TRIPOLI (Reuters) - For the world’s less-scrupulous dignitaries, officials and “high-ups” of various stripes, a trip to Muammar Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte was a treat.
They were fed like royalty, slept on fluffy pillows and some of the luckier ones even left with pockets bulging with 100 dollar bills.
“He wanted to impress us,” a senior African Union official told Reuters. “The ‘King of Kings’ behavior. Part of it was creating this city of his own and having dreams of it being the capital of Africa.”
Those dreams lay in ruins on Thursday, along with much of the city where Gaddafi was born and died, killed by fighters who overran his final bastion after two months of relentless bombardment from Libyan interim government forces.
Gaddafi’s bloodied body was stripped and displayed around the world from cellphone video. National Transitional Council (NTC) officials said he had died of wounds sustained in clashes, but the accounts of his final hours were hazy.
One possible description, pieced together from various sources, suggests he may have tried to break out of his final redoubt at dawn in a convoy of vehicles.
However, he was stopped by a NATO air strike and captured, possibly three or four hours later, after gun battles with NTC fighters who found him hiding in a nearby drainage culvert.
In Sirte, a one-time fishing village, fighters loyal to the ruling NTC danced and brandished a golden pistol they said they had taken from the deposed leader.
Even as the rest of Libya fell to the now former rebels, and most of the country seemed to embrace them, the people of Sirte had remained resolutely hostile to the men laying siege to their city. And as resolutely loyal to the hometown boy.
“The (NTC) drove us out of our houses,” a resident who said she wanted to be identified as a “daughter of Muammar” told Reuters. “Under Gaddafi we lived the best life. There was not one day when the electricity was cut off. We had plenty of food. Without Muammar? There is no life.”
It is not an exaggeration to say the city, which sheltered Gaddafi and some of his family and henchmen, was his personal creation.
Though the area has had bustling settlements going back to Phoenician times, by the 1960s Sirte was described in guidebooks as a dusty, dirty and dull fishing village.
Gaddafi’s birth in a Bedouin tent on its outskirts in 1942 changed all that.
After he came to power in a coup as a dashing — and noticeably vain — 27-year-old army captain, Gaddafi set about turning Sirte into a place more befitting of its position as his birthplace.
It was given a facelift, construction work gathered pace and the village began to grow into a city. In 1988, he moved all Libyan government offices and the country’s toothless parliament to the town.
It got a university and, as he added more sheen to its streets and more luxury to its buildings, Gaddafi started to host foreign leaders there — rather than in the capital Tripoli — more and more.
“He never quiet declared it the capital of the new Libya — because, even as deluded as he was, he realized that would be too much for a lot of Libyans — but all indications pointed that way,” J. Peter Pham, Africa director with U.S. think-tank the Atlantic Council, told Reuters.
“And then he began treating it as this African capital, hosting summits and meetings.”
Sirte had become the focus of Gaddafi’s dream of a “United States of Africa,” an ambitious — and, many said, batty — idea to unite African countries politically and economically, with his town the capital.
Gaddafi had turned to Africa as a place to exercise his unifying ambitions after his dreams of pan-Arabism did not pan out and the African Union was founded in the town in 1999.
African officials were often treated like royalty as Gaddafi tried to persuade them that the headquarters should be moved to Sirte from Ethiopia’s capital city, Addis Ababa, and the money continued to flow.
Several officials told Reuters they were given gifts of cash, some prominent women were given diamonds and gold watches emblazoned with Gaddafi’s face were even handed out to delegations.
“He would host meetings in the Ouagadougou conference center and it was just ridiculously opulent,” an African official said.
“Gold and marble everywhere. There were portraits of great African leaders like Haile Selassie and Nyerere. Of course, Gaddafi’s portrait was just that little bit bigger.”
The money found its way out of the meeting rooms and into the streets and households of Sirte, too. Reporters who have been in the town in the last week say that some homes seemed to enjoy a standard of living a good tick above many other places in the country.
NTC fighters looted belongings and flatscreen TVs, expensive computers and jewelry were all seen being carried away. One anti-Gaddafi soldier was even seen by Reuters pushing a Porsche up the street.
Still, for all of the money that poured into Gaddafi’s favored the guidebooks remained unimpressed.
The Lonely Planet said it was a “city without soul.”
It’s people, though, remain grateful to a man who they saw as a father figure. The almost complete destruction that has been laid to much of his showcase town may, analysts fear, embitter them against the country’s revolution to such an extent it could hamper efforts to keep the country stable.
“Sirte was the fat cow they came to slaughter,” local man, Abu Anas, said as it fell.
Additional reporting by Rania el-Gamal in Sirte; Editing by Sophie Hares