A Sharp Exit!
The teams safety became a matter of grave concern.
Recent events across North Africa have alarmed all of us, especially those who have travelled in the countries involved and those who are still there. My own trip to Libya this year was in January and, as I wrote last month, the run back from Tripoli to the port of Tunis was pleasantly uneventful. But, we had left a group of twelve Archaeologists in Libya to work in the oasis town of Ghadames, some 500 miles south of the Mediterranean coastline and when events kicked off in Benghazi, their safety became a matter of grave concern. Watching the story unfold on the news channels I was aware that a news crew will always film the worst bits and ignore the people going about their usual routine in the background. For that reason I have always been sceptical of the media. I also know that, in general Libyans are most generous and hospitable towards foreigners.
Professor David Mattingly and Dr. Martin Sterry just 10 days before the exodus, the TD5 in the background.
Our team in Ghadames had good internet access and assured us all was okay, but there had been a pro Ghadaffi rally in the town on 16th February with much green flag waving, but little else. Meanwhile the ‘what if it all goes horribly wrong’ conversations were taking place back here. At times their internet went down, but they could still send text messages via their Libyan mobile phones. Occasionally, these failed as well, but the message was always the same... ‘peaceful here - some protests and most adults seem to have dug out an AK47 from under the bed!’ In reserve they had a Thuraya Satellite ‘phone, but nobody had loaded the pre paid credit onto it! They were also in touch with friends up in Tripoli who were reporting much the same, but confirmed it was getting dangerous to go out at night.
As the situation worsened, the problem changed from them being in personal danger, to one of being stranded in Libya indefinitely. Commercial flights out of Tripoli had ceased and the border with Tunisia, that I had sailed through in my Carawagon just three weeks before, was getting busy with people fleeing the trouble spots. By 21st February, despite it being fairly peaceful in Ghadames, the decision was made to leave Libya and try and get back to England. The group had Leicester University’s Land Rover 110, TD5 and the Venerable Toyota Minibus (V.T.M.), twelve people and their luggage, plus whatever equipment could be salvaged.
Planning the escape from his office in Leicester, was Professor David Mattingly, who’s project it is and who is responsible for everyone’s safety. David had identified a border crossing from Libya to southern Tunisia near the town of Nalut, about three hours from Ghadames. He called me to see how my drive back had been and whether I had any difficulty getting fuel. I had no experience of the border, but assured him all was fine for my journey. We agreed that it sounded the best solution to a tricky problem. They would probably have been okay if they had stayed put, but he the risk was too great.
At 5.30 am on the morning of 22nd February, with fuel tanks filled and enough food and water for 48 hours, they squeezed everything they could into the Land Rover and the V.T.M. Both were hideously over loaded and they had the look of real refugees! Creeping out of Ghadames in the murky darkness they were stopped by a group of about 10 heavily armed men on the edge of town. They had no uniform and were just locals who had taken up arms to protect their families. Realising our group were foreigners the men wished them a safe trip and with much hand shaking waved them off.
Similar stops at road blocks ensued and by about 9.00 am they were in Nalut and had to turn west towards the border, not knowing what they would find. Another heavily armed group stopped them and said ‘Tell the world we are peaceful’ as he waved his hand gun around to reinforce the statement! With that, one of them thrust four hot loaves of bread into the Land Rover and away they went, the border just ten miles away. The border crossing turned out to be quite easy. There were no Libyan formalities. All the Officers having gone north to help whatever cause they supported. The Tunisian Army welcomed the group enthusiastically and with that they began the steady plod back, first to Tunis, where most of the group flew home, then back to England.
The team enjoying their ‘freedom’ from Libya on the beach in Tunisia.
I am grateful to Archaeologist, Mireya Gonzalez Rodriguez for relating the tale to me. Well done all, but especially to Corisande Fenwick who did an heroic job of driving the Land Rover TD5 for 16 hours from Ghadames to Tunisia - her first drive in a Land Rover! Thank you to Fares Moussa for the Tunisian photograph.
Copyright Toby Savage