Saturday, February 26, 2011

Libyan revolt offers new hope in search for father

The disappearance of their father 20 years ago has haunted brothers Ahmed, left, and Youcif Almegaryaf.

Libyan revolt offers new hope in search for father

Atlanta (CNN) -- One afternoon this week, Ahmed Almegaryaf, a college student and part-time DJ in suburban Atlanta made the rounds to a local music joint in his gray Nissan Altima.

Amid six lanes of traffic on the interstate, it was not difficult to see the oversize sticker plastered on his rear window: "Where is my father?"

It's a question that has haunted Ahmed, 26, and his two brothers all of their lives.

Their father, a Libyan opposition activist, "disappeared" 20 years ago. The sons of Izzat Almegaryaf don't know where he is -- or whether he is still alive.

All that they know is derived from a handful of letters smuggled out of a Tripoli jail in the mid-1990s. For two decades, they've been left to ponder the grim possibilities of what happens to a man who opposes a dictator as ruthless as Moammar Gadhafi.

Now, a popular revolt in Libya has presented new hope for the Almegaryaf brothers. Gadhafi has vowed rivers of blood to preserve his power. But for the first time since he seized Libya's helm in 1969, his fate seems uncertain.

As images and reports from Libya flooded the brothers' television and computer screens this week, Ahmed, Youcif and Bashir could think of nothing except their father. And the possibility that at last, they might find answers to the question that has defined their lives.

Youcif, 27, remembers the day his father was taken away, and could hardly watch footage of Gadhafi's crackdown on protesters. This was the man he believes is responsible for destroying his own family. How could he simply watch from afar?

He said his goodbyes to Ahmed and Bashir, busy studying economics and international relations at Emory University. Now 21, Bashir has chosen to study subjects that were dear to the father he has never known.

Youcif made his way to the Atlanta airport Tuesday evening to board a flight to Cairo, Egypt, compelled to help in any way he could. For now, he plans to shuttle medical aid into eastern Libya.

The Almegaryaf family believes the Libyan people will prevail. They believe Gadhafi is in his last hours, desperation oozing from his words and actions.

With that prospect, improbable for so long, the three brothers know only this: They are perhaps on the verge of finally knowing many truths about their nation -- and about their father.

Libyan activist Izzat Almegaryaf, with sons Ahmed, left, and Youcif in the late '80s, was a target of Moammar Gadhafi's

 'Daddy, I want to go with you'

On a March evening 20 years ago, a man wearing a traditional Arab disdasha appeared at the apartment in Cairo that the three young Almegaryaf brothers shared with their parents.

Izzat Almegaryaf had fled Gadhafi's Libya several years earlier, but he had never surrendered his dreams of freedom.

The man in the disdasha demanded that Izzat go with him.

"Daddy, I want to go with you," pleaded Youcif, then only 6. His father did not turn back.

Plucked from his home and blindfolded, Izzat was put on a jet to Tripoli, the capital of his homeland, and thrown behind bars in one of Gadhafi's jails.

No one informed his family of the charges against him. No one told them of his whereabouts.

Gadhafi had called for a "physical liquidation" of his political opponents, many of whom were arrested and put to death in public executions, according to Amnesty International.

Izzat Almegaryaf was one of Gadhafi's targets.

On that March evening, a family's life was shattered. A husband, disappeared. A wife, Nora, suddenly alone. And three little boys left fatherless.

Youcif and Ahmed, then 5, yearned to go to the Cairo zoo again with their father so they could feed carrots to the giraffes. Or sit and watch their father play cards with his friends, trying to learn how to mimic his every move. They missed their father's embrace.

Bashir was -- blissfully perhaps -- only five weeks old when Izzat was taken and does not harbor the memories of his older brothers. He grew up constantly asking questions about their father: "What was Baba like?"

Three years later, the family settled in suburban Atlanta under the wing of Mohammed Almegaryaf, the boys' uncle and once a high-ranking Libyan government official who founded the opposition National Front for the Salvation of Libya.

They eked out a new life, becoming citizens of a place far from North Africa, always waiting for the day when Gadhafi would tumble and their father would be released. For two agonizing decades, they spent their days longing for one man and hating another.

Smuggled words of love

Over the years, people told Nora to forget the life she made with Izzat, a handsome former army officer and political activist who loved poetry and music. They told her she should remarry, find happiness again.

Nora refused to abandon her husband. She believed in her heart he would return.

And yet, the boys knew that they could not kid themselves. They were dealing with one of the most ruthless regimes in the world.

They learned snippets of their father's circumstances through his letters from Abu Salim prison. But the last was received in the mid 1990s.

There has been no direct news of Izzat since then, though reliable witnesses working with human rights groups including Amnesty International and the United Nations Human Rights Council have reported sightings of him up until 1996, the year Gadhafi squashed an uprising at Abu Salim with brutal force. Human Rights Watch says 1,200 prisoners were killed that day.

