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.
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.