I guess I should initially prep you for the superfluous amount of war porn written into the following — a course which I have been tasked with covering frequently in 2011. It’s just that, much of the Libyan landscape is blotted with such destruction that it‘s hard to ignore. On the desert road between Benghazi and Sirte, along the Mediterranean Sea, blown out Soviet-legacy tanks lie every 10 miles or so, paths of spectral tread marks chiseled into the tarmac, coming to a short, spasmodic, stop. One minute they are trudging forward, bulldozing, calibrating, firing, the next it’s the tail-end of a Rafale, or an F-16, or a Typhoon fighter overhead and by that point the cruise missiles are already in the air. Then it‘s finalized into this lifeless and blackened state, swathed in Arabic graffiti and with colors to match the rebel flag. There are enough of these haunted ruins, lining the shoulders of the freeway, that it is starting to become predictable.
The power lines show fresh cleaves from shelling as well, some of them even seem systematically slashed, perhaps to pull the linchpin out of rebel communication. From the looks of it, I’d wager the cables whipped around a bit, vivaciously, before they went dead—adding just another distraction to the tempestuous road. The civil war has left its wounds, most of which still have yet to scab: twisted steel relics of a final stand, armadas turned to anthills.
We’re in a Hyundai Accent going 90 mph on the freeway, from time to time overtaking Egyptian Mack trucks that funnel Cleopatra and Ashford cigarettes to the provincial towns. Next to me, in the back, is a Canadian, an ex-Mennonite named Jacob, who’s just fled Damascus for the convoy because he walked in on the mukhabarat (secret police) shaking-down his flat. Seeing his roommate in Syrian police cuffs, he booked it to Lebanon, from there made it to Cairo, and then hitched a ride west with us across the border. He usually rides motorcycles through places like Honduras, Iran, and Bosnia in his free time. Currently, however, his bike has been impounded by the Assad regime back in Syria. And right now, he looks sharply uncomfortable in the backseat of the sedan.
Sitting shotgun is a Scot, Matthew, with a dry wit and a penchant for calling some of these joyboy journalists, “bawbags.” He also watched me get detained in the Dubai airport after I forgot to remove a spent sniper casing in my carry on (it was a crazy day). This is his third tour of Libya in 2011 and he speaks fluently in Amiya Arabic as well as Glasgow grumble.
Finally, behind the wheel, we have Ali, our fixer, who has six CDs to his name that are supposed to last us the seven hour drive: Shania Twain, Chicago, Elvis, Randy Travis, Abba, and Johnny Cash. Let’s just say it’s our fourth time listening to “Ring of Fire.” He also says that he “sins much more than most Muslims,” whatever that means… He doesn’t go into details about it. This is the man who we entrust to safely deliver us to Sirte, and to broker any deals with highway bandits, disgruntled rebels, or Gaddafi loyalists if need be.
Speaking of Gaddafi loyalists, we are headed to the epicenter. Sirte was the last city in Libya to fall, it was the Gaddafi stronghold and the site of the most lucrative oil basin. When Gaddafi’s convoy was hit by militia RPGs in late October, he climbed into a sewer drain in Sirte to protect himself from, what he thought, were NATO drones. That’s where they found him, the rebels, with his golden gun and his Botox Bedouin skin, hiding. The New York Post had one of the best of the daily covers, following Gaddafi’s death, blasting “Killer is a Yankees fan! Had more ’hits’ than A-Rod.” A headline so absurd that it seems to fit all-too-well with that of the bizarro leader himself.
We pass a group of camels grazing next to a flaming rubber dump and Ali informs us that, after the revolution, it is impossible to withdraw more than 750 Dinars a month from the bank. The mandate was implemented to curb cash hoarding and the subsequent violence that tends to follow in a panic-stricken nation. It is a potential harbinger for what might come. We may be caught in the eye of the year’s bloodiest storm. Libya is an interzone, trapped between its borders: Tunisia’s peaceful transition and Egypt’s tumultuous one, the Libyan outcome teetering between the two.
