Sent on 12th June 2012, in this letter our correspondent reflects on the local market, the closure of the airport by a militia faction on the 4th of that month and visiting the British Military Cemetery.
Hello to my devoted fans, well I can dream can’t I? I looked at the calendar today, we use those here unlike on a previous assignment where the days, weeks and months were scratched on the walls of the less than luxurious dwelling I was stuck in, and discovered I have been here for more than three weeks so I thought to myself that the folks back home deserve another dose of life in the sand pit screaming “You’ve got mail” from the in box.
So here is issue 2, read on and enjoy. On second thoughts, pour yourself a large drink of the alcoholic variety, sit back and get mellow before taking your imagination on a roller coaster of discovery, or a rush hour trip round the M25, whichever metaphor you feel best describes what follows.
I have previously mentioned that the supermarket here in Club Med de L’Afrique du Nord is a trifle expensive and also limited in choice. Most shopping is now being done at Tuesday Market, a slight misnomer because this large supermarket is open every day except Friday, as yet I have not been able to find an explanation for this and I’m not going to waste time looking for one either. Whilst I describe this emporium as a supermarket the main sales area within the building it’s not Sainsbury’s. The shop carries most of the things you would expect to find but there are a few exceptions. These commodities are sold from smaller traders located at one end of the main mall.
- Fresh fish, the word fresh is used in this context to differentiate from frozen and does not imply still dripping wet and wriggling despite being a couple of kilometres from the coast.
- Meat, generally not too bad but cuts vary from back home and the only really recognizable bits tend to be chickens, and offal. Lamb chops are difficult to come by and are usually full of bone shards because of a butchery technique learned from really bad sword and sandal epics or over enthusiastic use of a blunt chain saw. The end result resembles a road kill where bones are involved and strange shaped lumps of flesh where no structural integrity has been left.
- Fruit and vegetables. Choice is not that wide and quality varies immensely. When buying a lettuce for example be prepared to throw away at least half. Carrots are miserably small and not firm but I reckon the prize for most disgusting example has to go to avocados. These are most often so over ripe that a prod of the fruit starts it wobbling, the insides are liquid, totally yuk. This is not confined to avocados, mangos, kiwis and bananas can also be found in what I consider to be a state of self-contained liquefaction. It is possible to find acceptable produce but a diligent search operation has to be conducted.
- Bread. Libyan bread is great, flatbreads, wholemeal rolls and pittas are all freshly baked on site for the bakery outlet at Tuesday Market along with a selection of Danish style pastries, what’s not so good is the ersatz western sliced loaf which is dry when fresh and tasteless. There is also a section selling Arabic pastries in various forms but mostly based on sugar syrup, coconut and pistachios and all completely delicious. So much so that visits to that counter have to be strictly rationed.
Apart from the demolished buildings of which the Gaddafi compound is a shining example there is not too much in the way of fighting related damage to be seen. Compared to other places I have been to Tripoli got off fairly lightly, even glass fronted structures seem to have largely escaped the attentions of Kalashnikov wielding youths. So I was quite amused to pull up alongside a pick-up truck in the morning crawl to work that had more holes than metal in some of the panels. As my driver explained, this had been used by one of the militias during the revolution and had attracted more than its fair share of 7.62mm air conditioning technology, either that or the truck had been left parked across someone’s driveway. I suppose the driver tells tales of daring do when asked why he is behind the wheel of this motorised colander, could be he customised the vehicle himself just to impress but enough speculation and on with the rest of this less than epic saga.
Last week Tripoli airport was closed by a militia from a town some 80 km from the city. They were protesting about the alleged kidnapping or detention of their commander who was on his to Tripoli. The story goes that he was stopped at a police checkpoint and it was pointed out that he did not have a permit for his firearms or for the two tanks in his possession. Not unreasonably he was detained by the police for these infringements. To this point everybody is in agreement with the story but from here on things get a bit hazy. The official version is that he was sent on his way after his toys were confiscated; however he hasn’t been seen in public since being taken into custody.
