Memoir | Libya. A Love Lived, A Life Betrayed - 9/36
Back in 2013, my friend Susan wrote a guest post on my blog. She shared an important message about her experience with Libyan inheritance laws. The post generated a huge amount of interest so in 2014 she wrote a follow-up post. Many people, myself included, urged her to write a book about her life. I'm happy to say that she took our advice and wrote her story.
As a British woman, marrying a Libyan diplomat was the start of her adventure, little did she realize the complexity and intrigue she would live through for the next 33 years. Having lived through these times she decided to share her experiences and perspective on this period of Libyan history.
The following excerpt has been published on my blog with the permission of the author. Information about where to purchase the book is below the excerpt.
Libya. A Love Lived, A Life Betrayed
By: Susan M. Sandover
9/36 is the end of the tale but the beginning starts with so many previous events that have had to be sealed in my memory box for safety. Many times I have wished that I could have kept a diary of the past 35 years, but the fear of my writings being found and incriminating the man I loved has always stopped my ever beginning. Even today when I have nothing to lose, all of those past years still haunt me.
When I was asked recently in an interview what qualifications I believed that I had for working abroad, I felt a certain amount of frustration at the woman who had quite clearly not read my CV and was obviously just reading the next question on her formulaic list. In a probably rather inappropriate answer I responded that I had been bombed by the Americans, lived through two attempted coups, a major earthquake and two typhoons, lived under a dictatorship, through a revolution and a NATO bombing. A silence ensued for a few moments; I could see what was going through her mind, wondering if I was some kind of Walter Mitty character, and if what I had just said could be true? It was. What she had failed to notice in my eyes and tone of voice was that I am a survivor despite even 9/36 being hurled at me.
At the tender age of four I went around the world with my parents, out via the Suez Canal and back through the Panama Canal. Although I can remember little if nothing of the journey it might have ignited my Christopher Columbus spirit since travelling from then onwards was in my bones; any chance, anywhere, I was game. But this story begins in 1980 when I was 32 and weaves between my flat in Frognal, North London and Freetown, Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa. The country was preparing to host an Organisation of African Union Summit (OAU) new hotels had been built and it was swarming with security experts and intelligence agents from Western, African and Arab countries. For my travelling companion Kathy and me it was a cheap winter holiday destination and if I were to believe in fate then certainly my destiny was decided when we set foot on the tarmac and on to the ferry taking us to Freetown that night.
The capital was bubbling with frantic businessmen eager to capitalize on the many construction projects necessitated by the hosting of an international summit. We were two not unattractive young women out for some fun in the sun with little or no competition. Africa was a complete revelation to us with its noises, colours and heat being so very different from the suburban London where we had both grown up. The ubiquitous music, clubs, casinos and stunningly beautiful beaches were all so exciting, as was the charming male company. With numerous bottles of champagne arriving at our dinner table, we enjoyed the attention as we danced the night away before returning to our shared hotel room to compare stories and laugh about them. Our days were spent enjoying the sun and the glorious unspoilt tropical, palm fringed sandy beaches. The backdrop to our carefree fortnight throbbed with rich Africans, Lebanese and Indian brokers and traders all vying for a share of the lucrative contracts on offer, while the poor Sierra Leoneans were left with little or nothing to look forward to.
It is difficult to remember every detail of that time where Kathy and I met so many extraordinary people but we were thrust into a novel, different world. The president’s son, the infamous Nigerian millionaire playboy Jimmy Ahmed, the head of intelligence at the Libyan embassy Mohammed Marouf, Anwar Sadat’s Egyptian presidential head of security and amongst others a former SAS man called Ian, whose reason for being there we never quite discovered. A motley crew in a tropical climate all wanting to make money and have fun. Without a doubt we were two single females in the right place at the right time with enough worldly experience to know how to say no when it was necessary.
