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Saif al-Islam Muammar Al-Gaddafi

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The last time TIME contract photographer Yuri Kozyrev and I were in Libya together, we were covering the fall of Tripoli to Libyan rebel forces, near the end of an eight-month civil war. We had covered the revolution since February 2011, moving along desert frontlines, into war-ravaged homes, and finally, up to the gates of Muammar Gaddafi’s abandoned villas in Tripoli. Our coverage last Fall took us from intelligence headquarters to the scenes of massacres and on to new front lines. It was chaos—full of discovery and excitement for the rebels and newly liberated civilians—but chaos, nonetheless. No one knew when Gaddafi would be found, or what the future would bring when they found him.

And it wasn’t until four months after Gaddafi was captured and killed—four months after the official end of the war—that we returned to Libya. This time, we didn’t sneak across any borders, nor did we duck from any bullets. We flew into a calm and functioning Benghazi airport, surrounded by flower bushes.

Libya is not as we left it. Driving across the country, we visited old friends and new acquaintances. We discovered that the Esbaks, a family of revolutionaries who I met last February in the Green Mountains of Libya’s east, had lost their youngest son since I last saw them—killed by a mortar shell on the eastern frontline. We discovered they had a new set of politics as well: after decades of dictatorship, they were already fed up with the transitional government and they wanted to see Libya divided into states.

In every town we stopped in, we met rebels we used to know—men who could now be called militia members. They had retained their weapons and their autonomy. The people who defeated the old system may be the biggest threat to stability in the new one. In Misrata, a militia leader named Mohamed Shami took us to the city’s largest prison. There, the men who used to be winners are now the captives. Their overlords are the rebels they once fought and repressed. One of the prisoners we met is Sayyed Muammar Gaddafi Dam, the late dictator’s cousin. We watched as Shami, the militia commander, posed for a picture with the frightened Gaddafi at his side.

There is no justice in the new Libya—but the former rebels are quick to note: there wasn’t much justice in the old Libya either. The prisoners are awaiting trials. Some have been waiting a year. But in the mean time, the conditions aren’t so bad, the militias say—at least torture isn’t as rampant as it was under Gaddafi.

At times our journey was certainly eerie. We stopped in all the places where we had been shot at covering the war. Human remains are still submerged in the sand at one of the first rebel camps that Gaddafi bombed from the air, outside the oil refinery at Ras Lanuf. We stood in the place where our journalist friends and colleagues had been killed in Misrata; and we interviewed former loyalists on the road in Sirte where a rocket-propelled grenade had missed my car and struck someone else. Our jaws dropped when we walked through Gaddafi’s Bab al-Aziziyah compound in Tripoli. It had been smashed and burned to oblivion, as if the entire country had vented 42 years of rage on a single spot. Perhaps noticing our shock, a 12-year-old boy leaned out of a car window and asked me: “Did you ever expect to see this?” His introduction led us to a conversation with his family, and Yuri photographed the boy and his brother, as they explored what was once the dictator’s, now theirs.

We got the feeling, as we moved from town to town, that the country was in the midst of a great, collective exhale: that Libyan journalists and politicians were just starting to find their footing on new and unfamiliar turf; that families were lifting their heads from beneath the rubble to take a look around; that, despite all the guns in the hands of lawless militias, people were at least shooting at each other less often.

We drove across the country humming along to Libyan revolutionary hip-hop, and stopping to talk with picnicking families, religious leaders, refugees, village sheikhs, and oil workers. Some people wanted revenge; others had already taken it. A lot of people were angry that the money wasn’t flowing fast enough and that they were compelled to rebuild their war-ravaged homes and businesses with money from their own pockets.

But we didn’t find the same despair that had filled the eyes of the young men we encountered in blood-spattered field hospitals just months before. Museums have been erected to commemorate the battles fought and the martyrs lost. Schools are back in session—even the shell-shocked ones. Hundreds of former rebels are training to join the new national army. Old friends are now talking about tourism and business. We heard women discussing women’s rights and lecturing men on politics—a newfound agency that they’ve capitalized on since the revolution. Where the weak transitional government is failing, ordinary citizens are helping one another rebuild. Young people are getting creative. And the most marvelous thing we found as we traveled was optimism; optimism of the wild, determined sort. Libya is set to hold its first democratic election in June. No one knows how many bumps lie in the road up ahead. But despite all those challenges, and the years of heartbreak behind them, the Libyans we met on our road trip seemed hopeful.

Read more in this week’s issue of TIME: Hope Among the Ruins

Abigail Hauslohner is TIME’s Cairo correspondent.

Yuri Kozyrev is a contract photographer for TIME and was named the 2011 Photographer of the Year in the Pictures of the Year International competition.

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi and his wife, Safia Farkash in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from his home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held.

Among the items discovered in the chaos during the takeover of Tripoli were collections of photographs, much like family photo albums. The photographs show a private, not often seen, side of the Libyan dictator.

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi and his wife, Safia Farkash in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from his home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Seif al-Islam, left, with Safia Farkash, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's wife, right, and unidentified family members in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gaddafi with Hannibal Gadhafi, Safia Farkash, center, and unidentified family members in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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From left: Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hassan II of Morocco, Maaouya Ould Sid'Ahmed Taya of Mauritania and Chadli Bendjedid of Algeria with Col. Moammar Gadhafi in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Seif al-Arab at his circumcision, with Safia Farkash, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's wife, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi with his wife, Safia Farkash, second from right, and unidentified family members, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Safia Farkash, Col. Moammar Gadhafi's wife, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Seif al-Islam, left, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi's daughter, Eisha, Safia Farkash, his wife, and Seif al-Islam, his son, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi, right, with Leonid Brezhnev, of Russia, in an undated photo from a collection of photos. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi, right, with Fidel Castro, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from his home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi unidentified family members, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from his home. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi with former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi with former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli, Libya. As his capital fell last week, Gadhafi and his family evaporated, though two of his sons may, or may not, have been briefly held. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Col. Moammar Gadhafi with an unidentified infant, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from his home. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

 Gadhafi Family Photo Album

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Seif al-Islam Gadhafi, in an undated photo from a collection of photos taken from Col. Moammar Gadhafi's home, in Tripoli. (Tyler Hicks/The New York Times) #

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Libyan citizens took over Tripoli's main square on Sunday night, as rebel forces claimed to have taken control of much of the capital, and captured two of Muammar Qaddafi's sons. Rebel gains in the past several days brought them to the outskirts of Tripoli, and they practically sped into neighborhoods of the city on Sunday, facing minimal resistance. Qaddafi remains defiant, if unseen, issuing radio statements urging residents of Tripoli to rise up against the rebels. Even as celebrations took place in Benghazi and parts of Tripoli, fighting continues, and Muammar Qaddafi remains nominally in power, even though he appears to have effectively lost much of his control. Also see earlier entries: DIY Weapons of the Libyan Rebels, and Three Months of Civil War in Libya. [44 photos]

People celebrate the capture in Tripoli of Muammar Qaddafi's son and one-time heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, at the rebel-held town of Benghazi, Libya, early Monday, on August 22, 2011. Libyan rebels raced into Tripoli in a lightning advance Sunday that met little resistance as Muammar Qaddafi's defenders melted away and his 40-year rule appeared to rapidly crumble. The euphoric fighters celebrated with residents of the capital in the city's main square, the symbolic heart of the regime. (AP Photo/Alexandre Meneghini)

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