Posts tagged ‘Libya’

Letter from Libya IV – Looking Back

Sent on 10th July 2012, in this letter our correspondent mentions previous trips to the country, meeting some well-known (but now deceased) individuals and more about the job and life in Tripoli.

A request has been received from a reader of this infrequent publication to start this contribution to world education with an explanation of a term I used in the last episode. “Murally dyslexic” is derived from mural, a wall painting, and dyslexic, a reading disorder, and basically means unable to read the writing on the wall, in other words didn’t see something obvious on the way. Ok with that out of the way on with the story.

This might be a good time to reflect on previous visits to Libya when himself was still in charge. I have been here on two assignments before. On the first one back at the end of the last century I saw hardly any of the country except the airport, for far longer than I would have liked to, and desert. The project, of which I had a very small part, was to build a temporary theatre so that the Colonel could entertain the leaders of other African nations attending a summit with the story of the Great Man Made River (GMMR) Project. This was to be a rather cheesy audio-visual presentation depicting this son of the desert standing up in an open top Land Rover charging across the desert leading a horde of mounted warriors in flowing robes. The purpose of this was to portray the aforementioned Leader as the saviour of Libya who discovered an immense wealth of pure water in aquifers under the Southern Sahara. I believe the truth is a bit more mundane in that companies drilling test boreholes looking for black gold instead found water, and lots of it. Now water is pretty much near the top of the must have list along with oxygen and a decent Merlot, or maybe a Pinotage to show some solidarity with my South African readers, but was to these guys a very big disappointment so up came the drill bit and the hole was capped. Several years later somebody had the bright idea that maybe this water could be useful in improving the lives of the Libyan people.

Now the project itself was the sort of thing that generates statistics beloved of statistics nerds. You know the sort of thing, trucks travelled so many times the distance to the nearest star, how many millions of standard elephants were equivalent to the weight of concrete used and a whole host of equally useless facts. The GMMR is in itself an amazing feat of civil engineering and does deliver pure clean drinking water to virtually every Libyan household but there has to be a downside. Is the water coming out of the aquifer system faster than it went in. There seems to be the same sort of profligate use of this precious resource that the UK succumbed to when, unlike the Norwegians, oil was being pumped ashore and sold as fast as possible. There’s nothing particularly wrong with using intelligent watering systems to keep well-tended public spaces green but does it make sense to water patches of ground which may have been parks before but are now just ad hoc rubbish dumps.

As a footnote to this I have to say that after all the work setting up a huge temporary structure and all the associated technology in the middle of one of the biggest sand traps in the world the guest of honour never turned up, In fact the only people not associated with the project to witness the spectacle were a bunch of unfortunate locals roused out of their beds to act as an audience for Libyan TV to film the event.

Visit number two was some eight years ago to provide some technical support for a webcast of a panel session between Gadhafi and two economic academics with Sir David Frost acting as moderator. The recording took place in Sebah which is in the south of the country and the team flew from Tripoli on a scheduled internal flight to be met at the airport by a fleet of brand new white Mercedes. Having set everything up and rehearsed to death the arrival of the head man was preceded not with a fanfare but with the jamming of the mobile phone network lest his movements were reported or some enterprising soul dialled a number connected to that well-known Czech product, Semtex. The session went well enough and I have to say that meeting Sir David was a real pleasure, an absolute gentleman albeit very frail.

Bizarrely I was asked to meet the Colonel afterwards, I presume it was so the local press could feature a downtrodden citizen of the Great Satan’s poodle receiving words of wisdom from the author of that best seller, The Little Green Book. I can’t even remember what he said, instead I was struck by his posture, that world-famous far away stare, never looking directly at anyone. For all his psychotic reputation I couldn’t help thinking that he looked like a camel with bad indigestion.

