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In Libya, It’s ‘Year Zero’ as Country Starts From Scratch

August 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT

JIM LEHRER: Ray Suarez takes the story from there.

He talked earlier today with ITN’s Lindsey Hilsum in Tripoli.

RAY SUAREZ: Lindsey, welcome back to the program.

Is there progression on the ground from the point of view of the rebels? Have they been able to secure areas, bring in essential supplies, do something like consolidation in the areas they control?

LINDSEY HILSUM, International Television News: I think that there has been progress.

Certainly, over this week, we have seen Tripoli become calmer. There’s still some talk of fighting. There are still a few snipers. But I have been traveling around every day since Monday, and more and more neighborhoods are secure. What seems to be happening is that you have got like neighborhood committees.

These are young men and sometimes older men. And they stand on the streets with their barricades sometimes just made of chairs or old cars, burnt-out vehicles, anything they can find, and it’s neighborhood watch with Kalashnikovs. And they’re checking the vehicles coming through a zone and securing their own neighborhood areas.

The National Transitional Council from Benghazi, that’s the — in the east, where the revolution first happened started in February, some of their members have come into town now. They’re trying to establish some kind of government. But, of course, there is still fighting over towards Sirte. That is Colonel Gadhafi’s hometown, about 700 kilometers from here.

And there is still fighting there, so not all of Libya is yet in rebel hands.

RAY SUAREZ: We have seen images all week of the intense fighting that’s going on in very built-up urban areas. When pro-Gadhafi fighters are taken alive, what happens to them?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, there are various things that happen.

A lot of pro-Gadhafi fighters have been killed. And I have seen the bodies of them lying on the roundabout between his Bab Al Aziziya compound and Abu Salim, which is the area where they fled to in the last two or three days. The fighting there seems to have died down.

But I think that it’s not clear to me that many are being taken prisoner. I think most of them carried on fighting to the end, and if they carry on fighting, they’re killed. Having said that, I have come across some prisoners.

Now, the prisoners tend to be Africans from different African countries, mainly in West Africa, like Niger, Chad and so on. Those I have spoken to say that they are not fighters, they are not mercenaries; they are just migrant workers who have been caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

But the people who have caught them, who tend to be these local neighborhood committees, say to me that they are fighters, but they are looking after them mainly in schools and other buildings, they are feeding them, they are not treating them badly.

And at the moment, I have no evidence that they are being treated badly. They will be handed over to some kind of authority when there is more authority to hand them over to.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier this week, various NATO member militaries announced they weren’t on the ground in any way in Libya. But the British were busy in the air in Sirte, which is Gadhafi’s hometown, as you mentioned earlier. What have they been doing?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, they have been bombing targets which include military facilities, mobile military facilities and so on in the Sirte area.

I also think that it is rather disingenuous to say that they’re not on the ground. I think it’s highly unlikely that there are no NATO forces on the ground. I think that there have been some people here who have been spotting targets. And I suspect that there have been people who have been training rebel fighters as well.

Now, those people may not have the passport of the particular NATO countries. But at NATO’s behest, I do believe that there have been people on the ground assisting the rebels in this war.

RAY SUAREZ: And what’s the latest status of the on-again/off-again transfer of the National Transitional Council from Benghazi in the east, west to the capital, Tripoli? Is it back on again?

LINDSEY HILSUM: I wouldn’t say it’s done. There are several ministers here. But they have nowhere to live. They’re trying at the moment to take up residence in the hotel where I’m speaking from. And they want to kick out all the journalists. But it’s very difficult to kick out 300 journalists, I can tell you.

And so they’re trying to get themselves organized, and it’s not easy, because, remember, the power is on and off here. I mean, we keep having power cuts. There’s been no water in many parts of town for the last three, four days. Supplies are very difficult to come by. There still isn’t fuel. The road from Tunisia is not yet fully open.

So getting organized is very hard. And it’s particularly difficult here in Libya. Because it’s not — this isn’t a change of government. It’s the total collapse of the state. Everything was around Gadhafi. Gadhafi was the state of Libya. There is no institution which is left. So it is really year zero in Libya. They’re having to start absolutely from scratch.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, this is a good time then to turn to the hundreds of thousands who aren’t even involved in the fighting.

Are they still in the city? Are they hunkered down in their apartments? Can they get food? Is there a way to get water?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, what I have seen on the streets of Tripoli today is that there are bowsers of water going out and about. And people are coming out with their jerricans and their buckets, and they’re collecting water to take home.

And sometimes you pass a queue of people and that’s a bread queue. And you do see women out now. In the last few days, we have seen women and children out, which means that they feel much more secure, because before only the men were coming out on to the streets. So people are putting a lot of energy and time into surviving.

But they are out there. And I have to say that there is still this there’s still this huge sense of joy here that, however hard the conditions are, whenever you talk to people and you say, how are you feeling, they say: I’m free. We’re free, free at last. Gadhafi is gone.

So, however hard it is, they’re just still full of excitement, absolutely thrilled to be living this moment.

RAY SUAREZ: Lindsey Hilsum in Tripoli, thanks for talking to us. Stay safe.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Thank you very much. Good night.