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Alienation festers in the town where Gadhafi made his last stand

Children run in the courtyard of a house, damaged during last year's war, in the Libyan town of Sirte last month. The North African country will hold its first free elections on July 7 but many residents of Sirte, Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown and the last bastion of his fight to hold onto power, feel sidelined as the new Libyan order takes shape.

Ismail Zitouny/Reuters

Stepping over the charred debris of what had been his home in the shattered town Moammar Gadhafi once favoured, Miftah al-Farjani is adamant he will not vote when Libya holds its first election in half a century on Saturday.

"Why should I vote? Look at my house, look at what my life has become," Mr. al-Farjani said, pointing to a floor covered in rubble and to blackened walls. "What am I going to get from these elections?"

Nine months after the end of last year's uprising, the 33-year-old school teacher, a resident of Colonel Gadhafi's hometown of Sirte, feels sidelined as the new Libyan order takes shape.

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Like many residents of the town transformed by Col. Gadhafi from a fishing village into a model city, Mr. al-Farjani feels Sirte is paying a heavy price for being the last bastion in the former leader's fight to hold on to power after 42 years.

Its predicament underlines the challenge Libya's new rulers will face in reconciling groups with long-running grievances and embracing those who chose not to back the revolt – whether out of fear or because they supported Col. Gaddafi or were benefiting in some way from his rule.

If the new government is unable to give Sirte or nearby Bani Walid, another former Gadhafi stronghold, a stake in the new Libya, it risks repeating the mistakes of the past by alienating part of the country and storing up trouble for the future.

"It's no longer 'I am pro-Gadhafi' or 'I am anti-Gadhafi.' Now it's more, 'Am I a part of this new Libya or not? Can I find a place for myself, my family, my tribe, my city, my region in this new Libya?' " said Hanan Salah of Human Rights Watch.

Nationwide, some 80 per cent of eligible voters, around 2.7 million people, have registered to vote. But in Sirte and the surrounding areas, election officials say a third of those eligible have signed up.

Only a few dozen election banners line the main road. A sheet hanging between a traffic light and a lamp post flaps in the wind. In bright red letters its urges locals: "Do not put up your posters until we have reached our goals."

In the seafront neighbourhood known as District Two, where Col. Gadhafi is believed to have hidden in his last days, the destruction is still evident all around.

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Some houses have crumbling roofs or entire walls missing. Most are scarred with bullet holes. Windows are shattered or blown off. The remains of burnt-out cars still stand in garages.

If few show up to vote, the legitimacy of the election and the new assembly may be lacking in the eyes of Sirte residents.

Forty-five independent candidates are competing for Sirte's two seats. One, Abdeljalil Mohammed Abdeljalil, a 29-year old physiology teacher, said he was campaigning for the rebuilding of the city and for security.

"Some people do still like Gadhafi," he said. "If they get the right treatment, see their city rebuilt, they will forget Gadhafi."

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