Web exclusive, April 8, 2011
Perspectives from abroad
On the road to Benghazi
by Ben Barrows
Editor’s note: This column is the third installment in Ben Barrows’ series in which he documents his experiences in Egypt and Libya as a humanitarian aid worker for the International Rescue Committee.
Crossing the border into eastern Libya was straightforward. After driving through the no-man’s land beyond the last Egyptian post, we stopped at the Libyan gate. A few young men wearing civilian clothes and carrying AK-47s waved our vehicle to the side of the road. When they observed that we were foreigners, they smiled and welcomed us to Libya. Our passports were taken into a nearby building, and were soon returned without stamps or further instructions. Since the entry point was controlled by anti-government forces, our entry was illegal, but we were nevertheless free to continue our trip.
Our destination for the day was Benghazi, nearly 800 kilometers from where we’d started that morning in Marsa Matrouh, Egypt. Our driver, Mohammed, was a very pleasant 25-year-old from Benghazi who’d lived in the U.K. for a few years and dreamed of becoming an airline pilot. He’d been saving up for flight school in the U.S. when the revolution began in February. Now he piloted his mother’s car with me and my three companions through the Libyan desert. The road was straight for miles at a stretch, landscape rocky and barren all around for as far as the eye could see. Nearly 90 percent of Libya is desert, but the few green areas we saw on our trip were amazingly lush and lovely—reminiscent of Tuscany, a legacy of the Italian colonial period.
While we drove, we discussed the coming days in Benghazi. Our goal was to assess humanitarian needs in and around the city, to understand what role there might be for the International Rescue Committee to be of assistance. Over the few days we’d spent in Marsa Matrouh we’d had the benefit of talking to some humanitarians and journalists who had come out of Libya. Over some beers with a group of Brazilian journalists I’d learned that the anti-government fighters were quite friendly towards foreigners. They’d fully grasped the importance of documenting the revolutionary struggle and the key role of media in turning the world’s eyes to their cause. Security on the roads from the border to Benghazi was described as good, but the shifting lines of battle east of the city made travel beyond the city riskier.
After hours on the desert road we were lulled into contemplative silence, anxious about what lay ahead. We had the name of a hotel to stay at, the telephone numbers of a few contacts at other humanitarian agencies in the city, satellite communications equipment and cash to pay our way.
Every couple of hours we would come upon checkpoints. The farther west we traveled, the better armed and more officious they became. As a native of Benghazi, Mohammed was our golden ticket. After showing our foreign passports, a brief chat and a perfunctory look in the car, we’d be waved on. The last few checkpoints before the city were more intense: they were guarded by tanks, barbed wire and uniformed men who had defected to the revolution. These soldiers had more formal training than the armed civilians we’d encountered earlier. Despite our anxieties, the men at the checkpoints were generally courteous, and we were never subject to anything more stressful than getting out of the vehicle while they probed our luggage.
We entered the outskirts of Benghazi in the late afternoon, and I was mildly surprised that we found ourselves in rush-hour traffic. Anti-government graffiti was spray-painted on the buildings we rolled past, and a few that Mohammed identified as government offices had been set on fire, the black scorch marks and broken windows a testament to the swift violence of the revolution.
At a traffic light a sedan full of young men pulled up behind us. The hood of the car had a large green, black and red sticker with a white crescent and star in the middle—the Libyan flag, which has been chosen as a symbol of the revolution. When the men noticed our obvious foreignness, they smiled and called out words of welcome in Arabic and broken English. As our cars diverged at the intersection they waved the ‘V’ sign out the windows. It felt like an auspicious beginning to our stay in Benghazi.