I've been trying to visit Libya for some years. I have a number os articles by those who gt in circa 2004; their experience was totally different than mine. They had minders and fund Tripoli depressing and drab. I had no minder and found Tripoli full of color and energy. The difference: Gadaffi was gone!
I immediately signed on when Political Tours announced a March trip to Libya, even though it centered in Tripoli rather than Benghazi in the East, my main interest. Political Tours' purpose was to explore "the overall fall out from the conflict" and look at "how best can peaceful and durable political settlement . . . be achieved."
Understand that Libya consists of three main sector - Tripolitania, Cyrenaica and Fezzan (the West, the East and the South) - which have been played against each other by Gadaffi. The East led the "Arab Spring" revolt against Gadaffi and it was only six months ago, that the last holdouts in West and South surrendered. The East, which had the oil, felt cheated by the West which had the power. The Sth, desert tribal country, was catered to by Gadaffi. So to say that current governance is in flux, might be an understatement.
There were five of us, led by Political Tours director, an ex NY Times foreign correspondent. Besides myself, there was a semi-retired Texas energy man, an Australian attorney, a British NGO worker from Yemen and a British-Australian-American college student from Colorado. All good travelers; all knowledgeable about the Libyan crises, past and present.
Over the week, we had access to various media representatives, NGO people, local and National interim administrators, British Embassy staff - the American Embassy was on the edge of town and staff unavailable except in emergency as remodeling was occurring - consultants, school staff, militia council leaders, displaced person and average citizens. We were based in Tripoli all but on night when we drove to Misarta and Tauorga.
For the first few days we were followed and filmed by a CNN team and a French TV crew. (see http://backstory.blogs.cnn.com and http://topics.cnn.com/topics/libya) The Tunisian cameraman, half of the French crew, was probably one of the most unforgetable characters I'll ever run into. Energetic and always gleeful, he got into the most unbelievable and dangerous positions to get a shot. Hanging out of the window of a moving auto -
Though I found enthusiasm for a Gadaffi-less country, there was a concern things were moving to slowly toward a functioning government. Yet there was a need to move carefully to avoid further conflict. It all depended upon who you spoke with. The(wo)men on the street were joyful: revolutionary signs and the old/new Libyan flags were all, and I mean all, over. The first Friday I was there, there was a loud and enthusiastic rally supporting an United Libya - One Libya - no federalization. This was in response to a report that Benghazi and the East might loosen ties with a national government from Tripoli.
Another problem was that of the militia/brigade/kitiba members, who continued to main checkpoints and wander about in military garb, carry weapons. On the street and at the airport. Manning check points. Not particularly threatening, at least to us, but there! The hope was most would drift into the army or police - so no direct confrontation with them ala Gadaffi.
Then the garbage: garbage has not been picked up in Tripoli for months. People leaned abut their establishments and took it, neatly tied in plastic bags, elsewhere. NIMBY. According to a member of the Tripoli council, the owner of the previously used garbage site had been forced to provide service during the Gadaffi regim so - with Gadaffi gone, he declared independence from Tripoli's garbage. De facto sites included a mile or more along the airport road with smoldering fires polluting the air. Admittedly a health hazard, the local council was committed to negotiations rather than force the issue with the site's owner. Another effort not to emulate the past.
It's all complicated by a non elected, volunteer government. Much hope is placed on summer elections which will select individuals to hammer out a Constitution - we met with a woman anxious t be one of those selected. Subsequently, an other election to approve the Constitution and elect representatives. At the moment, the National Transitional Council theoretically heads the country and the Tripoli Local Council has responsibility for the city. Along with militias and the like. But political parties are being to be former. Remember, this is a country with 42 years of autocratic rule, feeling it was politically.
As a local Journalist pointed out, Libya had a social uprising while Egypt had a civil war. And the Libyan uprising involved planning between militias, army and NATO. At the beginning, it was thought all would end quickly, as in Tunisia and Egypt. It was a surprise that Gadaffi reacted so strongly. One comment was that it was probably good that the revolutionaries didn't realize the extent of Gadaffi's resistance or there might not have been a Libyan Revolt.