So vividly I remember when we first met Bashir wearing a yellow shirt and beige trousers. Why I remember this detail until today I have no idea but for some reason he caught my attention with an ever – mischievous smile that I came to adore. At that time he was sporting his glorious long black locks and a Mexican moustache. I am sure there was also the interest factor of being the first Libyan I had ever met. Of course we all knew of Gaddafi and a little of how this revolutionary colonel had turned the oil markets upside down and was now trying to impose his own form of socialism on his oil rich country. This however, was far away from our thoughts as Bashir came to say hello to our table of new friends. There was an instant magnetic connection as we shook hands, before he disappeared off to the casino. For the rest of the holiday we were to pass each other at different times generally stopping to chat about music. His passion for it became apparent on hearing him play the classical oud some days later. He always sang in Arabic, seemingly channelling a faraway, beautiful place.
Such was the fun we had in Sierra Leone that I returned for a second time a month later. A lucky chance meeting at a London party had secured a photo journalism assignment to write on Sierra Leone. I met Bashir frequently. He was Charge d’Affaires (Head of Mission) at the embassy while the ambassador was out of the country. During this period I encountered many more interesting and intriguing people from the world of international diplomacy. As the commencement of the African Union summit drew closer the inevitable behind the scenes politicking increased. Between Bashir and myself there was a strong mutual attraction in that unknown atmosphere of frenetic international diplomacy; that unknown then would play quite a large part in our future lives.
Arriving back in London at the end of my second visit I commenced writing up my commissioned articles and it is here that our story truly begins. Shortly after my return I received a call from Bashir in Switzerland. He was undergoing medical treatment and suggested I join him in Geneva. Kathy joked (and still does) it was not ‘a platonic invitation’. I flew to Geneva in the summer of 1980 believing that he was genuinely ill, and that maybe I could cheer him up, he had sounded depressed. Needless to say a week in Geneva, beside that scenic lake, is always a divine prospect and no other thoughts were in my mind. Bashir was waiting at the airport looking thin and weary, yet still sparkling. The rest is history as they say, and Bashir admitted later that he was determined to have an intimate relationship with me. However, the reason for his being in Geneva, I was only to learn several years later were founded on a plot to assassinate the Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat, who was due to attend the summit in Freetown. This was with the almost certain knowledge of the Libyan Foreign Minister Dr. Ali Treki who was also going to be in Sierra Leone and presumably authorised by Colonel Gaddafi himself because nothing of this nature happened without the hand of the Colonel. Bashir knew if he remained in Freetown that he too would be implicated and he strongly opposed any talk of assassinating a head of state or come to that, anyone. The only solution was to plead an illness needing specialist treatment in order to escape to Geneva where he would be far removed from the plot.
It was in truth a half excuse: in reality, he was sick, worried and nervous to a point where he could hardly keep down any food. I do believe that the pressure and stress of being a career Libyan diplomat under Gaddafi was to a large extent the cause of poor health throughout his life. Much of our time was spent consulting specialists in and around Geneva. Nonetheless, he seduced me and we fell in love; he was the most amazing lover. By the time it came for him to return to Sierra Leone the OAU had finished. The Egyptian president eventually never attended the summit and life resumed there as normal. Bashir was back to being a diplomat and not a political assassin. However, undercover arms were being smuggled into the country by Mohamed, the Intelligence Officer with the connivance of Ali, the embassy’s Financial Attaché. Gaddafi was starting his pan – African interference and power building even as early as 1980.
Before leaving Geneva we had decided that I would return to Freetown for an extended visit at Christmas. I was pretty foot loose and fancy free at this stage in my life since working for agencies on an assignment basis allowed me to pick up and leave as and when I wanted, provided that I had the money. I headed out to Freetown and moved in with Bashir who was sharing a house with Ali, the Financial Attaché a surly character who spoke no English. It was quite apparent that he neither respected nor liked western women, probably thinking us debauched.
