27th May 2012
26.05.2012 - 27.06.2012
We woke to the alarm in a daze that we wouldn’t snap out of for an hour or so. We had 1100km to cover through towns that one year ago would have looked like a tight schedule for BBC’s ‘Man in Libya.’ Our first town was Benghazi, it would be followed by Sirte and end in Misurata on the other side of the Bay of Sirte where the Sahara meets the Med. We would finish a hundred or so kilometres short of Leptis Magna the Greco-Roman City that stood sixty kilometres from Tripoli.
Ali had said he would try to wake to see us depart but at 5am he still slept and we had no intention of waking him. We crept around his living room looking for a pen with which to write a farewell note. We found a pen pot but in it, rather than pens, were a 14.5mm shell and some smaller bullets, his mementoes.
We pulled out in the light of pre-dawn and once more drove past the four storey apartment block and past the entrance to the military complex and out through the last of the stunning Green Mountain scenery as slowly the sun rose and set fire to the golden fields. We were driving towards Benghazi where we needed to meet Adris and return his sim card. Our previous night’s planning paid off, we met him on the outskirts just before eight o’ clock and soon our final goodbyes had been said and we were driving through downtown Benghazi, lost. Naturally the sat-nav wasn’t quite as familiar with Libyan roads as we’d have hoped but through some judicious use and finally finding a main road we found our way out of Benghazi, past bullet scarred buildings and straight into what must have been the site of the tank battle for Benghazi.
The war for Libya had been fought along the roads. Scattered alongside the road were huge tanks, burnt out, upside down, some with their gun turrets nearby, the striking thing was that there was no upturned earth nearby the tanks no large scorched area, just their exploded carcasses. We would find out later that those tanks had been the victims of NATO missiles. The NATO planes were rarely seen. If they were lucky they had a last-minute fleeting glimpse of a missile travelling at five hundred kilometres an hour and landing directly on top of its target; lightning bolts from the Gods or fire from hell, depending upon your allegiance, the number of destroyed tanks showed that the Libyan army had been a formidable force, but one far outmatched by the Gods sat around the table where NATO’s actions were decided. We made a hurried stop at one of the tanks, Laura jumping out of a moving Redvers whilst I positioned him and then jumped on top of the tank to pose uneasily as cars drove by on the main road.
Over the following four hundred kilometres of roadside we saw maybe forty bombed and burnt out tank carcasses. The road itself was pocked with large pot holes bordered by scorch marks. The force required to lift a square metre of good tarmac clean off a compacted surface must be quite something. The buildings alongside the road bore the bullet scars of the conflict and the road’s sides were littered with the packaging and two feet long casings, ten and a half centimetres in diameter, of tank shells. Naturally we stopped and took one; it would be an umbrella stand with a story.
The absolute delight of all this was that we were free. We had no guide to restrict us and so within reason, as long as we stayed near the coast, we could do as we pleased. Under Gadaffi, a journey without a guide had not been possible. An escort had been compulsory, and on completion of the trip the guide had filed a report on the tourists under his watch. He had reported back on what the tourist had seen and done, what they had taken pictures of and what questions they had asked. We were enjoying a freedom not experienced in Libya in decades.
The lack of a guide also meant that we were now interacting far more with locals and with the armed men at the road blocks. We weren’t the first tourists in Libya after the revolution, we knew of three overland vehicles that had passed through on tourist visas before us as well as a handful of cars and bikes using business visas, but from speaking to the men at the road blocks we were definitely still amongst the first.
As we’ve already discussed, guns aren’t often intimidating and we were finding more and more that the men holding them were happy to see us. Most road blocks waved us through, or simply asked to see our passports. At one road block we stopped to offer the guys a packet of salt and vinegar crisps I’d mistakenly bought. The ulterior motive was to attempt to get a photo on one of the seated machine guns on the back of their Toyotas. I’d feel the ground as I went. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried.
I offered the crisps to one guy and like an overweight polar bear it was more than enough to break the ice. His and his colleagues English was good and we chatted about our journey, about England and about Tunisia and about the ferry. We even chatted about Gadaffi and, misunderstanding a question and being too eager to respond I gave the thumbs up. As the chap finished his sentence, his smile waned and I realised my error. My thumb wavered and then flipped down, his smile returned and one guy asked could I take his photo. Of course I could. But before I went to get the camera he wanted to give us some bottled water for the journey, which I politely accepted and then returned to the car to swap it for the camera. Laura came back across with me and the chap asked would I like to sit on the ridiculously massive weapon of war complete with a chest of carrot sized bullets either side. Grinning like a kid in a chocolate factory I handed over my camera and clambered aboard. The one rule was not to touch the left hand foot pedal; I presume it was the trigger. After the vehicle we climbed down and had a photo session with the guys, including me getting to hold the loaded Kalashnikov and Somers posing as the war time belle with her soldiers. After a few minutes one chap sensibly chose to bring the shoot to a close. Hearts and minds had been won but this was a professional affair that needed to keep hold of its respectability. We thanked the guys and with racing hearts and huge smiles we drove on.