After the show he put a private 727 at our disposal for the flight back to Tripoli. The plane was fitted out like DFS showroom, (a cheap and tacky soft furnishings company in the UK) but without the taste and refinement, big chairs, marble coffee tables and gold-plated seat belt buckles. Plus side of the entire trip, getting to see Leptis Magna, the Roman city 120km east of Tripoli. Three of us spent the best part of a day there just walking around at our own pace without a guide or minder. So, surrounded by all this history what do audio-visual technicians head for, the amphitheatre, to be duly impressed by the acoustics where the occupant of every seat could hear an actor projecting his voice from the stage. I hope to go back but probably not during this assignment.

I have to admit that Tripoli was a lot safer when I was here before, very few weapons were in circulation and walking round the Medina at night was a pleasant experience. Indeed it seemed that mere possession of a spent round was enough to earn the offender slightly more than a severe talking to. Even so I was rather surprised when one of the youngsters who have been providing security at the centre, before the recent arrival of large numbers of army, pulled a small semi-automatic pistol from the back of his jeans. Seeing my interest the conversation soon got round to the subject of what weapons the lads had managed to acquire and keep hold of during the revolution. It transpired that all of them had the obligatory Kalashnikov assault rifle but some had gone beyond that. Amongst the assorted weaponry were hand grenades, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG), machine guns and one chap proudly announced that at home he had a pick-up truck with an anti-aircraft cannon mounted in the load bed. There was even some talk of an enterprising youth who had secreted away a multiple launch rocket system (MLRS).

If I return to the country I have an invitation to go to a firearms range and have a boys toys away day with an assortment of instruments of war. The picture I want for the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association magazine, Pull, is of me in the driving seat of the anti-aircraft cannon and caption it “Extreme Skeet Shooting”.

As is usual when working in potential hot spots there has to be a series of plans to fall back on if the security situation deteriorates. These range from being aware of potential threats, to packing and carrying the Go bag, to actually leaving the country.

There are three options, first option is to head for Tripoli Airport and by air to Cairo, second by ferry to Valetta and third by road to Tunisia as the border is only two hours drive away. Some genius has decided that Cairo is a safe haven, I sometimes wonder if they are looking at my world or a parallel rose-tinted universe. I would not regard Cairo as a safer destination than Valetta and given the closeness of Malta and the wide choice of flights from Luqa to the UK then Valetta would be my preferred option. A further plus is that I have good friends there who I am sure would afford me a warm welcome, thrust a beer in my hand and then ask me what I was doing lowering the tone of their country.

Some time ago I used the phrase “Curly Colonel” to refer to the now interred former despot. When using that same wording in conversation with local colleagues I noticed that a few smiles were creeping into the conversation so eventually I decided to ask why. It turned out that the inner circle of hangers-on and grovelers decided to imitate their slightly off centre leader. In Iraq this took the form of immense moustaches in order to pay homage to Saddam, although it’s a reasonably safe guess to assume that anybody sporting a more luxuriant growth than The Moustache himself would earn a 9mm employment termination notice and a quick trip to the River Tigris, there to join the rest of the detritus flowing out of Bagdad. In Libya the worship took the form of curly hair styles similar to that favoured by the leader. Those indulging in this particular version sycophantic idolatry quickly became known as Curlies.

In a previous episode I described some of the features of this rather opulent conference facility. Today I will take you on a tour of a part of the building which was definitely not open to the public. Just off the VIP are with its grand furnishings is a small suite of rooms. Entered via an ante-room where an aide would greet visitors and security detail would wait to deal with any threat there is a small but expensively furnished hexagonal lounge about five metres across. Moving on brings you into a bedroom of a similar size with a huge bed and fitted wardrobes that definitely did not come from IKEA. Interestingly this bedroom was constructed with the only bullet prof window in the building. Finally on to the crowning glory of this pied-a-terre, the bathroom. This is approximately the size of a reasonable apartment boasting a basin that has the look and feel of a piece of Lalique glassware, huge walk in shower of the type with numerous jets from both sides and above, touch screen control in the shower itself for water temperature, pressure and sound system and, in slightly dubious taste, a light fitting around the shower head that changes colour. The toilet is furnished in a similar subtle style with bronze sink, soap dispensers, and a marvellously ornate mirror enabling anyone interfacing with the porcelain an opportunity to examine in detail their facial muscle control.