Later I discovered that Ali had been the instigator of the plot to assassinate Sadat. The man was an opportunist believing that such endeavours would gain him favour with the revolutionary committees of which he was a new member. Words to describe him such as completely unscrupulous, corrupt and utterly contemptible are probably inadequate. Further into the future he would become pivotal in more dark activities at the embassy, shattering its already dubious reputation. It was he who remained in the country and negotiated and dealt with Charles Taylor, later to become the President of Liberia. Ali remained in West Africa for many years, rising in power within the Revolutionary Committees. His place today should be in The Hague for war crimes but I have no idea where he is or whether he is alive or dead since the revolution. Sierra Leone made him a multi – millionaire through appallingly blatant corruption and the snuffing out of so many West African lives.
Christmas in Freetown was buzzing with tourists as it was starting to become a winter holiday destination. Miles, a London friend joined us and we befriended an interesting group of people over that Christmas break. I awoke on brilliant mornings to go water – skiing, fishing and take spectacular boat trips whilst descending on the city for huge nights out. Poor Bashir was working of course, though I was to discover in the years to come he was a man who could function on a little sleep, party until the small hours yet still work effectively in the morning and complete a full day’s work.
By 1980 Gaddafi had realised that his dream of Arab unity was just a dream where he would not be at the helm so instead he turned to Africa as being the place where he could build his empire. When one has unlimited wealth, one can buy and sell people and this he was able to do with relative ease in Sierra Leone. Gaddafi was a master strategist in dividing and conquering as he lifted people up and then knocked them down. By 1986 he had declared his intention to become the Emperor of Africa. Through using Libya’s vast oil wealth it allowed him to create instability well beyond Libya’s borders. The recruitment by Gaddafi of Foday Sankoh, who was the leader and founder of the Sierra Leone rebel group Revolutionary United Front and Charles Taylor, later to become Liberia’s President was to be the birth. They received much of their training from Libyan forces and endless funding from Gaddafi’s Libya. The civil wars in these countries in 1991, which lasted for eleven years, saw an estimated 50,000 people killed with over 500,000 displaced in neighbouring countries. It was the start of this instability in the 1980s that began to worry the United States about Gaddafi’s activities in Africa.
Life in Sierra Leone in this period was pretty laid back for diplomats. It was considered a hardship posting and once the OAU Summit was over, little if anything happened in Freetown. Despite the intensely hot, humid, mosquito infested climate there were the glorious sandy beaches, long, lazy langoustines and shrimp lunches to savour in tasty dishes and romantic beach club locations. The Italian Ambassador who used to arrive at the beach everyday particularly amused me, putting up his chair, table and shade and relaxing. Fifteen minutes or so later one of his attachés would arrive with the mail for the day. The attaché would return at twelve presumably to collect the papers for the appropriate actions to be taken. The ambassador would then have a swim surrounded by Italian female tourists. He was not a young man and quite obviously enjoyed female company. By twelve thirty he left the beach and the next time we saw him would be in one of the casinos, again surrounded by beautiful women. Not a bad life for a widower close to retirement. He was a delightfully, charming man who was excellent company, even if only for a brief chat. He had one of the necessary qualifications for a diplomat.
By contrast for those in the Libyan diplomatic corps, life under Gaddafi was becoming complicated. He wanted all embassies to be controlled by political appointees (his cronies) but was realistic enough to know that he still needed the backbone of career diplomats and their expertise. From 1980 onwards no new career diplomats would be appointed until the beginning of 2000. Poor Bashir’s timing in joining the foreign ministry in 1976 could not have been worse. He had graduated from the Diplomatic Institute and subsequently worked in the Department for International Co – operation. He was fortunate having a boss who was a highly skilled diplomat with years of experience and who encouraged young attachés. Bashir accompanied him on missions to Singapore, Malaysia and southern European countries. By shadowing this man he began to learn his trade. Sadly background and tribal allegiance were important requisites for positioning in the Foreign Ministry in 1980. Unfortunately Bashir’s family background was a hindrance to his career prospects. His father had been born in Gargaresh, a suburb of Tripoli, but became an orphan at seven. He was adopted by an uncle who raised him, albeit somewhat minimally. Sharia inheritance law should have meant that in adulthood Mohamed Shkuka would inherit his father’s considerable wealth but it was sadly sequestered by the uncle. Thus Mohamed became a lowly janitor in a school. He was however, highly respected in the Gargaresh community, being thought of as a man of high morals and deeply held Muslim beliefs. He was to become known as ‘Hacouma’ – Governor in Gargaresh. Bashir was to inherit his father’s goodness. At times I heard him too being called ‘Hacouma’ in the Gargaresh area.
