TRIPOLI, Libya (AP) — Abdullah Ahmed Belal had all but given up on the sprawling seaside villa his family lost to squatters decades ago because of a provision in Moammar Gadhafi's Green Book saying anybody who lives in the house should own it.
Belal, a 48-year-old naval officer, is one of many Libyans who want their properties back now that the hated dictator is gone.
Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, head of the governing National Transitional Council, has called for such disputes to be settled legally. Belal is willing to be patient, but others have taken matters into their own hands — a sign of the post-revolutionary fights that threaten to rattle Libya as it transitions from decades of autocratic rule to what its interim leaders say will be democracy.
Armed men have tried to force families out at gunpoint, and neighbors have been caught in the crossfire as they tried to intervene. Even original owners willing to wait have spray painted their names on the concrete walls surrounding the buildings.
"The NTC keeps asking people to postpone trying to get their rights back until a committee is formed and it can be done legally," said Abdullah Belal, a Tripoli contract lawyer and a nephew of Abdullah Ahmed Belal. "They say you've waited 42 years, you can wait another month or two, but some people don't want to wait."
He described one instance in which the original owners came back with machine guns to force a Palestinian family from their home in Souk al-Jumaa, giving them no time to pack more than the belongings they could gather that night.
"We desperately need to get our properties and rights back, but at the same time we don't want anybody to be hurt because in the end the only one to blame is Moammar Gadhafi," the lawyer said.
The question of legality is murky in a country that was governed by the whims of one man for nearly 42 years.
The Green Book, the slain leader's quirky political manifesto that dictated the lives of Libyans, allowed people to occupy empty houses that had been purchased as rentals or vacated by landlords traveling abroad. High rises and other commercial buildings also were taken, often with no compensation.
It may be hard now to prove original ownership because the building holding property records burned down in 1982 under mysterious circumstances, and those who initially confiscated the property often resold it with new documents.
In some cases, gunmen laying claim to homes were not in fact the original owners.
In 1977, a colonel in Gadhafi's army is said to have seized a house on a side street in Tripoli's affluent Hay al-Andalous neighborhood.
On Sept. 8, nearly 35 years later, a man armed with a machine gun showed up around midnight to reclaim what he said was his.
Witnesses told The Associated Press that neighbors rushed to the scene and tried to calm him down, saying he should wait until the issue could be resolved in a court of law, but the man was drunk and refused to listen. His friend got out of the car and they both opened fire.
One of the neighbors, Tarek Abu Aisha, 38, was shot and killed, and two others were wounded. Bullet holes still pockmark the pavement as well as the iron door of a four-story apartment building across the street.
Seif Saad al-Jarushi, 36-year-old school bus driver who lives down the street, said the gunmen fled as revolutionary forces arrived.
He said the man currently occupying the house took his family away and only comes home at night.
He and other neighbors said they learned that the colonel who seized the house in the late 1970s had sold it to three different people after the uprising against Gadhafi took root in mid-February. The armed man who came to claim it was one of them.
Al-Jarushi said neighbors are ready to fight if the man comes back to try again.
"Even if he has the right, he should not be trying to get his rights this way. He should do it through legal means," he said, swatting away flies during an interview on a corner near the house.
The nationalization of businesses and property was one of the most glaring examples of Gadhafi's efforts to force his version of socialism on the desert nation of 6 million people. With the introduction of the property law in the late 1970s, thousands of landlords lost homes when tenants claimed them as their own. People also were allowed to occupy empty buildings.
Apparently sensing public anger over the issue, the regime late last year offered compensation to Libyans who could prove that they had owned confiscated property — part of purported reforms initiated by Gadhafi's son Seif al-Islam.
"This decision should have been taken many years ago," said Mustafa Bushaal, a member of the newly established Libyan Association for Justice and Development, which is discussing various ways to resolve the housing problem. He said the process was fraught with corruption.
Some solutions being floated include giving newly evicted families apartments being built by the government on Tripoli's outskirts or offering them compensation so they can find a new place to live.
Bushaal said the Tripoli city government already has asked claimants to present documentation for their property.
"The first thing is to convince the family that it's not their house, then find alternative housing for the other family," he said.
It is impossible to know just how many homes were confiscated by the Gadhafi regime, which destroyed many of the original documents.
Belal, the naval officer, said his father bought the seaside home in 1975 and eventually gave it to him.
Belal said he allowed a foreign company to rent it when he went abroad to study. When he returned to Libya in 1984 to start a family, he found that squatters had moved in after the company left.
He said the police told him the Green Book had given the family the right to move into the house.
Belal, who currently rents an apartment with his family, says he does not want to kick the family out of his original home until they have somewhere else to go. But he said a legal solution must come very soon.
"There are so many people with similar problems," he said. "The government should move very fast to solve this problem or there will be another civil war."