More than two months after Muammar Gaddafi's main military base in Benghazi was stormed, the ruins have turned into a symbol of the strongman’s repression and the sacrifices people made to overcome it.
correspondent in Benghazi, Libya
Gutted buildings spew gnarled metal grids out in the noonday sun. A charred car carcass lies belly-up in the grass. And the few standing walls – painted green and white in the official colours of Muammar Gaddafi's regime – display giant burn marks.
Little groups of people pick their way through the detritus, dwarfed by the vastness of the destroyed complex. They occasionally use mobile phones to snap photos of the odd family member posing on a collapsed column or two. But mostly, the visitors just spend their time gaping at the ruins.
More than two months after Gaddafi's main military base in Benghazi was stormed by protesters, the Katiba - as the base is commonly called – is still a crowd-puller in this eastern Libyan city.
When Gaddafi controlled the area, ordinary Benghazi residents never entered this dreaded complex – unless they were forced to.
A sprawling compound in the heart of Benghazi, the Katiba once housed several brigades and included barracks, parade grounds, bunkers and prisons.
Although the word “katiba” in Arabic literally means brigade or phalanx, residents of Benghazi use it as a catchall term to describe this bastion of Gaddafi's security apparatus.
On February 20, Gaddafi lost control of this vast, fortified complex following days of deadly battles between troops in the Katiba and anti-government protesters armed mostly with rocks and homemade Molotov cocktails.
The fall of the Katiba marked the turning point of the Libyan uprising. The next day, Benghazi fell from Gaddafi's control. Within the next few days, other eastern cities rapidly followed.
The storming of the edifice has taken on mythic proportions, a sort of David vs. Goliath meets storming of the Bastille saga.
Martyr for a cause
There are many heroes, large and small, in Libya's ongoing uprising. Photographs of the shaheeds – martyrs – who have fallen in the fight against Gaddafi, line the walls of public spaces, notably the courthouse, which has turned into a defacto hub of the uprising.
But one story of bravery is repeated everywhere we go: the story of Shaheed Mehdi Ziu.
A 49-year-old father of two teenage girls, Ziu rammed his explosives-packed car through one of the main gates of the Katiba on Feb. 20, instantly incinerating himself while hurtling into the annals of Benghazi history.
A graffiti tag on a wall at the entrance to the street where his brother lives in a middle-class neighbourhood of Benghazi proclaims, “Avenue of Shaheed Mehdi Ziu”.
Ziu's younger brother, Salem Ziu, 44, welcomes us with the restrained politeness of a grieving relative acknowledging condolences.
All sorts of journalists, TV crews and photographers have come here to cover the Katiba shaheed story. Salem has recounted the events several times over the past two months and he does so once more, a younger brother's tribute to a fallen sibling.
Sitting beside a framed poster of his brother, Salem describes how, a day after the suicide bombing and a frantic 24-hour search for his missing brother, he finally heard of the incident and rushed to the Katiba.
“The car was still smoking from 1pm the previous day, it was such a massive explosion. We went to pick up his body, but there was no body. No body,” repeats a visibly moved Salem, rubbing his furrowed brow in an attempt to compose himself.
“It was all gone, it was all burned. There was no flesh, there were only bones. We gathered the bones and put them in a plastic bag and the bag weighed just around a kilo,” he notes.
More than two months later, Salem has few explanations why his brother undertook his historic mission.
“He wasn't particularly religious. I never had any inkling that he would do something like this,” explains Salem. “He lived near the Katiba. For days, he saw protesters being killed before him. He was helping to take the wounded to hospital. Every evening he used to return home with bloodied clothes, which had to be washed. I think he just decided he had to do something. I am grieving for a lost brother, but I'm proud of him. He did not die in vain. The Katiba was destroyed.”