Not far off is a police station, crystallized in soot, RPG-7 holes, and shattered glass. “That’s the strange thing about civil war” Jacob says as we slow for a checkpoint near the rubble, “Everyone works so hard to crush the things that will immediately need to be rebuilt.”
At the checkpoint, there are two Toyota pickups with surface-to-air guns mounted on the flatbeds, their white bodies are scratched brown to the core, as if by some unseen desert beast.
Ali says “sahafi” (which means journalist in Arabic) to the man with the FN rifle around his back and the kufiya around his neck. We bump over three rows of thickly-braided rope, the makeshift speed bumps that proliferate the checkpoints and the man pounds his perpendicular right hand into the flat palm of his left, the international sign for documentation. We present our passports and he flips through them haphazardly, eventually waving us on. It is the tenth time today we’ve done this.
Hours go by in the Hyundai and we’ve switched to “Dancing Queen,” as the scorched facades of lonely structures along the highway make “Ring of Fire” no longer appropriate. Mag International guys with flak jackets are 10 meters off the road, trying to disarm the mine-polluted shoals of the arid landscape, which reminds Matthew of his first tour of Libya in March, when rebels captured a warehouse full of heavy armaments nearby. “They had no way to transport some of the artillery, Grail missile launchers and such, so they strapped them to the backs of camels and walked the canons through the desert. These guys hadn’t a clue how to use the stuff, but they seemed to learn pretty quickly…” Matthew also reads aloud the graffiti on the hole-washed walls. “Gaddafi Shafshoofa” he says following the scrawls right-to-left. Means something like “Gaddafi is a fuzzy-wuzzy.” The vandalism in Libya often hangs with enigma. In Benghazi for example, there are numerous caricatures of Gaddafi with both a Swastika and a Star of David blazoned on his face. The message here is likely to be hate, however antithetical it may seem.
When we pull over so Matthew and Jacob can take a leak, Ali tells me that he sometimes smokes hash. I figure he confides this information in me because we are the only two that smoke cigarettes and hash isn’t a far cry from that. He presents a firm brown brick of the stuff from the nether of his coat and tells me to hold onto it so we can smoke later. Seems like a job for a drug mule if you ask me, but as odd as the request is, Ali isn’t a bad guy and plus, most of the checkpoints we pass have rebels smoking fat plumes of the contraband out of hookahs anyway. So the risk is minimal. I stash the hash under my kufiyain the backseat of the Hyundai when Matthew and Jacob come back and remember Ali saying that he “sins more than most Muslims.”
Dusk is setting in by the time we reach Sirte and it’s becoming painfully obvious that there are zero functioning hotels in the bombed out city. I’ve never been to Baghdad or Mogadishu but from what I’m told, there isn’t a single building void of bullet holes in either. You can blame the aforementioned on sectarian strife or terrorist factions but, what these two cities accomplished in structural damage over a matter of years, Sirte accomplished in a matter of months. After stopping several weary civilians on the crepuscular sidewalks, we are pointed towards the Medina Hotel— a once operational lodge for oil barrens to pass the nights that is now moonlighting as a rebel barracks.
The front of the Medina is cordoned off by more pickups with auxiliary weaponry and rebels with mismatched fatigues— mostly ranging from wooded Vietnam era to digital desert camo (digicam). It’s as if these slipshod combat uni’s somehow legitimize the group as an organized battalion. Briefly the sight brings up memories from my time in Uganda and South Sudan, areas with an inordinate amount of warring militias. These nations use autumn or winter flavored fatigues to distinguish government soldiers from your average bloke with a field jacket and a Kalashnikov. But, by the gates of the Medina, this ragtag troop couldn’t even pass for cantina patrolmen, let alone peacekeepers. Either way, they are hospitable and gregarious, the tea and coffee come out and their leader, Mamouf Al Fazania, (the only one carrying an MP5 submachine gun) sits with his 15 year old son smoking seesha outside.