I suppose it’s fairly obvious who was intended to be the principal occupant of the suite and although we do not know if he was here during the revolution one of his sons certainly hid out here before popping up in the Rixos hotel next door much to the amazement of the journalists in the five-star siege conditions there. Rumours abound about secret tunnels ranging in size from barely big enough for an average man to underground railway networks. I haven’t found a tunnel here yet but I’m still looking, there is one locked steel that won’t open unless the correct finger is scanned. Now if this was you know who’s private exit the only way we might find out what lies beyond is to go and dig up a former dictator and remove a digit or ten, if don’t know which finger he favoured it doesn’t make sense to just take the one and have to go back if the first choice is wrong.

And finally, I was on the way to work last week when, as the car came to the top of a highway flyover and central Tripoli was spread out before me looking for all the world like a bumper bucket of Lego bricks thrown onto a garbage dump, I saw that a cloud had drifted in from the sea. The weather was quite clear but this particular cloud could only manage to get a third of the way up the 15 floor Radisson Blu hotel. Typical I though, even the bloody clouds round here can’t be bothered to get up in the morning.

As I am looking at a late finish on what is now election day I will say goodbye and lean back in the chair for a snooze.

Letter from Libya III – A bit about work

Sent on 28th June 2012, in this letter our correspondent talks about finding somewhere to do the job he has been asked to do.

So far I haven’t said much about work, largely because it’s been a slow process, first of all to identify a suitable venue to hold press conferences and then to actually get anything done.

One of the places we were shown was the Welcome to Islam Centre, a massive complex in Tripoli with, we were assured, a perfect hall on campus which could be made available. An appointment was made to survey the proposed auditorium and on the due date and time we turned up at the Centre. The Welcome in the Centre’s title was clearly a sentiment that was not embraced by the on-site security team provided by one of the many militias in Tripoli. This bunch of children with guns had decided to make the Centre their turf, which they marked out in the traditional manner (No, not peeing up the lampposts). This was accomplished by parking pick-up trucks with anti-aircraft weapons mounted in the load bed, the vehicle of choice for the young “man about town”, by the once imposing arched entrance. On entering the administration building it fast became obvious that this was probably not going to work out. After being asked to sit down in the smoke-filled lobby and wait, we waited, and waited and waited until eventually a militia member deigned to escort us to the magnificent quarters that had been identified as suitable for our purpose.

One of the pre-requisites in the selection criteria for a media centre is that it should be in an area which promotes the country in a positive manner. Unfortunately while this area shows a fairly average view of Tripoli the pictures of burnt out cars, semi demolished buildings and rubbish filled streets do not really promote the sort of image that you want to go out of your way to show the world’s press. This theme is continued within the walls of the Centre and augmented by the militia children dressed in their desert camouflage trousers set of with designer T-shirts and the latest products, possibly genuine, from Adidas and Nike. Add to this a liberal selection of the latest toys from “Guns R Us” and you get an idea of how long it will be before Thomas Cook is featuring this place.

Our escort/guide proudly showed us what was obviously his pride and joy but was in effect a small town theatre without the plush. A small stage at the front with tiered seating for an audience of maybe three hundred was the limit of the facilities, no space for broadcast media to set up their tripods, no projection facilities, no air conditioning, no chance. Although the decision process took Nano seconds for the sake of politeness, an essential habit in a place awash with weaponry, we looked around, feigned interest, and asked seemingly pertinent questions. Then, with a round of handshakes, left as fast as decently possible.

Onward to the preferred choice, the Tripoli International Convention Centre, TICON. At this stage I could pad out this week’s offering with a whole host of facts and figures concerning tons of concrete and steel, square metres of glass and kilometres of wiring. Instead I will offer just one quite remarkable piece of information. This whole place was constructed in just two hundred and sixty days. To judge for yourselves just how impressive this feat was you will have to Google and read more there. [Or just follow the link, Ed.]

