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Web exclusive, April 14, 2011
Persepectives from Abroad
On edge in Benghazi

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by Ben Barrows

Editor’s note: This is the last installment of Barrows’ series, in which he documented his experiences in Egypt and Libya as a humanitarian aid worker. Depending on future assignments, Barrows may share more of his experiences in the Middle East at a later date.

The shooting in Benghazi was on and off, day and night. Sometimes it was near enough to be loud, and would cause an instinctive ducking and looking around. Sometimes it was farther in the distance, duller.

It turns out that almost all of the shots were fired in celebration of the revolution, or in the case of the anti-aircraft batteries that made much more authoritative, distant booms, fired as part of the hasty effort to train the newly assembled anti-government force. However, without being able to see who’s doing the shooting, it’s impossible to tell if a shot is being fired in anger or celebration, which can put one rather on edge.

There were armed men all over Benghazi. There were some stationed around strategic areas like government buildings, hotels and the port, and many more piled on the back of trucks. Despite what was a highly militarized and chaotic environment, life continued in the city. Shops were open, people went to work, there were traffic jams and other signs of normal life. The burned-out government buildings and revolutionary graffiti sprayed everywhere and the armed men were the most obvious indicators that the status quo of the last 40 years had been turned on its head.

With our driver Mohammed guiding us, we soon became aware of the subtler changes. There were almost no women on the streets, a sign that the local reaction to the security situation was much more circumspect than the bustle in the downtown area initially indicated. What was most striking, however, was the state of revolutionary euphoria noticeable in nearly everyone to whom we spoke.

My charge was to assess the economic effects of the revolution, so I went to the port facility to speak to officials about the commodities coming into and going out of Benghazi. The men I encountered there were gracious, and several spoke fluent English. Despite my efforts at different lines of inquiry, it was hard to get a substantive answer beyond the general idea that the revolution was a wonderful thing and everything would work out.

Many local businesses opened their warehouses for the revolution—giving away food and goods to revolutionary fighters and their supporters. Consequently, the average price for essential goods had dropped, an unusual circumstance during a conflict.

After a few hours of interviews, it was still not clear how long inventories would last, or if resupply was at all hindered. The ships arriving were filling orders placed before the revolution, so no acute shortages were yet in evidence. The only commodity facing a shortage was LP gas, which households use for cooking. The gas is a by-product of the petroleum refining process at the facility in Ras Lanuf, a town a few hundred kilometers west of Benghazi that had been bombed and recaptured by pro-government forces.

Later, at a meeting with the handful of other international NGOs working in Benghazi, our findings were corroborated. None of the agencies had been able to find evidence of acute humanitarian needs caused by the conflict, apart from delivery of drugs and surgical kits. The optimism, openness and interest in self-reliance were remarkable. At the time, Qaddafi’s forces were making significant gains, so we were asked a number of times to pass on requests for the enforcement of a no-fly zone. It was challenging to explain that I didn’t exactly have NATO’s telephone number.

The hotel where we stayed was full of foreign journalists and a handful of humanitarians. The rebel government council had set up a media room on the second floor, and the area was full of equipment, snaking extension cords, discarded coffee cups and buzzing energy. The adjacent patio was dotted with portable equipment and people sitting to fiddle with their satellite phones or talking in hushed tones.

The armed men guarding the entrance looked menacing but acted friendly, and the nearby group of cabdrivers divided their time between wiping down their cars and arguing over the best parking spaces. Nearby some enterprising youths tended to a cart of Libyan flags they were selling for a couple dollars apiece. Business was brisk.

The air of excitement and optimism changed quickly over the few days we were in Benghazi. Gaddafi’s forces were pushing ever eastward, their superior organization and firepower outmatching the rebels. Ajdabiya, a town 150 km. to the south came under attack on the second day we were in Benghazi. The effect in Benghazi was immediately apparent. Fear of government airstrikes became almost frantic: when firing could be heard people didn’t look around to see where the shooting was coming from, they instead looked up to see what the shooting was at. The armed men around town looked much grimmer, and there was strain in the faces around us.

There are many with pro-government sentiments in Benghazi, but most have kept a low profile since the revolution. The three main hotels in town were identified by their affiliation to the government or the revolution. Our hotel was firmly in the camp of the revolution, the hotel where we had our coordination meeting with the other NGOs was known as neutral, and a third hotel, where we spent the first night, was known as neutral but with pro-government sympathies.

On the morning of what turned out to be our last day in Benghazi we dropped by the third hotel to have a chat with a colleague from another NGO. Waiting in the lobby I looked around at the people in the seating area and nearby café. On our first night the men who seemed to be fixtures of the lobby regarded us with a guarded curiosity. Now that the tide of war was turning against the rebels they stared more brazenly, with an unmistakable air of hostility.

Back at our hotel we found the journalists in exodus. Bags of equipment were piled around the lobby, their owners in animated conversations about the safest routes out of town. We soon heard the unconfirmed reports that Ajdabiya was falling to pro-government forces, which was worrisome because from Ajdabiya the desert highway was a straight shot to Tobruk. If government forces overtook Ajdabiya the road was theirs, and Benghazi could be sealed off, trapping us against the Mediterranean.

There was always the option of paying cash for a boat ride to Italy, but we quickly decided it would be better to leave by road as soon as possible, rather than try our luck at the port.

We were fortunate to have Mohammed at the ready. After hastily packing our bags we loaded up the car and piled in. A few journalists requested rides—their drivers were unavailable—but we didn’t have the space. The rush to leave in a hurry felt a little undignified in the face of a danger that most in Benghazi had no choice but to face from nothing but the shelter of their homes. The atmosphere in car while we drove east was somber.

We made it the 600 km to Tobruk before darkness overtook us and made further travel inadvisable. The hotel on the outskirts of town was full of journalists and humanitarian workers who had pulled out of Benghazi. Some were planning to wait in Tobruk to see if it would again become safe to reenter Benghazi. Others, like us, were heading to the Egyptian border. In the lobby we said our heartfelt goodbyes to Mohammed, whose face was etched with worry to get back to his family in Benghazi and prepare for whatever fate awaited them and the now-faltering revolution.