russian health-care tradition, she had shepherded me through the pregnancy process, but would not be there for the actual birth. Such practice is fairly common in Russia: One doctor guides you for nine months; another takes over once you are in labor, or close to it.

A week after my due date, I got in touch with Bovina, who arranged the paperwork so that I could check into the hospital before contractions actually began. This was supposed to be my ticket straight to Hospital #70.

But the hospital served up a surprise of its own. "I don't care about your hospitalization papers, woman!" screamed the receptionist in the maternity ward there when I called to inquire about a place on the wards while waiting for my hospitalization papers to come through later in the day. "You need to be seen by your doctor -- you can't just show up here!" She proceeded to hang up.

Although turning down a pregnant woman without an explanation is against the law, admittance procedure can sometimes depend on the mood of whoever is on duty at the reception desk, and some hospital workers still bank on the fact that many pregnant women don't know their rights. I could have argued with this charming receptionist, but my desire to give birth at Hospital #70 had quickly evaporated. I was emotional, scared, and desperate for help.

Dr. Bovina quickly proceeded to Plan B: booking me a room in Hospital #15, famous for being one of the best in Moscow -- modern, well-renovated, and the sort of place that promotes mother-and-child bonding and breastfeeding. Neither Dr. Bovina nor myself had originally thought I'd be able to give birth there, since the ward was closed near my due date. (Local rules demand that all maternity hospitals are closed for a month each year to be disinfected and spruced up -- why it takes a month, however, is beyond me.) But the hospital had just reopened and was filling up quickly.

Natalia Akhsyamova, a friend of Dr. Bovina's, was the anesthesiologist on duty at the prenatal ward in Hospital #15 when I showed up, a week late and feeling like my head was about to explode from terror and confusion. Friendly, polite, and more than a little amused by my terrified expression, she took me to see the head of the prenatal ward, Olga Glotova.

Glotova, a kindly blonde clearly used to seeing all sorts of hysterical women, examined me in her office, highly amused by the whole situation. "You wanted to give birth at Hospital #70?" she laughed. "That's ridiculous; their postnatal ward has four women to one room.… And oh, look, blood!"

"Blood! Where?"

"Here!" Glotova waved her bloodied glove at me. "You're in labor! Go grab your husband and head to the reception area. I'll get you admitted."

After Glotova rushed me through admission, Akhsyamova was called in to give me an epidural so that I could rest. Epidurals on demand are also relatively new for Russia.

"We never had such options," Glotova told me. "Nowadays, it's standard practice in any decent hospital, of course."

The labor was prolonged and difficult, even with the epidural. At one point, Glotova went away for a few minutes and came back brandishing a surprisingly pretty and colorful vacuum device. "A journalist writing an article about childbirth in Russia should know the latest in vacuum technology!" she said, beaming. "None of the old stuff! This is all shiny and brand new!"

I was immediately inspired to push properly.

Our son, Lev, was born not long after. Glotova placed him on my belly to share a few seconds of skin-on-skin contact -- still a comparatively rare practice in Russia. Lev sneezed. My husband cried.

"See? The gods are on our side," he said. This time, arguing with him didn't cross my mind.

In our case, the gods had acted through sympathetic medical professionals -- those who had the power to cut through the bureaucracy. However, other women who wind up in my situation are not always as lucky. While pumping money into maternal care is well and good, what these women most need is a change in the mainstream medical attitudes toward pregnancy and childbirth in Russia.

A hospital with modern technology is still only as good as the people who work there -- a lesson I learned the hard way through my experience with Hospital #70. If the staff is not motivated to treat pregnant women like regular human beings, as opposed to mere prisoners to their condition, all the money in the world won't improve Russia's maternal care system.

For now, Lev -- a positive statistic for the agencies that keep tabs on Russia's population and determine official policy on demographics -- has no idea as to the drama surrounding his coming into the world. He was born into a country that is both rapidly modernizing and, in some major ways, still clinging to the past. As I watch my Russian son sleep, I can only do what every new mother does -- stock up on hope.