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A Journey Through Libya - Harry Cox

Transiting a Transitional State

A Journey Through Libya
Harry Cox

Perched cross legged high up on a Benghazi rooftop sipping sweet Arabica coffee the sound of Kalashnikov fire cuts through the evening call to prayer and we hear the bullets zinging upwards into the night sky. Our Libyan host doesn’t flinch but after a pause his friend insists that ‘we go inside because you can be killed by a falling bullet and we will be in trouble because no one will believe the story’. He is calm and collected but we soon realise that he isn’t joking and move inside. I resist the temptation to point out that he appears eminently more concerned with the consequences that our deaths will have for him than anything else! Even though this was only our third night in Libya the background sound of gunfire is nothing new and by day we witness mile after mile of the destruction that has so recently been visited on this nation. Indeed the regular sight of burnt out buildings, massive bomb craters and the charred skeletons of innumerate tanks even manage to overshadow the ruins of Greek and Roman antiquity for which Libya is so famed.

From the moment that I first committed to drive, along with 3 friends, from Africa’s most northerly tip in Tunisia, to the continent’s toe at Cape Agulhas, South Africa, I suspected that the greatest threat to our achieving our goal would be the difficulties present in attempting the 1,000 mile crossing of post-Gaddafi Libya. Cursory initial research merely served to confirm this hunch and, a couple of months later, as we found ourselves chewing up the final few miles of Tunisian tar I found my mind churning with what might be in store for us. Chief amongst my concerns were the frequent militia roadblocks which we knew sifted through the traffic entering and leaving all major towns, the impossibility of obtaining a tourist visa – we were travelling on rather dubiously sourced business ones – and a border crossing with Egypt which opened infrequently and from which emanated an irregular flow of travelling horror stories which found themselves onto obscure internet forums, our only source of up to date information.

Crawling along amongst a throng of pick-ups, returning from fuel smuggling excursions into Tunisia, we arrived at the Libyan side of the border and encountered a scene with key differences to the other 14 African border crossings which we would make. The rancid buildings and chaotic crowds were in line with what we would come to expect but conspicuous by their absence were any uniformed officials presiding over a tortuous bureaucratic maze. In their place stood bearded men in civilian clothes whose positions of authority appeared, to the uninitiated, to be derived solely from the huge belts of ammunition that they wore wrapped around their necks like some kind of macho necklace. Via a string of exceedingly tenuous contacts we had managed to make contact with Aimen, a man who had spent parts of the war guiding war correspondents through the danger zones of Misrata and Sirte. He had agreed to travel with us across the country and having located him amidst the hubbub of the border he presented us to a non-descript man who, after making sure we didn’t have any bacon, bibles or beer, stamped our passports and we were away.

Bearded men stood in civilian clothes whose positions of authority appeared, to the uninitiated, to be derived solely from the huge belts of ammunition that they wore wrapped around their necks like some kind of macho necklace.
A Journey Through Libya - Harry Cox

Our initial impression that all forms of national organizations and forces had ceased to exist was an unsettling one and something that has to be experienced for the effects to be truly understood. That evening in Tripoli we learned that the French embassy had been bombed the day before and whilst we were digesting this piece of information we received an email from the foreign office warning us that under no circumstances should we make the journey to Libya – we had informed them of our intentions several weeks earlier not really expecting them to respond favourably. Despite this background of chaos we swiftly realised that we were in excellent hands with Aimen travelling with us, as he was able to act as our guarantor in a country where personal endorsement by an individual who was identified with the rebel cause was the passport to a trouble free passage. This was a fact that we had been assured of by several people working as foreigners in Libya at the time, but which was a reality which needed first-hand experience of to become confident in.

