Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Crossing

Libya June 17th 2011

Benghazi as a story has been stagnant for while now, just as the frontline has varied little since the last time I was here at the start of the Civil War. However on the western coast is the third largest city in Libya, Misrata after Tripoli the capital held by Gaddafi loyalists, and Benghazi held by the rebels.

It has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and clashes, rebels despartely trying to hang on whilst being pounded by Gadaffi loyalists from three sides. The only side left to them is the sea. The port has become the lifeline for the people and rebels. And the only way into Misrata is by sea, a twenty hour crossing from Benghazi.

9:30pm Thursday 16th June Benghazi Port.

There is a scene of complete chaos and confusion as 700 people congregate in darkness the stern. As families, the injured and rebel reinforcements try to board the C/F Azzurra, a Turkish gambling ship. Shouts of Allah Akbar ring in the air as the mob pushed against barrier in the humid. People waving tickets in the air and screaming at the top of their voices illicit blank responses, from the men on the stern ramp. The only way onto the ship.

Finally the last truck is loaded with what looks like ammunition, we are told its food but I have my doubts. And the crowd surges, all trying not to fall off the edge of the ramp into the harbor waters.

And in the midst of this scene I have the camera out trying to film at the same time as get on the ship. Rick’s line as the crowd momentum finally pushes us thru is “That was insane”.

We had managed to get two small cabins, rather than sleep on the deck but until you have the door opened to your cabin nothing is assured and somehow we had left the vital cabin receipt down in the car deck at the bottom of the 4x4 Land cruiser we have bought with us.

“No paper, no cabin opened”

Was the response from the ship member who we quickly christened Side Show Bob from The Simpson’s, due to his hair.

Martin disappeared down to the bowels and ten minutes later came back brandishing the prize receipt as if it was a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. And cabin doors were opened.

Perhaps saying the place smelt of shit was a bit harsh, and that the sheets pillow and blanket looked they had been rearranged rather than changed. But it is far batter than sleeping on the deck.

Enquiries about when we would depart and met with a shrug and the standard “Inshallah” response. A round of heavy tracer fire lights the sky over Benghazi before I head back to the cabin.

Lying in the dark, I thought to myself this has to be one of the craziest ways to a frontline. Once there, you simply cannot leave when you want. Because the ship is the only way and if they stop running then we will be trapped like every other citizen of Misrata. And we have only bought a one-way ticket.

2:30am, Benghazi. Thru the haze of half sleep I feel the Azzurra slip the berth and head out of harbor. Rolling over, I feel my stomach start to cramp and spasm.

“What a great time to start getting the shit’s”

11:00am “Some where in the Gulf of Sirte, Med Sea”

Shoes lie in piles, men sleep on the floor, under tables, and children run around, as children do on an adventure. Babies cry behind doors and young men watch home made videos of battles against Gadaffi forces on their cell phones. Dreaming of glory and ignorant of the reality of recent rebel losses.

5:30pm “Still some where in the Gulf of Sirte, Med Sea”

Closer but no cigar as they say, the trip is a slow 240 miles, just off the coastline of Libya. Story done, edited all but final piece to camera. Another black coffee and stare out to sea. We are due to dock at 9:39pm, according to the crew; given the state of the ship I have my doubts to the accuracy of their chronometers.

Lying on my bunk, writing this and at the same time realizing that in four hours. I will be in a war zone under potential rocket fire. The handover at the border seems a long time ago.

9:30pm Could be anywhere, pitch black outside but still at sea

You get to a point where you have no bearings or clues as to where you are, ship messages are only in Arabic and feeling the ship slow it is obvious that we are close. Managed to set up the bgan and transmit tonight’s story back to New York whilst still traveling, incredible to consider that in the middle of the med sea you can still transmit.

Strange but have no nerves at the moment, a sense of calm before the storm. Not based on any rationale. Could do with a shower though at least the runs have stopped for the time being.


Misrata 9:39 pm we arrive to the minute as planned, fuck me stranger things have happened in this world. Shouts of Allah Akbar echo around the decks.

Turning to Ken, our security guy,

“Game on”

“To fucking right”

We enter Misrata, one-way ticket, our only escape back via sea.

1 comment:

Dr. Bzzzz said...

I love when you write. It feels like I am there. Right now though I am sparing a thought for those children on an 'adventure' returning to what is left of their home, their school, and maybe even their family. It leaves you wondering exactly how much Allah has a say in such dealings. Inshallah they will one day be educated enough to grow their land into a prosperous metropolis where everyone at least gets a chance to thrive. Take good care of each other.