It would be one thing to cope with a father's detention. It is another to pass each waking hour not knowing.

The boys recalled always being asked by strangers: "Where is your father?"

"He's away on a business trip," Youcif would reply, knowing the security risks for speaking the truth.

The family had received anonymous telephone calls threatening them right after Izaat's abduction. Another time, a suspicious phone call came to Youcif's elementary school in Atlanta from a man who alleged he was Izzat and that the school should have the boy ready to be picked up.

The family felt they were being watched; that too many people knew too many things about them. That was the nature of Gadhafi's security apparatus, they said.

Sometimes, Youcif had nightmares of his father being pulled out of his cell and shot.

Ahmed developed nonepileptic seizures -- sometimes up to seven an hour -- that his therapist concluded were trauma-induced.

At first, Nora read out only parts of her husband's letters that were addressed to the boys. She wanted to spare her tender children the harsh truth.

She knew the letters were genuine -- they were written in her husband's distinct Arabic calligraphy, often difficult to decipher by those unfamiliar with it.

He told her he had not been the best husband and father and that it had been due to his "preoccupation with the Libyan cause."

To his sons, his "three musketeers, his dear ones, the light of my eyes," he wrote:

"You are my dreams for a better future for all of us. I cannot express to you how much I do miss you, for writing won't do it justice. You are always on my mind. Your greetings reach me with every breath of fresh air I get in the early morning. They reach me with the birds, which have made a nest on my pillow. Whenever the guards go to sleep, the birds come to me telling me stories about you. Your greetings reach me as the wind plays music on the walls of my cell. You come to me with the sunrise of every sun and fill my heart with love. You come to me at night with every moon. You are always with me."

He told them to learn how to be strong, to learn to swim and ride a horse. To always be good Muslims. And that one day, he knew, they would be reunited in a free Libya.

"I taught you that our country does not become greater without us standing up to defend it. It only grows with our efforts, sweat and sacrifices," he wrote.

"When I was with you, I used to worry for your safety, show you endless love, and give you whatever you asked for, you can only imagine how I feel now as I am far away from you."

The boys held on to every word. They tried to picture their father sitting in a dark cell. Where did he get the paper? What was he wearing? Was he in pain? How was he treating his diabetes?

Later, they learned from the letters that their father was detained by a Col. Mohamed Hassan, an Egyptian security agent. He had "disappeared" along with Jabballah Hamed Matar, another leading Libyan opposition figure in Cairo.

The two men were taken to the headquarters of the Egyptian military security for further interrogation and then transferred to Abu Salim prison in Tripoli.

"Your mother may have told you how I asked the butterflies, the flowers and birds to take care of you," he wrote to them.

"I asked the wind to gently play with locks of your hair and lessen the difficulties of your life. As for the clouds, I have asked them to rain candy on you, and give you shade when it gets hot, and the sky, I asked it to gently rain love and tenderness onto you. I wrote for you songs and stories about the homeland and made it into a necklace I placed on you when you were young."

And he asked: "Do you also think of me?"

A third brother, Bashir Almegaryaf, 21, protests this month against the Libyan regime in downtown Atlanta.

One step closer to knowing

Youcif, who began working at 16 to help support his family, has in many ways stepped into his father's shoes. Of the three sons, he bears the closest resemblance to Izzat.

He has been outspoken in denouncing Gadhafi. He has taken his family's cause to the U.N. Human Rights Council and to the British Parliament, where he broke down while speaking about his brother's seizures.

He has written to U.S. congressmen and senators.

Under international law, he tells them, forced disappearances qualify as torture for the victim and his family. He cannot understand why America won't help its own citizens who are being tortured.

Now, he has committed his strongest act to date, stepping aboard a plane that would carry him physically closer to that place that has fully occupied his heart.

Before he left, he spoke of the unbridled violence unfolding in his country. "It's literally a genocide," he said. "And we're doing nothing about it."

He contemplated the possibility that soon, he might set foot on the soil of his ancestors.

It is a land of pristine beaches and majestic mountains, of people and traditions hidden from the world under Gadhafi's black curtain.

His father, like thousands of educated Libyans, knew his country was doomed when early in his rule, Gadhafi scrapped Libya's constitution and implemented revolutionary law.

"I think the devils work for him," chimed in Youcif's brother Ahmed, who has been compiling as much information as he can about the uprising and disseminating it on Twitter, YouTube and Facebook.

"It's hard to explain how ruthless he is," Ahmed said. "It's frustrating to see what he's done and for the world to shrug it off."

Sometimes, he allows himself images in his head of his first meeting with his father. More than anything, he just wants to look at him, feel him. He wonders whether his father will be able to recognize his little boy.

But the images from Libya on television quickly remind him of Gadhafi's police state. And Ahmed returns to reality.

"What if he did pass?" he said.

What if, after all this time, the family is shattered all over again?