Nowhere was the new order of power more evident than when passing through the militia roadblocks which symbolised the vacuum of authority which has followed in the wake of Gaddafi’s deposition. Ragged looking machine guns which had been welded into the back of Toyota pick-ups.
Nowhere was the new order of power more evident than when passing through the militia roadblocks which symbolised the vacuum of authority which has followed in the wake of Gaddafi’s deposition. Typically marked by stretches of rope secured to battered oil drums we once again saw no uniforms, just a mass of small arms and ragged looking machine guns which had been welded into the back of Toyota pick-ups, the rebel car of choice. Owing to our lack of Arabic we were forced to leave the talking to Aime. In and around Tripoli, and the towns of Misrata and Sirte, he was clearly known and the atmosphere was genial. As we made our way further east he became less familiar with the various militia groups and subsequently we faced much greater difficulties to explain our presence and our purpose.

A further characteristic of our time in Libya was the amazing level of hospitality which we received. In towns where Aimen had contacts we were welcomed in like long lost friends and provided with places to sleep and food to eat all totally free of charge. We were educated by Aimen that we should behave exactly like we were in our own home although he was quick to point out that anything we asked for our hosts would be duty bound to provide. Interested to test Aimen’s insistence on this point we saw our opportunity when being shown the weapons collection of one of Aimen’s cousins who lived in Gaddafi’s hometown, Sirte. I should mention that the nightly display of weapons amongst the people with whom we stayed was another ritual to be observed – maybe it was done to reassure us before we settled down for our night’s sleep, although if that was the intended outcome I can’t say it was particularly successful. In this instance the usual array of semi-automatic handguns was suddenly made alarmingly more dramatic by the unravelling of an RPG, seemingly plucked from underneath the nearby sofa by our host. One of the more opportunist members of our group seized the opportunity to ask whether we could fire it. It was clear our host felt conflicted but he summoned up a response any politician would be proud of when he told us we were free to fire a round from the window on the condition that we take responsibility for any damage we might cause, including any death or injury. Faced with these constraints in the middle of a crowded city we hastily backed down.

A Journey Through Libya - Harry Cox
The presence of such a devastating number of weapons amongst ordinary Libyan households is undoubtedly a cause for great concern for the country as it is seeks to rebuild. We were told by countless individuals that their personal stockpiles of arms had been collected from the streets at the conclusion of hostilities. Any doubts we may have had about this were swiftly cast to one side when we explored a major arms dump just off the main street in Misrata. The government is attempting to encourage people to relinquish their weapons but their attempts have meant with scant success and this will continue to be the case as long as people view them as their only form of protection. A further cause for concern is the level of rivalry and hostility that we witnessed beginning to develop between different militia, with those in the east of the country becoming increasingly radical in outlook. This was a reality which we experienced in Benghazi where we were hauled from our car and questioned intently about the tiny St George’s flag on the back of our Land Rover which they mistook for a sign of missionary intent. The recent seizure of a man by the US Navy Seals whom they claim to be a high ranking Al-Qaeda official might appear to confirm the fears of so Libyans who expressed fears that radical Islam was on the rise.

Being the only people present at the epic remains of the ancient Roman and Greek civilisations at Sabratha, Leptis Magna and Cyrene was an exhilarating experience but even amidst the ruins of antiquity the latest surge of troubles have made their presence felt with large scale looting having taken place on an alarming scale. Indeed it is sad to consider that the ruins of modernity are the images which first spring to mind for so many when they now think of Libya, a place with so much to offer from a people whose generosity towards me as an outsider will live long in the memory. The pride which people feel at having succeeded in toppling Gaddafi’s regime was almost tangible as was their hope for the future of the ‘new Libya’ most obviously symbolised by the nation’s new flag. Only time will tell what the future holds for this ‘new’ nation but whatever the outcome I will always feel an immense sense of privilege to have gained an insight into the life of a nation struggling to forge a new identity for itself. Given the fact that for some unknown reason I failed to receive an exit stamp when leaving the country it does seem quite tempting to return.

Harry Cox

A university summer spent traversing the length of the Swiss Alps gave Harry a taste for expeditions. In 2013, after a few long distance trekking, climbing and canoeing expeditions in the major European mountain ranges and Sierra Leone, Harry embarked on an overland mission to drive from the northernmost tip of Africa to the continent’s southernmost toe, along with 3 friends. 18,750 miles later they made it to the toe at Cape Agulhas, after 5 months of dodgy border guards, tinkering with Land Rover engines and camping wild in the African bush.