At the end of 1979, it was Bashir’s time to go on a posting. Despite having passed out of the Diplomatic Institute with high scores, he was given Sierra Leone as his first posting, a country considered a backwater. He was furious not to have been assigned to one of the key embassies such as London, Paris or Washington, especially given his good language skills and placing in the Foreign Office exams. However, it was his departmental boss who gave him the best advice. ‘In a small embassy you will have responsibility but in London you will probably not even go to the Foreign Ministry’. This reasoning proved to be very prophetic. Within one week of being in Freetown, Bashir was meeting the President, something that would not have happened as a lowly Third Secretary in the Paris embassy. In Sierra Leone Bashir was able to glean experience that he never could have imagined, experience that would serve him well in the years to come. He always remained a career diplomat, carefully avoiding those who were in the service only to join the gravy train of revolutionary appointed diplomats, a requirement for any of those ever wishing to become an Ambassador.
After the New Year Miles returned to London and I stayed on with an open agenda. I was thrilled with my Africa adventure. Dream worlds never last long and hardly more than a week later Bashir returned from work announcing we were moving temporarily to share with the embassy Administrator since he was living in a large, spacious house, his wife and family being in Libya. Although slightly puzzled, I accepted the explanation given then that an additional Third Secretary was joining the embassy and Ali preferred to share with another male rather than with the two of us, which seemed quite understandable.
The truth was quite different. When Gaddafi wrote his Green Book his main theme was that all Libyans are equal and that there should be no owners but only ‘partners not wage workers’. Gaddafi realized that there were elements in the foreign ministry who came from the old, rich, elite families and these people he wished to crush. He set about renaming the embassies as People’s Bureau. Every embassy was to be managed by a committee and these appointees could come from all walks of life, educated or uneducated and mostly quite unsuited to interacting with other nationalities. There would no longer be ambassadors instead the name to be used was Secretary of The People’s Bureau. Pivotal to their appointments was the necessity to sign up to both the Revolutionary and their local area committees. The latter would put forward elected candidates to join an embassy for a period of four years with secondments from their current jobs to these new positions. The embassy in London had already been taken over by the revolutionary committees and what had happened there was about to happen in Freetown. This would mark the end of my Sierra Leone adventure; the end of stage one and the start of many more such upsets, which we had to weather and accommodate, during our 33 – year love affair.
Bashir seemed to feel reassured when he learned that one of the members of the new People’s Bureau to be established in Sierra Leone was Anwar a career diplomat who had joined the ministry the same year as Bashir. This man had however, decided to sign up with the revolutionary committees, as a way of being fast tracked in the Foreign Ministry. Bashir knew instantly that he did not fit in with this group who were forever brandishing and quoting from the Green Book and talking about how they would bring revolution to western dominated countries. His living with an English woman was quite obviously exceedingly inappropriate in their eyes, particularly a ‘western prostitute’ as they were fond of branding me. Both of us realising that I could no longer remain in Sierra Leone a flight back to London was booked. In some respects it was well timed since my brother was about to get married and I wanted to be at the wedding. I did not however, want our relationship to end in Freetown in this way. Neither did Bashir.
The Sierra Leone chapter for me was over and I was en – route back to London and my Frognal flat. I am always overwhelmed by sadness when I see or hear any talk of Sierra Leone. I think of how things could have evolved had it not been for the cruel and mindless civil war using child soldiers to fight against each other. First there were the most abject, inhumane mutilations of innocent people followed some years later by the horrific Ebola outbreak when the country was barely even beginning to recover. The country has quite astonishing mineral wealth, but it is embezzled and hoarded by only a few. Sierra Leone was and is the country of black diamonds.
