[dropcap]A[/dropcap]s the unrest in Lybia has escalated into a bloody civil war calling for UN military intervention, the embarrassing history of the UK’s trade with Libya has come under new scrutiny. The British government is accused of hypocrisy as, until recently, it was seen as supporting the Libyan regime in its efforts to subdue the population. It was also reminded that British corporations provided Gaddafi with the very weapons now being used to pacify the opposition. The revelations have undermined trust in the British government and spurred a new wave of protest.
A large group of young squatters has demonstrated its solidarity with the Libyan opposition and protested against the UK government’s actions by taking over Saif Gaddafi’s London house – although ‘palace’ would perhaps be a more accurate description. The mansion, fronted by an elegant driveway, belongs to the dictator’s son, a graduate of the London School of Economics. It is located in Hampstead Heath, one of the most expensive areas in London, and is worth over £10 million. This monumental building towers over other houses in the neighbourhood.
When I paid a visit, the house seemed deserted, with curtains drawn and the glass front door covered over with newspaper. On the roof the protesters hung Libyan flags, banners reading ‘Solidarity’, ‘Revolution’, ‘Out of Libya, out of London’ and a symbolic picture of Gaddafi defaced with a bold ‘X’. I stood in front of the mansion trying to find a way in when I saw a back window open and three young people climb out. I was lucky to talk with one of them. It appeared that, although he wasn’t a member of the group, he was there to ‘advise the participants on the principles of squatting’.
The occupation began when the activists spotted a half-open window. They set up their pro-democracy squat to draw attention to the fact that Gaddafi’s fortune would be enough to feed all Arab countries. I asked this young man to introduce me to two members of the group so that I could talk with them. He disappeared inside, carefully closing the window and drawing the curtains. When he returned he was accompanied by two Libyans. One of them was a student who spoke fluent English, the other a refugee whose friends translated for him. In the room behind their backs I noticed a huge flat screen TV (one of a dozen in the Gaddafi’s home). „The telly is turned on day and night. We follow events in Libya on Al-Jazeera”, the student explained to me. „We also look for information on the Internet and keep in touch with our families in Libya.” When I asked them about the number of squatters in the house, they only said ‘many’. „We use social networks and mobiles to communicate with each other. We participated in numerous protests taking place in London to spread information about the occupancy and as a result many people joined us.”
The British media are divided about this initiative. Many objections are based on insinuations that the protesters are just there to luxuriate in the private cinema, swimming pool and other facilities. When asked how the protesters were spending their time, the Libyan student said their first priority was to keep the house in order. They look after the place not allowing any passers-by to enter the premises and have a ban on alcohol. They have had some hard moments. Just a few days ago a man woke them up at four in the morning banging on the door and offering them £40,000 if they let him in. He wanted to take valuables from Gaddafi’s residence. They managed to chase him away in a joint effort and they have become more watchful now.
Squatting, as a form of demonstration, is more and more popular in Britain. During the recent student protests against the budget cuts, many lecture halls were taken over by protesters. Many academics and authorities, like Noam Chomsky, supported them. The squatters occupying Gaddafi’s house plan to carry on the protest until the equivalent value of the residence is returned to the Libyan people.
Translated by Magdalena Szulim.