The entrance hall is obliterated, making for a 10-yard cavity (under the drive-thru breezeway) that is patched with a drainage tarp and pinned to the floor by ammo crates. Above we can see a charred recess where a rocket penetrated. The carpet has been sheared from the lobby staircase, I assume because of bloodstains or other lugubrious damage, and there are numerous bullet holes in the main elevators—obviously rendering them futile.
Despite the rebels’ vigor to make us feel comfortable, there is a pervasively eerie sense that these men might have been Gaddafi supporters, right up to the final fight. Their story of mustering “an underground movement in October,” close to the time of Gaddafi’s death, seems very thin. But we can’t call them on it, lest we be out of shelter for the night. So we listen, grit our teeth, and make eye-gestures at each other while Matthew translates. Later I explore the backrooms, the kind usually off-limits to hotel guests, only to discover more broken glass, RPG gashes (especially in the laundry room), and power-outages.
Soon Ali finds me, crunching around on the refuse, to usher us to the bedrooms. “We have two rooms” he says with a wink. “You and I will have one so we can smoke.” I finger the brick of hash in the coin pocket of my jeans. “Fine” I say.
One flight up and our room has only a double bed, which means me and this Libyan fixer (whose drugs I’m carrying!) are going to be under the same covers tonight. Together. The front lock has been broken through as has the balcony door. Windows are non existent, more bullet holes and most of the amenities have been looted save for a table in the corner. Ali lays the hash on his hand and pastes it with the flame from his lighter, making it pliable. He mixes the hash bits into the tobacco from an L & M light cigarette and says “kahqa” which means “cake” in Arabic. Before removing the filter with his teeth he tells me about the trouble with his family. How his father and brother have scorned him for his apathetic religious habits and his progressive ideology. Pushing the “cake mix” into the cigarette—which we are using because papers are rare to come by in Libya—he tells me it is very hard to go home. We smoke, talk more about the differences between Libya and America, and finally get into the bed with our clothes on. One, because the nonexistent glass panes make the room chilly and two, because I’m not trying to get naked in bed with Ali nor be unprepared for something that may happen suddenly during the night. Gun shots echo periodically, either celebratory or not, through the Sirte nightscape and we turn off the lights.
No more than five minutes later, I feel Ali’s body gently spooning against my backside. I realize that Muslim men often hold hands in public, as a sign of friendship, and it dawns on me that maybe this snuggle gesture is something similar, though still strange. He asks me if I’m ok and I say I would be more comfortable if he moved over. He doesn’t and asks me again if I’m ok. I ask again to please move over but he refuses. Finally he says “Mitch, look me in the eyes and tell me you are ok.” At which point I get it. I immediately wonder if this whole thing was a setup, a way to get me loosened up with the hash and then in bed with him. I wonder if we could have had our own beds, after all, Ali was the one bartering for the rooms in Arabic, away from our only other translator, Matthew. Then I remember, again, that Ali sins more than most Muslims and this might have been his way of signaling to me that we could do it later.
I tell him more forcefully that he needs to move over but he relinquishes only slightly. Ever so slowly, I scoot to the farthest sliver of the bed and keep one eye open for the rest of the night, shortening my breath to remain as quiet as possible.
Morning can’t come fast enough. At 6 AM I am up and gathering my things, while outside the faint cackle of Kalashnikov bursts still reverberate through the crumbling and dead plazas. In front of me, Ali changes out of his sweatpants and into khakis as if in one final, almost desperate, attempt to make something happen. It doesn’t and, quiet proficiently, I rouse Matthew and Jacob out of their heavy slumbers. The four of us make it to the Hyundai without bumping into any of the Medina’s rebels and we are at the culvert where Gaddafi was killed before the sun is up, where Ali waits, silently, in the car… until we are done. Then, like so many others, we leave the shaken city…in a hurry.