On a final personal memory, I feel I must include my being made aware of the horror and inhumane treatment of some of Sierra Leone’s young girls. Like most people at the time I knew nothing of female genital mutilation (FGM) before travelling to Africa. On the first night of my third visit I was to hear, see and learn of this inhumanity. Bashir lived in a tiny hamlet away from the centre of Freetown. A balcony at the back of the house overlooked a pathway covered in dense vegetation leading to a group of about five small ramshackle homes. Darkness used to arrive at 6 pm and in this half – light I heard the sound of drums ceaselessly pounding out a rhythm. A short while later in the half light of dusk I saw the strangest sight, women and girls with grey painted faces and white lines streaked on top of the grey. I remember questioning Bashir as to what on earth was going on, not then realizing that it was just one example of a practice that causes untold emotional trauma to millions of females worldwide while enforcing an inherent gender inequality. The drums would continue pounding and pounding out their sombre rhythm night after night until their agonising wounds had healed.
One final memory has to be of Sami, our house help. Prior to leaving our duplex he had begged that both of us should go to London where he would work for me. I could see in his eyes a total disbelief when I told him that I lived in a tiny one bedroom flat and had no room for him let alone need of any help. I wonder whether he is alive or dead as I wonder about so many of the people whom I met during that year. It is incomprehensible even for me today to understand how the political greed and power of so few can destroy the lives of so many. How do these people not only get into power but also manage to stay in power, in some cases, for decades?
I was forced to leave Sierra Leone without the Committee knowing where I was or what I was doing. In the final days before leaving they had put guards on the house wanting to know where I was living and so my ignominious departure from Sierra Leone was under a blanket in the back seat of a car. As Bashir and I sat on the ferry taking us out to Lungi airport, the city’s lights fading in the background, we held each other tightly with tears streaming down our faces. That feeling of love being taken away, the ache and pain are desperate emotions but now I realise it is a rare and wonderful blessing to have such strength of feeling for someone else. As the British Caledonian plane took off neither Bashir nor I realized quite how quickly we would be back in each other’s arms; we were deeply in love and determined not to be separated.
Our love calls between Sierra Leone and London were made long before the existence of the internet and Skype. There were times when it would take days and endless waits to make contact due to the poor communication infrastructure in Freetown. Imagine my joy when after no more than a month of separation I heard Bashir’s voice giving me the news that he was leaving Sierra Leone and flying to London before heading to Libya.
At the same time alarm bells began to ring in my head but on asking him why I received the reply I was to come to know so well in the future, that he would explain on arrival. Once again I was to have our next meeting in an airport, but this time I was in Gatwick, London Arrivals and Bashir was wearily pushing his two suitcases looking stressed, sleep – deprived and pale. I had been hoping to whisk him straight up to my flat. Of course he as ever the consummate professional, told me his first London destination was to the Libyan embassy to meet, as he was now called, ‘The Secretary of the Peoples Bureau.’ It was no longer His Excellency the Libyan Ambassador to London. The country had also been renamed and the flag replaced by an all green one. A protocol nightmare had begun to always ensure that in case Gaddafi should visit the new flag was to be hoisted, the new anthem was to be played and all officials would call the country by its new name The Socialist Peoples Libyan Arab Jamahiriya at all times. A number of diplomats had been sent home with their careers in tatters due to mistakenly forgetting to apply these changes in front of Gaddafi, who never had any mercy. Pre – 1969 days returned in 2011, when again for diplomats the old flag, anthem and the country name were resurrected.
We took the train into central London together from Gatwick caressing each other between passionate kisses I am sure to the embarrassment of other travellers in the carriage. Victoria station saw Bashir into a taxi and I into a further taxi complete with his two suitcases back to my flat in Frognal. What seemed a long, endless wait was only in fact four hours before my buzzer rang and Bashir was with me alone in the flat. I am an impatient person in stressful situations and having had to leave Sierra Leone for Bashir’s safety I was anxious to know that I had not jeopardised his position. Before he even had time to sit down I was begging him to tell me what had happened. This however, was not the way Bashir worked. Always taking his time and after his habitual glass of whisky and a large steak and salad I was to learn of the demise of the Libyan embassy in Sierra Leone.