Our next city destination was the town of Sirte, Muammar Gadaffi’s home town and the site of his final morning alive. It was the town where his convoy had been hit by a French air strike and he had escaped only to find refuge in a drainage pipe running beneath the main road. I hadn’t told Somers yet but we were going to find that drainage pipe. Armed with a map of Gadaffi’s final movements I’d located the pipe and measured out directions to get there. We pulled off the highway and drove towards the town centre. We needed to find the main road through town but we’d come off the highway a little too early. Sirte was a town that had enjoyed wealth. Fancy modern lamp posts and smart fence railings lined its streets. The street we were on led to the beach front. Those beautiful blue Mediterranean waters once more washing along a Corniche on which lay a dual carriage way and beyond that, six-storey apartments ran for a considerable length of the seafront. It would have been an extremely pleasant place if it weren’t for the fact that most of those apartments bore the scars of tanks and all of them the scars of bullets. In places whole buildings had been brought down, elsewhere exterior walls had been removed allowing a voyeuristic glance inside what was a normal household shortly before a tank shell collided with its wall. Some of the buildings were so thoroughly routed that they must have been hit by airstrikes. As we found our way through town, our jovial mood dissipated and sank to its lowest point yet. It was akin to seeing a child’s face after a dog attack, so violent and destructive had been the damage. Also we were suddenly getting a lot more stares. We were off the main road, we were now snooping and we felt uncomfortable for several reasons.
With a weakening desire to fulfil my goal our drive continued and Laura became suspicious of my actions. I squealed and told her my plan, but by that stage we were already pulling off the road on which the convoy had travelled and onto the road under which the drain pipe ran. On the right hand side, one point one kilometres along that road was the pipe. Just further along and on the left was where the cars had been hit by the airstrike. My heart was pounding out of my chest, an irrational fear was taking over and it was all I could do to control it. Thoughts of posed photos as I crawled out of the pipe looking surprised were evaporating quickly. As we got closer a van was parked right next to the pipe; on the other side of the road more work vehicles were perked, their men doing something to the road. Life was flashing past very quickly and we stopped to speak to the guy in the van. He told us he was Turkish and was working there but offered no further explanation. By now a combination of fear, morality at the perverse actions of what I had seen as funny but now saw as grossly satirical and perhaps, more worryingly, gravely disrespectful, and the presence of other people had taken their control; the sight of the town had deeply weighted our consciences. We slowed to a crawl that allowed us to see the top of the pipe, adorned in blue graffiti, that had been the final hiding place of a man who, for better or worse, had written a whole chapter of the world’s modern history.
Our heavy mood still bearing, we continued out of the town, everywhere we looked lay tank and bullet shells. It was a quarter past four; we’d been driving for eleven and a half hours and still had another three or four to go.
We arrived at the road block on the outskirts of Misurata at a quarter past seven. The bloackade was built from shipping containers; three columns of two containers stacked one on top of the other and two containers spanning the tops of the three columns. Aside the stop was a tank, and three or four Toyota-mounted machine guns. The guard took our passports and motioned us to park in the other side of the blockade. We’d been asked to do similar earlier in the day and it had only entailed a longer chat about what we were doing whilst Somers faux-nonchalantly peeled an orange as if getting stopped and gently interrogated by armed rebels was her normal. It had ended in us shaking hands and being wished a safe journey. This chap however summoned me from across the road as I stepped out of Redvers. I crossed the road, wondering how I’d need to act and as I got closer he raised his hand to stop me walking towards his office and instead, pointed to the table at which were sat a smartly dressed gentleman in his sixties and an older general wearing star filled epaulettes. Before them was a coffee pot and cups. “Friend, you must take coffee with us, how is your journey?”
Tension disappeared like a mist on a summer morning and we sat with our new found acquaintances enjoying our coffee and again chatting about our travels. The coffee was superb but that would not be sufficient. As we stood from the table we were handed two carrier bags full of pomegranate and grape juice, cartons of milk and chocolate chip muffins as well as a crate of bottled water ‘for our journey.’ Before we walked away they asked us was there anything else we needed?
Inside Misurata, passing ever more bullet riddled buildings and scorched roads, we pulled into a petrol station and asked the chap to fill us up with diesel, his reply was not fully understood but in response I said “Yes” and he began. From the same chap we tried to get directions to our hotel but to no avail. He did however ask another chap who was filling his car and that young gentleman told us to follow him; he would drive us to our hotel.
There were only suites remaining at the hotel, and they were quite expensive but we persisted and found that there was a room with a broken air conditioning unit that we could use if that wasn’t a problem. The weather had been far more temperate than we were used to and so it would be no issue. We took the room gratefully and in return we were offered a discount because of the lack of air con and because it was our first time in Misurata. We were yet to meet a rogue in Libya; every man had been proud of his country and took pleasure in welcoming visitors. We had driven one thousand and ninety six kilometres, it had taken us fourteen and a half hours; we had passed fields of destroyed tanks, badly scarred cities, the Sahara desert and a country full of wonderful individuals.