We visited Bab Azizya, the remains of Gadaffi's headquarters and home. Thoroughly trashed by NATO and locals, much more than Saddam's Babylon palace. Some families moved into nearby army bunker, cleaning up the interiors and caging electricity from a nearby apartment complex. We talked with a hospital administrator who had moved him family in he could not manage ongoing rent. Salaries are not good to civil servants.
At the old prison, Abu Seleem, where people had been detained indefinitely in the old days, a former immate was our guide. Other ex-inmates were around, showing their former quarters to their families. Our guy had been there for eleven years for the crime of early morning prayer at the mosque - never convicted.
At Misrate, there are various militias whose members were active in the fighting, not only locally but in Tripoli and Sirte. They also hated their neighbors, the Tauogans, ex-slaves of generations ago, considered as pro-Gadaffi. I'm not sure in what order it happened, but some Tauogans raped and pillaged Misratans and Misratans trashed Tauoga and ran residents out, holding all responsible for the actions of, possibly, several hundred.
Misrate was really decimated - there was hard, hand to hand fighting and I could see where mortar and sniper shots landed on the buildings. There is now a museum, with captured military equipment and walls lined with photos of those killed, both fighters and victims. People. obviously moved by their time visiting, wrote rather lengthy comments in the visitors' log. A military cuncil commander, a former agricultural worker, mentoined problems of PTSD resulting from the conflict. Like the Triploi officias, he talked of the militias being absorbed into police, army or back to their old professions.
The Tauogans were rescued and brught t Tripli where they are housed in a former Navy facility as IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons). Effectively, they are detained, for they are endangered if they leave the camp. (I heard the chairman of the NTC refer to them as "non Libyans" though he quickly reversed himself) As a group, we met with several leaders of the community. Later, two from the group returned to spend more time talking with them. The Tauogans want to return home and feel no one cares about what happens to them. Their homes are severely damaged and they are unable to protect their lands. Doctors Without Borders and Save the Children are the agencies presently helping them.
Human Rights Watch is concerned about the status of those detained by the militias rather than the Ministry of the Interior - and thus subject to the caprices of the winners. Another example of oppressed becoming oppressor!
In and about Tripoli, there were uncompleted building projects, with silent cranes standing sentry, and a deteriorating infrastructure. Conversely, people were working on small remodeling and maintenance projects. In the Medina where I stayed, there were ongoing efforts - along with some of the more creative writing Ive seen sort of Chungking Mansions in Kowloon. As usual, by the time I figured out all the byways, I moved on.
Many women wear headscarves and long coats though a younger group is in tight jeans but head, headscarf. People were welcoming asking where I was from, happy with the American help in the conflict, and approving of my Palestinian head scarf. Throughout I felt perfectly safe, poking about on my own, Though the tour group did have Security for most of our travels - the best and most professional I've run into in he eight countries where I've dealt with it. Inconspucious but aware. No weapons, but even so, I wouldn't want to tangle with any of our people. Excepting the in-charge guy, they were locals with their stories of the fighting.
There were two sightseeing opportunities: Leptis Magna, as part of the tour, and Sabratha, where three of us went on our own. Both were exhilarating. World Heritage sites. Part of my ongoing efforts to track the Romans on their travels of centuries back. Both on the coast with a backdrop of blue sea for the ruins. We were among the few visitors to both sites. Fantastic experience.
Accommodatons: Could not have been better; The El Khan Hotel in the Medina, near the Marcus Arelius Arch. With conveniences and atmosphere.
Food: I ate more pizza than I've ever had in my life. It was that or baked chicken or grilled fish or kabobs. My best meal was a chicken-cheese-spinach sandwich with a mixed fruit drink at a nearby cafe. However, I must admit two buffet breakfast at the Cornthia Hotel were superb, though $30 apiece.
Tour: In some ways, this tour was similar to the several Global Exchange/Realty tours I've gone with - an educational experience, above and beyond the usual sightseeing. A bit more pricey but I though it worth it given the quality of the interviewees. I'll travel with Political Tours again, likely into the Balkans.
And I'm still hoping for trek into Eastern and Southern Libya.
Cost: The tour cost: about $7500, including the last minute visa fees. I was there three days on my own. I used frequent flyers miles - about wiped our my account - only $205 airfare, including two segments Business class. But even in Economy, the seat next to me was empty - second time that has happened. I must be living right.