We were just about to have some dinner in our small hotel in central Tripoli when the quiet streets were suddenly filled with loud bangs and shouts. Initially we barely flinched – in a city where every other man is armed these days, celebratory gunfire is just part of the daily colour on the streets.
The odd shot here and there turns into a cacophony of automatic fire most Thursday evenings when the residents of the capital stream on foot and in their cars towards Martyrs – formerly Gaddafi’s ‘Green’ – Square.
It is gridlock.
The new national anthem blaring out of loud speakers mixes with the sound of ammunition and fireworks; the resurrected flag of the Libyan monarchy brandished from every car window and sold at impromptu souvenir stalls.
But this evening was different. Somehow the gunshots were more threatening, focused and less carefree. As we moved down the street to find out what was going on; NTC forces sped past us towards the commotion.
More gunshots and screams brought one of them back towards us – there was a Gaddafi supporter he said, one who was resisting arrest. He was armed he said, and firing at the NTC men trying to talk him down. By this time, families were coming out onto the balconies of the apartment blocks above. They peered down the street, shouting at us to get back and stay out of the way. Young lads ran past, eager to see what all the fuss was about.
A few nights ago their boyish fascination with guns and drama got a gruesome reward.
One of the revolutionaries guarding the street had been demonstrating a move to his colleagues when his AK47 went off. He was taken to Tripoli central hospital with a gaping wound to the stomach. Tonight though, they came back looking thoroughly dejected. It was not a Gaddafi supporter after all. Just a neighbourhood dispute that had got out of hand. No bloody firefight, no excitement for them.
Earlier today we visited a boy their age in a Tripoli hospital. We were filming there a few weeks ago when 15-year-old Abdul was rushed into the Emergency department with his friend. The two boys had found a grenade outside their school – a remnant of the fierce battles during the ‘liberation’ of Tripoli. They had been trying to prise open their new toy when it blew up in their faces.
Abdul is starting to smile again and enjoying the home-cooked food his father brings into the hospital. But he has got a long and slow recovery ahead. And it will be a while before he comes to terms with his best friend’s death. No such harm done this evening. But it is worrying to see guns and bullets become such common currency on the streets; representative of playtime and celebration rather than the lethal weapons of war they really are.
The National Transitional Council says it will eventually collect the weapons off the streets of Libya.
Let’s hope that by then they haven’t become such an entrenched part of everyday life that people won’t want to give them up.