On April 7, 1976, Libyan university students from Benghazi and Tripoli organized mass demonstrations against the regime of Muammar Gaddafi.
In a country where dissent was often met with arrest, disappearance or execution, the protests were revolutionary.
Earlier that year in January, several Libyan students objected to the formation of a government-sponsored student union by creating their own independent one. Gaddafi’s regime reacted with violent force; government troops were sent to the schools, where they attacked and arrested several students.
When the students took to the streets to protest the involvement of government troops in their schools, they were shot at and several were killed. But it would be what happened several months later that would stick painfully in the minds of Libyans forever.
By April 7, anti-Gaddafi student activists were fed up. For years, Libyans had suffered under a repressive military regime. Deprived of Libya’s massive oil wealth, social and economic conditions swiftly deteriorated, and the educational system was crushed under the pressure of military control.
Fueled by the grief at the loss of their fellow peers, the injustice felt by those victimized by the regime’s frequent and numerous human rights abuses, and anger towards a pervading military presence in their schools and cities, the students took to the streets once more in overwhelming numbers.
Few could recall the events of April 7 without feeling the familiar pangs of anguish and grief, the crushing sense of defeat. As the students demonstrated, Gaddafi unleashed the full force of his Revolutionary Committee upon them, intent on silencing the voices that called for freedom.
Hundreds of students were arrested and detained; many weren’t released for months.
On that same day the next next year, April 7, 1977, the Tripoli campus of Al-Fateh University was fitted with gallows. The regime would start a tradition of marking the anniversary of the 1976 uprising with hangings and executions. That day, several students in Al-Fateh University and in Benghazi’s main square were publicly hanged. The regime broadcasted the hangings on Libyan State TV.
Days later, dissenting military officers were also hanged, as family and friends looked on helplessly.
Every year after that, well into the 1980s, the month of April brought a fresh round of executions. Attorney Mahmoud Nafi in 1980. Student Naji Hawiya Khylif in 1982. Student Mohammed M. Hfaf in 1983. Student Abdallah al-Mesallati in 1984.
Today, as the Gaddafi regime perpetrates a masscare of the Libyan people, we remember them. We remember Mohammed Ben Saoud, a Benghazi teacher hanged in 1977, for participating in the ’76 demonstrations. We remember Omar Daboub, his colleague, hanged alongside with him. We remember Mahmoud Banoun, who was tortured to death in 1980, and Mohammed Ramadan, the BBC journalist who was killed by Gaddafi operatives in front of a mosque in London that same year.
It is their voices that echo in the chanting of Libyan protesters. It is their courage that reverberates in the hearts of the Libyan freedom fighters.
And it is their vision of a Libya free from the tyrannical Gaddafi regime that Libyans are still fighting for today.
Tasbeeh Herwees for The Neon Tommy