There are two theories being promoted, firstly that he’s been deep sixed by the authorities but where is the body, plenty of building sites around but none of them are working so becoming part of the support structure isn’t possible, lots of desert but what with shifting sands and all that means a good chance of later discovery. Of course there is the tried and tested method beloved of Idi Amin of feeding the presidential crocodiles. While there is no presidential saurian pool here I have been assured by various locals that the departed Leader was not above taking unwanted friends to the zoo for a private tour after hours so who knows, maybe it’s become a tradition.
The second possibility being put around will certainly delight international conspiracy fans. I am reliably informed that a foreign government, USA, UK or France, through their spy agency, CIA, SIS or DGSE, lifted the commander on his release by the police and spirited him away to some dark and distant hole in the ground with the intention of having a chat over a cup of coffee. Evidently he is/was supposed to have some knowledge regarding the location of a Gaddafi son who has not yet been located or who may indeed be a guest of this particular militia while he is asked politely about bank account numbers and other mundane matters pertaining to missing millions.
While all this has been going on the commander’s men have decided to stage their idea of a non-violent protest at Tripoli Airport and set off in convoy from their home town. Not only do they drive a convoy of some sixty heavily armed, and in some cases armoured, vehicles some 80 km along the main highway without anyone in the police or official military wondering what was going on, they then drive straight onto the runway and surrounding areas simply by bypassing the guarded entrance and driving through the perimeter from scrubland. All that was needed to complete this attention seeking exercise was to park a truck equipped with an anti-aircraft cannon under each plane parked on the tarmac and point the muzzles upwards towards wing fuel tanks. Instant airport closure and suspension of flights was the obvious reaction of the authorities.
Eventually the sort of forces of law and order arrived, the majority being a militia who seemed to take control of the situation convincing the aggressors to depart peacefully, albeit taking all their weaponry with them to use as a bargaining tool in the next round of discussions, such is life.
As some of you will know I sometimes take time to become a bit serious and contemplative, I’m not all humour and cynicism and I’d like to relate a recent experience to you. A few days ago I had the humbling experience of visiting the British Military Cemetery in Tripoli, a monument to some thirteen hundred commonwealth and allied servicemen. Access is via the now disused and largely overgrown grounds containing an Italian cemetery and various scattered graves and memorials to other nationalities and religions. As I approached the steps leading up to a low metal gate I really did not know what to expect. Before coming here there had been reports in the media of mindless vandalism at the British cemetery in Benghazi so I had no idea what scene would greet me. Imagine my surprise as laid out before me was an immaculate vista of lush green lawns and simple white headstones interspersed with low growing flowers and shrubs. A central cross rose into the clear blue sky on a day when the weather could not have been more perfect for such a visit.
I wasn’t looking for any particular names amongst the fallen, this was more a time for reflection, contemplation and peace. It was so very hard to believe I was in a city which had been involved in a very recent violent and bloody civil war, rebellion or revolution depending on your outlook. Although the walls are not particularly high the traffic seemed very far away and muted, the loudest sounds were the water sprinklers and the clipping of the shrubs by the three gardeners working quietly but efficiently to maintain the appearance of this oasis. Those of you who have visited the cemeteries of World War One in France and Belgium that like Tripoli are part of the estate looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission would find no difference in the standard of care and attention to detail between the massive memorials to the dead of the trench warfare that characterised the Battle of the Somme and this far smaller reminder of another conflict.
Here there aren’t the rows of stones with the same regimental crest on them from when whole platoons, companies or even regiments were decimated in a single engagement. You might find four or five Royal Air Force aircrew possibly from the same aircraft, or headstones bearing the Royal Armoured Corps badge where comrades in the same tank died as they had fought, together. There are Merchant Navy and Royal Navy seamen, men from The Africa Pioneer Corps and Queen Victoria’s Own Madras Sappers & Miners. A wide spectrum of religions is represented here; alongside the Christians are Jewish soldiers, Hindus, Moslems and Sikhs, at peace together, what a difference to the world outside those gates.
I am grateful not only to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission who are responsible for the upkeep of these cemeteries in sometimes some not very friendly parts of the globe but also to my driver for finding his way to the only entrance and also to my interpreter, both of whom gave me the chance to walk around alone with my own thoughts. A final observation, this cemetery contains the graves of service personnel who died in the region post 1945 as well as some British citizens, one as young as ten months, makes you think doesn’t it.
With that picture in your mind I will finish this episode with a fond farewell and goodnight everybody.