It was nine months after the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and we were at the makeshift consulate where he lost his life. The sound of renovations being done to the main house was barely audible. But the owner of the compound wouldn’t give us permission to access it.
We stood filming outside where the carcasses of burnt-out vehicles, a large pile of debris and other remnants of the horror of that Sept. 11th night remain - all juxtaposed against the eerie quiet of this suburban Benghazi neighborhood.
Bright swirls of purple and fuchsia bougainvillea intertwine with the large coils of concertina wire meant to keep intruders at bay. The lack of adequate security is still jarring this many months later.
Contacts and sources warned us about digging too deep into who was behind the attack, not to ask too many questions. Nine months on, there were no real leads, no significant arrests and a shroud of fear hanging heavy over any conversation about the U.S. consulate.
Despite the sheer tragedy of what transpired here that day in September, there was a moment of hope and optimism in the days that followed. Enraged and horrified by what happened to Ambassador Chris Stevens – who so many knew and respected – and the three other Americans who lost their lives, thousands of residents of Benghazi took to the streets.
It was a day dubbed “save Benghazi” and the crowds stormed the headquarters of Ansar al-Sharia, one of the most feared Islamist militias who many blamed for the attack, driving them – and others - out of the city.
Today Ansar al-Sharia is back, although it seems the group is trying to change their image, no longer menacingly parading around the streets, no longer - as an organization - blamed for the attack even though some of their members were there that night. We tried to speak to them but they refused.
“We don’t talk to foreigners,” one bearded man at the gate said, refusing to look at me – a woman and a westerner. Before he closed the gate to their main compound, I caught a glimpse of another armed man behind it, so young he barely sprouted facial hair.
Benghazi was the birthplace of the Libyan revolution to topple a dictator, the same city where Chris Stevens arrived back in the early days of the uprising. Now, it is painfully divided along murky lines, with an ominous undercurrent that threatens the hopes and dreams of most of its people.
There are unexplained attacks, mostly targeting Libyan security forces. The last significant western presence – the Italians – have also withdrawn following an attack on the consul general.
“We don’t know what is black or white anymore,” one shop owner told us, while a group of young men lamented the exodus of western companies.
Many Libyans we spoke to are upset that their city has become synonymous with terrorism, its reputation ruined by a fringe of militants and they want Americans and westerners to return.
Driving through one part of the city, close to the Omni hotel where the press stayed during the revolution, we came across three men painting a wall black. They were right next to graffiti that read “yes to the Muslim al Qaeda jihadis." We stopped and pulled out the camera, assuming that since it was broad daylight, they were painting over the disturbing statement.
Instead, they gestured as us to stay away. I began to walk towards them. They glared at me, shouting again to get away. Then one man tossed paint can in my direction, jumped in their car and drove away.
When we returned to the same spot 24 hours later, their work was complete. Next to the declaration of support for al Qaeda, they had painted the black flag of Jihad.
But there is a counter offensive of sorts. Hastily spray-painted on the walls, other graffiti reads “no to terrorism,” and plastered along the windows in one part of town, leaflets state “no to al Qaeda.”
What makes it all the more bitter for most of the Libyan population is the sense of sheer helplessness. The organizers of “save Benghazi” were all too afraid to go on camera. Others only speak in hushed whispers about extremist groups and the impunity that governs their actions.