The Colonel’s Stray Dogs

The Colonel’s Stray Dogs refers the opponents of Gaddafi who went into exile, one of which was the filmmaker’s father. For 40 years Ashur Shamis’s life revolved around the overthrow of Colonel Gaddafi, but in the Libya that has emerged he still has no place, and no way to return home. In the aftermath of the accomplishment and destruction of his dream, his son sits him down to take an honest accounting of his life.

When Colonel Gaddafi took power in a military coup in 1969, Ashur was an idealistic young man. He was attracted to the pan-Arabic teachings of the Muslim Brotherhood. He was an outspoken activist, and when it was clear that this would cost him his life, he fled to Britain.

Khalid, his son, was born in the leafy suburbs of London. He grew up like any other kid on his street and all he knew of Libya is that it is where his dad is from. In some ways there is a resentment there, that they have such a happy home life in London, but his father is constantly living in Libya, in his thoughts, in his work, in what he gives his time and energy to.

What has his father been doing all these years? As part of the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, he mostly handled press interviews, denouncing the dictatorship, talking about human rights abuses. He’s smart, articulate and likeable. He did all he could to bring media attention to the crimes of Gaddafi.

But the NFSL wasn’t just a talking shop, and their tactics included violent resistance. They armed and trained paramilitary forces to try to overthrow Gaddafi. And here we get into the more questionable of his father’s actions. Because these groups were cobbled together from idealistic young men, armed with whatever they could find the money for, and trained in whatever country also had reason to hate Gaddafi and would allow them to play soldier in their backyard. They launch a number of attacks, with Ashur doing the drumbeat of propaganda from afar, and they are slaughtered. The media characterises them as suicide missions.

Khalid speaks to his mother in the kitchen while his father naps. “He was an arms dealer.” “He was not an arms dealer!” protests his mother, who seems to have stayed willfully ignorant of her husband’s activities, “Don’t be stupid!” He asks her, “Do you think he was a terrorist?” and she laughs at the question. There seems to have been a lack of critical examination of his actions during those times.

Gaddafi was such a monster of an enemy that any countermeasure seemed justified. But they sent those men to their deaths, in missions that impartial observers could clearly see had no chance of succeeding. Their judgement was clouded, by their underestimation of the stability of Gaddafi’s regime, by their distance from the reality on the ground, by their own desperation to succeed and go home. And perhaps their judgement was clouded for them, as Ashur eventually left the Front and gave up violent action when he felt they were all simply being used as pawns by the CIA.

As the years in exile grew into decades, Ashur’s hope came and went in ebbs and flows, and when he still tried to help it was again, mostly through speaking in the media. Satellite tv and the internet provided new opportunities for Libyans to get news from beyond state propaganda.

And then the Arab Spring came. Which no one saw coming. Least of all Ashur. And it was with absolute delight that he greeted the deposition and death of Gaddafi. He returned home to see his family and take up a role in the formation of a new government. And what happened?

He was irrelevant. He hadn’t been in the country for almost half a century. He knew no one on the ground. He didn’t understand the dynamics and nuances of power he was walking into. And the Libya he had envisioned it to be, it no longer was any more. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he had believed that if they got rid of Gadaffi, the Libya of 1969 would return. That they would not simply depose him, but undo him.

The Colonel’s Stray Dogs is about the dislocation of exile experience, of the double-vision that occurs, and the questionable decisions that can be made when you live more for your dreams than for your reality. An absolutely fascinating film about the lives of people you would walk past on leafy suburban streets.