This imposing edifice is a cathedral of marble floors, immense one-off designer light fittings, over the top furniture and enough technology to refit Starfleet in its entirety not just the Enterprise. This must have been one of those projects where the client said “State of the Art” without saying how much or more importantly wondering how it was all going to be maintained once the various construction teams and specialists had gone back to their huge houses and by then even bigger bank accounts, in Turkey. The client was the previous regime which really just means himself or immediate family, all well-known for their grandiose ideas but not for thinking things through logically.

Things may well have worked out differently had it not been for the revolution of 2011. On two separate occasions that year a team from Istanbul turned up to carry out the required training for the audio-visual technicians that had been appointed to the centre. Only the first two weeks of what should have been a total of two months in-depth knowledge transfer was actually accomplished. I can only assume that the Turks were a bit nervous in the build-up to actual civil hostilities and not being murally dyslexic they decided to bug out.

At this point I will relate an interesting and very relevant little story. The natural tendency of a population rising up against the incumbent regime is to go on an orgy of looting and wholesale destruction particularly against facilities which represent those that they are in conflict with, for example the Gadhafi compound in Tripoli with its fortifications, grandiose accommodation and network of tunnels. This has been comprehensively trashed by the populace with not a little help from NATO aircraft. So TICON would have been a very tempting target both for those intent on liberating furnishings, lighting and plumbing fittings, carpets etc. and the by now heavily armed citizenry wanting to loose off the odd magazine or three from their recently acquired AK47’s.

In normal revolutions the vast acreage of the convention centre’s glass frontage would have been an overwhelming temptation, a bit like a greenhouse or cold frame presents itself to a schoolboy with a catapult. However the damage has been minimal and no looting occurred at all thanks to the actions of a small band of young local guys who had been employed there. They formed themselves into a committee with the intention of preserving the building, its contents, and hopefully their jobs. During the course of an at times very violent and bloody revolution/civil war these guys persuaded the various armed groups and individuals that the centre was an asset that now belonged to the Libyan people and as such should be left intact for the benefit of the people. Amazingly enough they were listened to even when one lunatic turned a heavy calibre truck mounted weapon on a corner of the building and caused significant but localised damage. Some credit has to go to the designers and builders, the steel and mesh part of the decorative support on the outside of the building absorbed a fair bit of the punishment being handed out and the toughened/layered construction glass, while not being bullet proof, did not fall apart on receiving the first round.

So back to the main theme, the technology in this building is extremely complex and, apart from the audio-visual systems, there appears to have been no training on the building services. Large segments of the air conditioning don’t work, plumbing is being neglected and mere mention of the building data network and CAT5 structured cabling produces some of the blankest stares since British Members of Parliament had their expenses claim procedures and rules explained to them. However on the initial and several subsequent visits the staff were at great pains to point out that everything worked, especially the four vast video walls in the main circular auditorium. Most of the systems do work but only in a reduced capacity, the video walls have maybe fifty per cent of the LCD units working on a good day, a bad day is when someone has really been playing with the control software and then nothing works. Either way it’s not a good position to be in.

So I greeted the news that the original Turkish installation company is about to send a specialist team over, not only to correct the faults but also to train any newly employed would be audio-visual technicians with a goodly amount of joy tempered with a healthy sprinkling of pessimism. At the time of writing no definite date has been given for the arrival of the Turkish techies, I will wait and see.

I won’t be giving an inch by inch description of the centre as the sheer scale of the decoration and fittings would occupy an entire volume. Suffice to say there are designer light fittings, one-off pieces, in all spaces and rooms some of which are just huge and all cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even the restrooms get the treatment with solid bronze sinks and fittings and mirrors that would not be out of place in Versailles. Having said that, looking for loo paper in this place is a fruitless exercise and carrying your own roll is the only answer.

In due course I will talk more about some of the features of the complex but for now I shall move on to something else.

I had to go to the bank a few days ago to cash an expenses cheque. Now the bank is a monument to procedures and form filling. Not only is a form of identity required for cashing but they have to take a copy of your passport, the cheque has to be signed in red ink, a colour traditionally reserved for my bank account statements, and only hundred dollar notes are kept at the tills, other denomination involve the teller disappearing into the bowels of the building to reappear some time later clutching the smaller denominations.

