Nov 24 2011

Packing Heat at the Gate

Published by at 12:10 pm under Articles,Travel Blues

 By Daoud Kuttab

The first thing you notice upon entering Mitiga Airport in Tripoli is a series of signs with the word “No” in capital letters next to illustrations of automatic weapons. The second thing is just how liberally most Libyans interpret these rules.

In the days following the death of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the rules were not quite in effect. Revolutionaries nonchalantly toted their Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenade launchers as they whiled away their preboarding hours at the gate. An airport official roamed the terminal with a gun marked with a bar-code tag, beseeching the owner to claim his checked luggage.

My two travel partners and I, all members of an international media delegation, arrived for a one-hour return flight to Benghazi, from which we would exit the country. We had recently concluded a trip during which we visited newly established radio stations, held workshops with local reporters and were constantly impressed by the amazing spirit of the journalists and their desire to establish a truly independent media. We also encountered little trouble transporting 13 international media members on a flight to Tripoli. The return trip would not be so easy.

When we arrived at Mitiga at 8 p.m., we were told there were delays. The 7 p.m. to Benghazi had not departed, and no one knew when our 10:30 flight would take off. But our local host, Yousef, reassured us that we would be getting out of Tripoli that night. Yousef, who had been assigned to us by the National Transitional Council, said that although Qaddafi destroyed seven planes during the final days of the liberation war, long-haul planes were occasionally rented for short trips during their layovers. Two planes, he noted optimistically, were already here. There was no point in leaving the airport.

As we waited in the crowded check-in area, we overheard what sounded like a small tsunami but turned out to be an extremely loud fistfight. As travelers followed the two men toward the exit, one member of our group, Mohammad Abu Arqoub, climbed on a chair and began taking pictures. His camera’s flash was a bit too obvious, though, and soon a bearded official in military fatigues emerged and escorted Mohammad away. As I tried not to panic, Yousef did a little reconnaissance. He disappeared for 10 minutes and came back with the news that Mohammad had been detained. But it was only temporary, Yousef said; he would be released soon enough.

When it became clear that it might not be so temporary, I asked another colleague if he could learn anything. He returned moments later to say that he heard one Libyan official say, “Those who try to take pictures to blacken the image of the revolution should be shot in the head.” He suggested we call the cellphone of Hanadi Ammari, a well-connected Jordanian woman who organized our conference.

Now for a quick word about the Libyan wireless business. When we arrived a few days earlier, our contingent was told that roaming service did not work in Libya. If we wanted to use cellphones, we were told, we needed new SIM cards. And the main Libyan cellphone companies, Al Madar and Libyana — previously owned by one of Qaddafi’s sons — were, unfortunately, no longer in the SIM-card business. (You could buy one on the black market for $100.) This is all to say that it wasn’t so easy to contact Hanadi. But when we did, she asked a member of the senior security committee to meet us, release our colleague and get us out of Mitiga Airport.

Time passed. Then, shortly after midnight, Yousef brought us to a man in civilian clothes with a walkie-talkie who led us through buzzing metal detectors, out of the airport and into a black sedan. The car drove us onto the tarmac and let us out at the back staircase of what turned out to be the 7 p.m. flight. At that moment, a police car pulled up with Mohammad and three boarding passes. But as we started up the stairs, another official emerged to explain that there were no seats. The next plane would leave at 12:40 a.m. “Just wait half an hour,” he said. “You will be the first on the plane.”

By 3 a.m., however, we were informed that the 12:40 a.m. flight would leave no earlier than 7 a.m. As we sat in the empty lounge, surrounded by flies and near-empty cartons of rice take-away dishes, Yousef suggested we spend the rest of the night in style. So we walked a few hundred meters from the smelly, furnitureless room into the V.I.P. area, a modern lounge with marble floor tiles, once used exclusively by the regime. We fell asleep on couches formerly occupied by Qaddafi, his son Seif or their aides.

At 6 a.m. we were awoken with the news that the 12:40 a.m. flight, née the 10:30 p.m., had finally arrived. And by 8:30 a.m., we were on a bus headed for the plane. Then, suddenly, a security official climbed on. He held a rifle with a Benghazi airport bar code. He was hoping a passenger would claim it.

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