When Libyan rebels celebrated the death of Muammar Gaddafi, the colonel&’s gold-plated pistol was held up as a symbol of their victory — I watched as they passed it among themselves. Four years on, I am back in Libya to find the man with the golden gun.
On my mobile phone I have a picture I took in Libya on 20 October 2011. It shows a young man in a blue shirt and a New York Yankees baseball cap. He&’s smiling, being carried on the shoulders of his comrades through the town of Sirte. These men are rebel fighters from Misrata. Colonel Gaddafi has just been captured and killed. In the photo you can see them passing among themselves a golden pistol. It was Gaddafi&’s personal handgun. In that moment it became a totem — a symbol of the rebels’ victory and of a transfer of power in a new Libya.
Just over four years later, the country is in turmoil. Rival governments, backed by their own militias, are vying for control. Libya is fragmenting along ideological and geographical lines — east versus west, Islamist versus secularist. The group that calls itself Islamic State is exploiting the power vacuum and has taken control of Gaddafi&’s hometown of Sirte.
Amid this turmoil, I’ve returned to Misrata, 200 km east of Tripoli, which city now functions as a semi-independent city state. I’m looking for the man with the golden gun. I want to know what has become of him and the other fighters who captured Gaddafi.
My first visit is to an old contact — Anwar Suwan. He was a key figure in Misrata during the revolution. When Gaddafi was killed, fighters brought his body to Suwan and he put the corpse on public display in a large refrigerated meat locker. His base is still much as it was during those heady days — a collection of semi-furnished shipping containers on a strip of land near the coast, overlooking the Mediterranean.
We arrive at night. It&’s raining and bitterly cold. There&’s been a power cut, so we huddle round the coals of a brazier in the dark, drinking hot, sweet tea. “The situation is not good,” says Suwan, as we look at old photographs and remember happier days. “They cut off the head of the snake, Gaddafi. But now there are hundreds of snakes replacing him. We are still fighting for the same thing — to find a just ruler for Libya. But everyone wants to rule. There are guns everywhere. What a situation!”
I tell him I’m looking for one specific gun — Gaddafi&’s golden pistol. He mentions the name Omran Shabaan — one of the fighters who captured Gaddafi. In some of the shaky footage of that event, filmed on the mobile phones of the rebels, Shabaan can be heard trying to stop the mob from killing Gaddafi.
Another man who was there that day, Ayman Almani, shows me the footage he shot — never played in public before. It shows the dictator&’s final moments more clearly than ever — he can be seen bleeding and pleading. “He deserved it,” says Almani, looking back on it now. “Islam teaches us not to mistreat a prisoner, not to bear a grudge. But the people got carried away in the stampede and no one could stop them.”
Shabaan became a hero. He was photographed with the golden gun and came to personify the hope that Libyans could heal their wounds after months of bitter fighting. It was not to be. In 2012, Shabaan himself was captured by Gaddafi loyalists in the town of Bani Walid. They beat and tortured him. By the time the Misratans negotiated his release it was too late. He died of his injuries in a French hospital.
Anwar Suwan tells me he thinks Shabaan may have had the gun with him when he was taken. Perhaps the gun was now again in the hands of Gaddafi loyalists? Then I show him and his comrades my picture of the man in the baseball cap. “Mohammed Elbibi,” someone recognises him. That was indeed the name I had used in the report I filed to London on that day back in 2011. Suwan says he doesn’t know what has become of Mohammed Elbibi. But he promises to find out.
Another contact, who also handled the gun, thinks the pistol is still in the city but he doesn’t know who has it. Finally, I get hold of a phone number for Mohammed Elbibi and he agrees to meet me in his home in the centre of the city.
We sit down and I show him the picture of himself with the golden gun. “I remember,” he smiles. “I was 17 years old!” He tells me he had nothing to do with the lynching of Gaddafi. He simply found the colonel&’s gun lying on the ground near the place where he was caught. But in the confusion of the moment, and seeing him with the gun, the other rebels thought it was Elbibi who had killed him. He became the accidental hero of the revolution.
“What about the gun?” I ask him. It turns out he still has it. He shows it to me — it&’s a 9mm Browning handgun, gold-plated and decorated with an elaborate floral pattern. It appears to have been a gift — Elbibi believes from one of Gaddafi&’s sons — on the occasion of the 32nd anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power. Almost exactly 10 years later, pictures of Mohammed Elbibi brandishing that same pistol would signal the final end to the Gaddafi era.
But Elbibi is wary of his trophy. There are still Gaddafi loyalists out there and he has received death threats. “Please tell the world it was not me who killed Gaddafi,” he says.
Did he imagine that, nearly five years later, Libya would still be at war with itself? “I did not,” he says. “I am really sad about that. When I see Libyans killing Libyans, it&’s too bad. Everybody wants to be like Gaddafi.”