My observation over the years has brought me to an understanding that African nations were much more tolerant of Gaddafi’s antics and power plays than the West. Obviously this was at the very least in part due to the generous sweeteners being given to the appropriate people in power together with phenomenally expensive jewellery being handed over to their wives. By 1981 this had worked well up to a point in Sierra Leone, but in all likelihood it was one step too far when five revolutionary, Green Book brandishing Libyans arrived in Sierra Leone without diplomatic passports (these had now been banned by Gaddafi and diplomats were to be considered ordinary people travelling on ordinary passports). Bashir continued that these men had established links with officials without going through official protocol and were also distributing the Green Book and the propaganda surrounding Gaddafi’s Third Universal Theory. Naturally Sierra Leone officials became edgy and were probably also receiving prompts and warnings from USA officials. The ambassador, Abdallah, was out of the country so Bashir as Charge d’Affaires was called to the foreign ministry. He was told to advise the Libyan government that Sierra Leone did not recognize the structure of this new type of embassy. The people newly arrived from Libya were not considered conducive to the well – being of the country and thus were no longer recognised by the state and were persona non gratia. The embassy had 48 hours to close and all Libyans working in the embassy were to leave the country. Bashir, not considered part of this new order, was not asked to leave and in fact was the Sierra Leone government’s preferred candidate to stay on as head of a Special Interests Section under the umbrella of another Embassy. To find another country willing to take on this mantle within the timescale and with the approval from Tripoli was totally impractical so the closing operation was taken. Besides which Bashir was unwilling to remain in an increasingly difficult environment without diplomatic protection of a negotiated third country.
To close an embassy down under the best of situations would take time, but 48 hours to exit staff and families onto planes back to Libya, close down a building, and shred reams of documents were among the many necessary tasks going through Bashir’s mind at that time. Plus of course losing all the armaments stored beneath the embassy which had been smuggled in as diplomatic cargo, was probably the most paramount. As Bashir sat face – to – face with the Ministry staff he felt overwhelmed by the task at hand. They finally reached agreement that one diplomat could stay, and Ali the Financial Attaché, was nominated. This seemed like an obvious choice in terms of the logistics, but in the future this decision would in small part lead to the rise of Taylor and Sankoh.
As he recounted those last days Bashir told me of the dumping of the armaments. Looking back on this event in years to come we laughed at the absurdity of the situation but at the time it must have been terrifying. Mohamed, the Head of Intelligence, was a colonel and pretty level headed when not drinking and gambling; he rose to the task. Bashir spoke of how they waited until one in the morning, sitting in one of the casinos drinking and playing blackjack. Perhaps it was an unorthodox way to calm one’s nerves. By the time they were to start the exercise they were not exactly sober and had fortunately won a bit of money. Both of these two factors were to prove to be their saviours later in the arms dumping exercise. They took two of the embassy cars and loaded them up with rocket launchers, RPGs, guns, revolvers, bullets and almost every description of weapons all in the back of the two cars covered by blankets. A desolate part of beach with a rocky shoreline, which they knew had deep water had been chosen as the best location to heave the weapons into the sea. Having dumped the first two loads of this dangerous cargo there were still two more remaining at the embassy waiting to be thrown into the waves. On returning to the embassy they loaded up the second pile and headed back towards the secluded spot but this time they didn’t have such a clear run. A two – car police patrol stopped them on the return trip back to the dumping ground wanting to know why they were driving in that remote area late at night and what was under the blankets. Although the cars had diplomatic immunity to start arguing on the rights and wrongs of drunkenly driving them at 2am with aggressive, late – night policemen did not seem like a good idea. However, money did talk. Bashir and Mohamed pretended to be considerably drunker than they were, telling the police that they had prostitutes hidden under the blankets who could not be seen in public with them. Thanks to the dollars won earlier in the casino that night they were able to persuade the officers to let them on their merry way. Two happy police cars left with the casino winnings and my darling, intrepid Bashir and his colleague continued on theirs down toward the sea again to resume the dumping operation. The relief at having outwitted the police made them truly elated as they flung the next load of weapons into the sea whilst joyfully singing Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’ at the tops of their voices. Thank goodness they were in a remote spot. What a bizarre, hilarious sight; I smile as I picture it today. I do wonder if anyone ever found this arms haul and if they ever questioned where or whom it had come from. I am sure Bashir’s Sierra Leone experience has not been replicated by many diplomats if any, and I rather suspect there aren’t many who would wish to be in such a situation. These were the building blocks for surviving as a Libyan Diplomat during the Gaddafi years that his former boss said he would never find in the big prestigious embassies, which proved incredibly pertinent in the years to come.