However I digress, the real purpose of this segment is to describe a part of the route that we took to get there. We passed through an area which seemed to be composed of lots of little establishments best described as combination stock yard/abattoir/butchers shops. Pens of very worried sheep sit next to a slaughtering area. Therefore the animals in the pen are witness to one of their mates being picked out, hung upside down and having the full halal routine done on them. Eventually the carcases are moved into the shop proper but not before collecting a dose of traffic pollution and serving as a restaurant for assorted insect life. It’s almost enough to make one go veggie. Please note I only said ‘almost’ although chicken may be off the menu again when I get home. I’m already planning the five hour stop-over in Rome airport to include as many different pork products, salami, ham, whatever, as I can find and will certainly buy some carry out pig in one form or another for the Rome-London leg of the trip just in case the in-flight snack contains chicken.

With the happy thought that the time taken to write this has brought me a bit closer to going home I shall bid you all a fond farewell until the next time.

Letter from Libya II – Tuesday Market

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.

Letter from Libya I

Sent on 26th May 2012, in this letter our correspondent describes his arrival in Tripoli on May 17th 2012 ahead of the election of the first post-Gaddafi parliament (eventually held on the 7th July that year) to work on a contract fitting out the media centre.

This latest communication from your globe-trotting scribe comes from the city of Tarabulus Al-Gharb, a thriving port and home to some 2.2 million inhabitants. With the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean Sea breaking gently upon the beach this idyllic location……..Hang on, who am I kidding, even giving the place its Arabic name cannot change the fact that I am actually in Tripoli, capital city of Libya, home of the late and little lamented Muammar Gaddafi/Qadhafi/Gadafy.

You may ask what I am doing in a country that has only just decided to become a democracy after a fairly bloody civil war spiced up with a fair amount of air delivered explosive ordnance courtesy of the UN Security Council and several members of NATO. Couple of reasons not the least being a well-paid contract doing some audio-visual consultancy, the other being it’s been a while since I’ve worked anywhere out of the ordinary and away from the normal environment most of us find ourselves in on a daily basis.

I arrived here on 17th May to be given the sort of welcome that I have come to expect as a result of two previous visits to work on projects instigated at the behest of the former camel faced ruler. This by now traditional arrival ceremony involves forgetting to send the car to pick me up at Tripoli airport. My sense of humour becomes seriously strained after almost two hours of fending off taxi drivers and flies, equal in numbers and tenacity but personally I think that the flies win on personality. Eventually I was retrieved from the oven of the arrivals area and taken to what is to be my home until whenever my work is completed.

I suppose now would be a good time to comment on the local driving. The most common style seems to be to follow the lane markings as if there is some optical guidance system under the vehicle to keep it centred on the white lines where these exist. Overtaking and undertaking are done with the minimum of clearance and in such a way that a fusillade of car horns and possibly firearm waving would be the inevitable result in many countries. Here such behaviour is accepted and everyone just carries on with minimal comment and barely a sideways glance. Where no lane markings exist such as on some of the multi-lane freeways driving can only be described as extreme freestyle, anything goes including using what I assume is supposed to be the hard shoulder to undertake at top speed despite the very good chance of a 17 seat taxi bus being stopped to pick up or set down passengers. Traffic calming seems to consist of stripping off the top five centimetres or so of tarmac for about ten metres to encourage cars to come to a virtual stop before hitting the gas again. As is common in a lot of the more anarchic countries traffic lights are considered an advisory device especially if no traffic police are present at the intersection and parking can best be described as abandonment, even if it reduces the road width by fifty per cent.

Enough of what has become an almost traditional comment on the driving habits of a country when it is featured in my jottings, on with the story. After leaving the airport it was decided that I would go to the place where I would be staying. I honestly did not know what to expect and generally I expect the worse but am ready to be pleasantly surprised. Well, surprised I was. The car came through an efficient checkpoint and entered what I can only describe as a holiday village development of the sort seen in Spain or the Canaries. A central piazza with blocks of apartments is surrounded by neat villas, laid out in such a way as to avoid a feeling of being crowded, on a gently sloping site leading down to a rocky coastline. The villas are equipped to a very high standard with all the appliances necessary for an extended stay, good size bedrooms, air conditioning and lounge with a satellite TV system.

