The neighbors always knew they would be surprised by what’s inside the house on Dhel, or shadow, street. But when they got the first glimpse of Muammar Gaddafi’s house in southeast Tripoli last Sunday, they were in complete shock. “It’s amazing. We didn’t believe [it],” says Hassan Salem, a 46-year-old engineer who lives in the neighborhood. “We thought we are in a dream.”
There have been many rumors about the Saharan madman’s palaces and underground bunkers over the years, testaments to a dictator’s ego and paranoia that in some cases seemed to outdo his peers, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Well, as it turns, the rumors are true. “There are a lot of hidden things inside,” says Bahauldin Babai, 28, a doctor who also lives in the neighborhood and now helps guard the house from looters. In order to prevent further damage and looting to the compound, rebel military leaders have sealed the doors. The only way in or out is with a ladder, which some neighbors are happy to supply.
The house was built by Gaddafi in the '80s and later given to his son Mutassim. It looks inconspicuous enough on the outside with an ordinary gate and dun-colored walls, which blend with the surrounding houses. On the other side of the gate, it’s a step through the looking glass: an inner ring of 30-foot-high walls surround a huge, beautifully manicured garden with trimmed hedges, small ponds, and pink bougainvilleas. The earthy smell of fresh grass fills the air in late afternoon.
But the garden isn’t there only for aesthetic purposes. It’s also a labyrinth that hides and separates the various parts of the sprawling compound, including an elaborate 40-foot-deep bunker. The main house is a '70’s-style one-story structure, built in an L-shape around a large pool with a hot tub. The pool is now half-filled with green water but the grey-and-black marble- top bar beside the pool hints at the swinging parties that must have taken place there. Just beside the pool is a cocktail lounge with another bar and a five-foot bust of what appears to be a Greek goddess, perhaps Aphrodite, broken in half in one corner. A large pond, complete with a waterfall and small black fish, has been built a short distance away. The Gaddafi clan clearly liked to enjoy themselves. In a nearby annex, there is a color booklet for a 280-foot yacht called the Annaliesse. The flashy gym inside the house, decked out with the latest weight machines, looks unused.
About 40 yards away from the house, in the middle of a large grass lawn, is an ordinary looking rectangular hedge. What’s inside is far from ordinary. A set of stairs go down and down, about 40 feet altogether, into a heavily reinforced bunker with neon lights, a fire alarm system and wall-mounted telephones. Light green steel doors about a foot thick separate a complex series of tunnels and rooms, which seem to have been built as a last-ditch hideout. Neighborhood residents say they found a fully equipped operating room in the bunker which included an X-ray machine. Surgical masks are strewn around various rooms in the bunker, too. The usable medical equipment was taken out and donated to local hospitals. A couple of the rooms are decked out with bunk beds, perhaps for a security detail or other family members. Gaddafi, or his son Mutassim, did like to muse about self-defense in their underground lair. In one room, there is a 404-page book by Jane’s Consultancy called Protection of Libyan Military Assets.
But it’s not all business down in the bunker: there were a number of magazines in English, including Playboy, Vogue, and National Geographic, scattered around various rooms, along with an empty box of Corona beer. “He’s one freak,” says Ashraf al Khadiri, a 30-year-old doctor who also lives in the neighborhood. “He’s been preparing for this moment for a long time.” Neighborhood residents had long suspected there was an underground facility on the property because of the large amount of dirt that was trucked out during construction. “We always thought he could be walking under our houses,” says Khadiri with a smirk and a shrug. “We didn’t know.”
When the regime teetered earlier this week, the house was still watched over by eight guards who had no news of the dramatic events outside. Neighborhood residents were able to contact them by phone and convince them to turn over their weapons peacefully. The first group of ordinary Libyans who came to see the compound had a natural reaction: they went on a rampage and trashed the place. They smashed every window in the gym and kicked in doors. Down cushions in the living room were ripped open and the white feathers now roll across broken glass in front of the house at the slightest breeze. “This is the dictator that we have been living with for more than 40 years,” says Salem, the engineer, shaking his head. “This is what we want the world to know.”