First Person | In Gaddafi’s Land

The supreme commander controls even the thoughts of the people

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

The Libyan supreme commander Col Muammar Gaddafi has turned out to be more obdurate than what the world imagined. Perhaps, there should have been no surprise in this. Gaddafi, who has ruled Libya with a messianic fervour, believes that he is God’s chosen one; which is why he rules without holding any office. Offices, with their attendant powers and responsibilities are for the ordinary, not for the one who rules by divine sanction. Hence, anyone who opposes Gaddafi opposes the will of God and must be silenced with whichever means possible.

In this spring of freedom, the biggest dictators have bowed down to the domestic will coupled with international pressure. Sure, they did not go easily. Both Zine El Abidine of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt tried to suppress the uprising in the initial days. And those who did not go have made promises of civil liberties and better life to their people, whether they will be kept or not is another story. But none deployed the air force or heavy armoury against their own people, except of course Gaddafi.

But I shouldn’t have been surprised. In 1996, I had an opportunity to visit Libya. One dubious Delhi-based non-government organisation put together a delegation comprising relatives and friends to give a peace award to Gaddafi. To give this delegation a degree of credibility and professionalism, a few journalists were invited to jump on the bandwagon. Clearly, both the award and the delegation were sponsored by Libya. I presume, most respectable journalists would have declined to become part of this racket. Hence, my editor asked me, a newcomer to the profession, to go on this five-day jamboree, during which we were supposed to meet Gaddafi. Because of the sanctions, no international flights were allowed into Libya. Hence, from India we flew to Paris, spent the night there, took a flight to Tunis City in Tunisia the following day, yet another flight to the beach town of Djerba and finally from Djerba we drove to Libya at night.

Even in darkness, we knew the moment we crossed into Libya. Giant posters of Gaddafi, lit up at night welcomed us at the border where our passports were confiscated by the border security. Since we reached our hotel in Tripoli in the early hours, we were encouraged to sleep in. Later that day, an escort team came to show us around Tripoli. The first stop was the war museum, the old Presidential palace which was bombed 10 years ago by the US. Each broken column and shrapnel was preserved. It was a fascinating walk till we reached what used to be the private quarters of Qaddafi. In the middle of the room was a baby cot, complete with duvet and mosquito net.

“This is where His Excellency’s adopted daughter Hanna was asleep when the American bomb killed her,” said the escort in hushed tone, in obvious deference to dead. Wasn’t it strange, I asked him, when everyone, Gaddafi and each of his children had the opportunity to run away before the bombing (they were warned about the impending bombing either by the Italian or the Maltese government), how come no one remembered to pick up the infant? The escort ignored the question and we moved into the next room. I whispered to my accompanist, “Obviously, the girl was not picked up because she was an adopted child and good propaganda material.” He looked at me with horror. The escort was looking directly at us.

That evening I had visitors in my room: Our day escort came with a woman who he introduced as his wife. “You are an enthusiastic journalist. I am sure you want to know more about Libya. You can ask us anything.” His ‘wife’ did not speak a word of English. She gave a sort of oral presentation in rapid Arabic, which the escort duly translated. There was no room for any questions. In any case, neither of us knew what the other was saying and had to depend completely on the escort. After a few minutes, I realised that I was being tutored on how great the supreme commander is and what sacrifices he has made for the people of Libya. Before leaving he gave me a copy of the ‘Green Book’, Gaddafi’s gospel, with the instructions that I must read it before I ask more questions.

We were supposed to meet Gaddafi the next day, but he suddenly decided to retreat to his desert camp for a few days. We were told by our escort that we should use this time to get to know Libya better. In any case, there wasn’t much to do. There was no television, no international calling in our rooms and we were not allowed to go out of the hotel on our own. In the day time we used to do sight-seeing and in the evening, I was singled out for further education. Every evening our escort used to bring a different person to my room to give me a lecture on Libya. One evening, he brought along a poet who was declared the national poet of Libya by the supreme commander himself. Needless to say, his collection of work included several paeans to Gaddafi.

After five days, I was tired and homesick. I requested the head of the delegation if I could return to India. He first tried to persuade me to stay on, but when I told him that I was missing my family far too much as I had not been able to even talk with them, he assured me that he would do his best to help me. That evening nobody came to my room. But after midnight, somebody knocked on my door. There were two men, looking reasonably menacing. They warned me that if I insist on returning before the completion of the tour they would put me on a ship to Malta. I was truly shaken up.

As part of the delegation was an elderly journalist, who knew the Indian ambassador in Tripoli. Next morning, at breakfast I narrated the incident to him. He promised to get a word across to the Indian ambassador. The biggest hurdle was that we did not have our passports. That night, there were knocks on my door again. The following morning the escort came to see me. He told me to reconsider my decision, failing which he shrugged, “Very well,” he said. “This is a free country. If you want to go we cannot stop you.” I got my passport back during the day and was told to prepare to leave the next morning. I slept fitfully that night.

It was still dark when I was woken up by forceful thumping on my door. It was the escort who came to accompany me till Djerba. As I came down with my luggage, I realised that I would be alone with him and the chauffeur all through the journey. All sorts of dreadful possibilities raced through my mind as we drove in silence for a few hours. Finally, just as the day broke, we reached Djerba airport. The escort gave me my return tickets and drove off. Finally, I could breathe again.

Call us