The villas are shared and I’ve been lucky enough to have a housemate that not only do I get on with but he’s also a very good cook. We try to take turns cooking dinner which stops us getting bored with our own cooking as well as being a far more efficient way of using time and resources than trying to cook separately.

The first few days have been spent meeting the people I will be working with, some new but also a goodly collection of familiar faces from previous assignments in strange places. Although I’ve worked in Libya before I never really spent much time in Tripoli, just a couple of days at the end of one show and then I took the opportunity to visit the Roman city of Leptis Magna approximately 130km along the coast toward Benghazi rather than hang around in the capital. Hence I have been trying to get my bearings and get an idea of how the city is laid out and where the buildings and places relevant to my job are located in relation to one another, the GPS on my phone is extremely useful in this respect although when first fired up it was convinced I was in Northampton.

As we only have limited transport resources shopping is a bit of a problem and sometimes the on site supermarket is the only solution. In common with captive audience shops everywhere the prices are a bit high although there is an adequate variety of foodstuffs and household goods. The one commodity I will not be buying there is western chocolate. Mars, Kit Kat etc. are fairly exorbitant but for sheer cheek the prize has to go to the guy who priced up the Christmas sized tin of Quality Street, sold for around £5.00 in Sainsburys, here the local price translates to approximately £24.00, absolutely no chance of that going in the basket I can tell you.

As I finish this first communication on a very pleasant early evening I can look out across the Mediterranean from my chair and reflect on the fact that this is by no means the worst place I’ve ended up in. I hope by the time I manage to put together the next poorly crafted missive together that things are still relatively peaceful here and that there are no dramas to report or comment on.

A Death in Libya

So the inevitable has happened and the use of force in Libya, above and beyond the remit given in UNSC 1973, has allegedly resulted in the deaths of members of the Gaddafi family, specifically his youngest son and three of his grandsons. Muammar Gaddafi is reported to have been in the residence at the time but is unharmed.

If anyone stills believes that Western governments are neutral in this conflict (i.e only protecting civilians) can they please make themselves known? The rest of us would like to gaze upon you like visitors to asylums used to gawp at the inmates in Victorian times.

This conflict is a quagmire. It was only ever going to be a quagmire and I have said so before. Now that we are apparently openly attempting assassination we find ourselves firmly lodged deep within the excrement and only heading in one direction: further in.

Killing Gaddafi and his sons may well bring about the end of this phase of the conflict but the next phase will likely be worse as people and organisations, both internal and external, attempt to fulfil the power vacuum created.

I, for one, am not looking forward to it. I wonder if our politicians, who have been too busy strutting their stuff and demonstrating what wonderful toys they have, are similarly concerned?

Libya: What next?

Last Thursday in the Telegraph, Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP – formerly Defence Secretary (April 1992 to July 1995) and Foreign Secretary (1995 to 1997) in the Major administration and currently chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee – wrote an opinion piece, at the end of which he concluded that we should be arming the Libyan opposition.

His opening statement

So far so good in Libya, but what about the endgame? Gaddafi can no longer use his air force because of the no-fly zone. His navy can no longer bombard towns because of the naval blockade imposed under UN authority. His army is losing tanks, artillery and other heavy weapons because of bombing and precision missiles. This is not just a no-fly zone. It is almost a no-combat zone, and all the better for it.

sums up the situation perfectly as it stood up until the opposition forces started advancing once again. A stalemate situation, reached only because Gaddafi’s forces are no match for Western air-power and cruise missiles. Where though is the end game? Plenty of people, including myself, were asking this a week ago when we first got involved.

What possible endgames exist?

1. A long term stand-off a la Iraq and the no-fly zones there;
2. Gaddafi wins; or
3. The opposition wins.

The truth of the matter at the moment is options 2) and 3) are not viable. Gaddafi can’t attack because his forces would be destroyed from the air and his opponents, as demonstrated by their Italian like progress before UN 1973 was enforced, haven’t got the fire-power. That then leaves option 1) – and with the Americans doing their best to at the very least lessen their involvement, if not get out altogether do the European countries have the wherewithal to keep up an indefinite air and naval embargo? I would say no. And when it falters the conflict will reignite and Gaddafi will probably win.

