Zintan has been ground zero for the rebellion against Moammar Gaddafi in Libya's Western mountains. One hundred miles south of Tripoli, Zintan is the largest town under rebel control in the Nafusa Mountains.
Pro-Gaddafi forces tried to crush the opposition with rockets, but a few weeks ago rebels won several key positions in the valley. Now families are starting to make their way back to Zintan. One man who asked to be called Mohammed recently returned to his family home
Mohammed, who's in his thirties, was finishing up a graduate program in Britain, when he dropped out this spring, two months shy of graduation.
"I couldn't just watch from there what's happening in my hometown," Mohammed said. "This is my decision, to suspend my study until Gaddafi goes."
Mohamed flew to Tunisia where he dropped off his wife and three young children. Then he drove to Zintan. He said it was thrilled when he saw the first checkpoint. "When I saw people from different tribes together fighting one dictator, I was so proud of it."
But his jubilation faded when he arrived at his extended family's property. He found a row of empty houses, and a Grad rocket grounded in the middle of the front yard.
"This room was damaged, that water tank was damaged," Mohammed said. There was only one window left in his house. And the whole area was deserted. Most of his relatives had fled the shelling.
But now that the rebels have the upper hand in the Nafusa region, families are trickling back.
"Oh my god, I missed him so much, I cannot wait to see him!"
Mohammed's niece, Khawla, is waiting for her grandfather, Abdullah, Mohammed's father, whom she hasn't seen in months. When he finally arrives, Khawla jumps to her feet and embraces him.
Abdullah, a retired army officer, lives in the capital, Tripoli, but Zintan is his family home. Abdullah said he thought of leaving Tripoli every day since the revolution started, but the trip was risky.
The frontline blocks the most direct routes, and there are checkpoints everywhere. Part of the family has been travelling with fake IDs so they can hide where they're from — as Mohammed's family has learned, just being from the Nafusa can get you thrown in jail these days.
Mohammed's 24-year-old cousin, Ali, also returned from Tripoli that morning. Ali was arrested in March on his way to a gas station. When the family asked if pro-Gaddafi soldiers gave any reason for his arrest, Ali answered with one word: "Zintan."
According to Amnesty International, Ali's case isn't unusual. Scores of men from the Nafusa have been thrown in jail on suspicion of supporting and aiding the opposition.
Ali was locked up in a Tripoli prison for three months.
"They accused me of being al-Qaeda. They asked me over and over if I, or any of my relatives were with al-Qaeda. They slapped me or used electroshock if I didn't answer," Ali said.
At one point, he said, a guard applied heat to his handcuffs. There's still a purplish mark around his wrists.
"The oddest thing they've asked me was if I knew [Osama] Bin Laden's phone number," Ali said, with a laugh.
Ali said he was released on May 28th, along with a hundred detainees. He suspects authorities needed to clear space for new prisoners.
Those who stayed in the Nafusa also have stories to share.
Some took shelter in nearby caves to escape the rockets. Mohammed's older sister, Aida, said for three months, she and other women holed up with their children in rooms carved out of the mountain.
"We lived on wood and candles, we cooked with fire," Aida told Mohammed. "It's like we had gone back a 100 years."
Mohammed said these stories will probably liven up family dinners for years to come. He's just started working at Zintan's new museum. He wants to make sure that other families have a chance to share their own bits and pieces of life during Libya's Arab Spring.
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