Rifkind is generally in agreement:

A divided Libya would be inherently unstable, as conflict could break out at any time. It is therefore difficult to see how the no-fly zone could be lifted while Gaddafi remains in charge. Otherwise, he would be in a position to resume unrestrained attacks on Benghazi and the east of the country as soon as the allies had withdrawn.

So what is to be done? Withdraw and let Gaddafi get back to doing what he was doing, force him out ourselves as has been suggested or move from conflict prevention to openly aiding the opposition?

Rifkind suggests the latter. He believes that we should be openly negotiating and advising those opposed to Gaddafi on how to form a westernised method of government. He doesn’t use those exact words but

… advice and help on how to create the institutions of government, the rule of law and a free media. That is not only urgently needed, but would help ensure that the ultimate replacement for Gaddafi would be a new government supportive of democratic reform, rather than one willing to install a new secular or religious tyranny.

can mean little else.

Haven’t we tried this before recently, in both Afghanistan and Iraq? Neither of those can be said to be a success story even if Iraq is just about on an even keel albeit with underlying tribal and religious tensions. Afghanistan though is a failure where central government has little or no meaning outside of Kabul and tribal loyalty – to one’s warlord – rules.

The talking however means nothing given the current stalemate so he suggests that we break it by arming the opposition. Again, haven’t we tried that before somewhere? Ah yes, Afghanistan when we were using the natives there as proxies in Cold War against the USSR. I don’t think anyone needs to be reminded of precisely how well that turned out.

What do we know of the opposition forces? Wikipedia lists over half a dozen disparate groups which suggests that they themselves are fragmented. Their goal might be clear but if they manage to fulfil it then what happens? A stable government or ethnic and tribal warfare such as has been seen in various hotspots around the world for the last twenty plus years? The former would be nice, the latter more likely as various sides, with ‘victory’ achieved use the vacuum created to settle old scores and create new ones. If somehow a government is formed, then what manner will it take? The competing outside interests of Western, Arabic, Islamic (not always the same thing) and African states will all no doubt try to influence the outcome.

Arming these groups may lead to a short term ‘win’ in the shape of removing Gaddafi but are we just storing up pain for the longer term? If we do arm them sufficiently that they are able to go toe-to-toe with the loyal forces then should we interfere with the ground campaign? If we do we will be actively assisting the opposition in their stated goal of over throwing Gaddafi, creating an unequal playing field and probably causing even more resentment in certain parts of the Middle East and Islamic world. If we don’t and their inexperience leads to them being crushed then we will no doubt have to intervene again to stop the opposition from being utterly destroyed – and the whole cycle starts all over again.

Obviously we should never have interfered in the first place but, since political grandstanding means that we have, the question of where do we go from here needs answering – and quickly. Unfortunately I don’t think it can be and certainly not in any way that can be deemed to be satisfactory.

Politicking whilst Libya burns

Less than a day into enforcement of the no-fly zone over Libya and cracks are apparently appearing in the 2011 edition of the coalition of the willing with the Secretary-General of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, reported to have said the following:

“What has happened in Libya differs from the goal of imposing a no-fly zone and what we want is the protection of civilians and not bombing other civilians.”

Western governments have been quick to respond, knowing that without Arab backing they could find themselves in yet another quagmire. A spokesman for Barack Obama told Reuters:

“The resolution endorsed by Arabs and the UNSC (United Nations Security Council) included ‘all necessary measures’ to protect civilians, which we made very clear includes, but goes beyond, a no-fly zone.”

The difficulty of course stems from the fact that for the coalition to be able to operate a no-fly zone safely, air defences have to be destroyed. Easy enough to do without collatoral damage if they are sitting in the middle of nowhere but as Gaddafi has been taking a leaf from the book written by the Palestinians and embedding them into civilian areas, the chances of non-combatants being killed in suppression raids become almost a near certainty.

Precision guided weapons are designed to be accurate but they are also full of explosive. The warhead on a Tomahawk missile contains 1,000lb of muntions whilst each bomb dropped from aircraft can be double this. All of which adds up to a very large explosion come detonation time. Why make bombs that large? Because when accuracy is measured in meters rather than millimeters, a large explosion makes up for not quite pin-point perfect accuracy.

However I am getting off topic. Back, therefore, to Amr Moussa.

Moussa is an Egyptian and before he became SG of the Arab League he was, from 1991 to 2002, Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Mubarak government. He is also, if opinion polls are to be believed, the current front runner to become the next President of Egypt and, although reports of his candidacy are not confirmed at this time, he has not ruled out standing.

Given that Qatar and the UAE have sent aircraft to support the no-fly zone it would seem at this time that Amr Moussa is guilty of gross politicking. But if so, he isn’t the only one. I’m looking at you, David Cameron, and you, Nicolas Sarkozy.

To fly or not to fly

Under the auspicies of the United Nations (UN), an unelected body whose only legitamacy is derivied from the member states that atually pay attention to it, we find ourselves with an ‘offically’ sanctioned no-fly zone over Libya, the theoretical goal of which is to stop those last remaining opposition strongholds falling to the country’s undemocratic leadership.

Such zones are usually the preserve of national governments and exist in a number of countries for the purposes of keeping unauthorized aircraft away from facilities that are deemed to be sensitive. They are not always however and previous to the the decision of March 17th 2011 there had been two no-fly imposed upon countries (Iraq and Bosnia) following activity at the UN.

The legality and morality of such decisions aside (I’ll leave you to the read the opposing views of Mark Wallace and Anna Raccoon amongst others on this), it is the practicality of enforcing the gradiose ideas of our politicans which is worrying. Just keeping a plane in the air takes a staggering number of people in all fields from maintenance to kitchen all of whom will be replaced over time as tours of duty end.

The 12 years of the two Iraqi no-fly zones collectively saw over 231,000 sorties flown in total for both the northern and southern zones and involved something like 50,000 personnel over the period between the two Gulf Wars.

The 32 month no-fly zone over Bosnia in the mid-90s resulted in 100,420 sorties flown by 239 aircraft and required all told 4,500 personnel from 12 countries and they operated out of five bases plus carriers. The result? Reasonably successful in preventing flights by fixed wing aircraft but not so much by helicopters – partly due to Serbs and Croats disguising them in order to sow doubt in the minds of the pilots enforcing the zone.

Logisitically a no-fly zone is, like all military operations, a resource sink and some of the considerations that the planners would have taken into account for this operation include:

1. How much of Libya is this no-fly zone going to cover? Libya is the 17th largest country in the world by area and four times the size of Iraq, although a lot of it is desert and most of the populations centres are on the North African coast.

2. If bombers are to be used, Libya’s air defences will need to be suppressed – either by the bombers or by cruise missiles. Use of the latter however will require good intelligence and a lack of ground movement unless real time data from Predator drones can be fed to the Tomahawks post launch. The good(-ish) news however is that the deal to upgrade to current Russian tech was squashed by the Russians themselves.

3. Whilst it was once said that an army marches on its stomach, the currency of this operation will, after personnel, be fuel. The closer the staging area, the longer planes can remain in the air, which cuts down on the number of aircraft needed. Libya might not be far away but when dealing with aircraft with ranges of less than 2,000 miles (and much less if involved in prolonged combat or flying at low level) then every mile is precious.

4. The end goal. So far as I can see from reading the text of the UN resolution there isn’t one which means that if the situation in Libya isn’t resolved quickly, all of the nations involved are going to be looking at rotating new forces in to replace those already there. In some cases, such as with the French carrier Charles de Gaulle, no like for like replacement exists so there exists the potential for a reduction in the number of assets available to be used as time goes by.

As always when it comes to military interventions, the easy bit is the talking. The difficulty starts with turning the flowery language so beloved of politicians and diplomats into action and once the bodies start mounting up things will only get harder.