Bashir now had to stay in London, waiting to be told which course of action he should take and where he should go. From Sierra Leone they had had few if any instructions from Libya as to the steps that should be taken. This was 1981, no computer, poor telephone lines, no fax in Sierra Leone; there was still only telex communication. The secret codes had been brought by Bashir to London and were deposited at the embassy. He had left with just two suitcases leaving behind furniture unsold, deposits on the house and other administrative and financial loose ends. The Foreign Ministry was still directly in Gaddafi’s firing line, thus for Bashir as a career diplomat there was no precedent or a requirement to pay him any compensation for what he had left behind or lost. Of course the members of the revolutionary committee were more than well compensated. You either beat them or joined them, and the latter never was or would be an option for Bashir and the former would not happen until 2011.
Nonetheless for now we were in my beautiful, Frognal garret very much in love and thrilled at being reunited so quickly. It was the middle of February and a typically bleak, English winter. Bashir was dressed in a safari suit with no coat, no warm clothing and only short – sleeved shirts. As was to become common for future shopping exercises, he wrote a list of what he needed against the damp, cold, London weather. I knew where clothes could be found and bought cheaply so quickly returned with everything to protect him from the winter elements. We were then in business and mentally blocked out what was to come. How long would he be in London? After this how long would he be in Tripoli? Where to if anywhere, next? Our relationship hinged on answers to these questions as at that time there would be no chance of my being able to join him in Libya.
By this time Bashir was known to Kathy and Miles but was yet to meet my brothers and other friends. To anyone observing it must have seemed pretty unusual, the number of diplomats in my extended family congregating for dinners together; we could have held our own General Assembly. Within a week Bashir received his orders to return to Tripoli. He hated visiting the embassy and said the atmosphere was depressing with those against the new arrangement, namely his colleagues and friends from the foreign ministry and university, and the ‘invaders’ as he called them from the new set up. This arrangement was to explode in 1983 and cause our lives to be completely upended.
All too quickly those unwelcome instructions to return to Libya and leave London saw us on yet another train ride to Gatwick Airport, but this time in Departures. Airport farewells were becoming a regular feature of our lives and this one was no less tearful on my part, as we had no idea when we would be reunited. My only consolation was the proximity of Libya to London, or to the southern Mediterranean countries where we could possibly have an opportunity to meet in the future. However, at this time exit and re – entry visas for Libyans were strictly controlled by the Gaddafi regime as it was starting to go into lock down given the opponents he was beginning to garner.
We had expected that it would be a long separation but in less than two months Gaddafi decided that there should be a Peoples’ Bureau in Liberia and that a People’s Committee should be sent to Monrovia, the capital, to set up the new embassy under its new Libyan title. Bashir was nominated to go as the only career diplomat along with financial and administrative attaches. It must have irked Gaddafi that by this point in time, despite all of his bullish manoeuvres he still had to rely on diplomats to run his missions abroad.
Thankfully as there were no direct flights from Libya to Liberia, Bashir had to fly via London and we managed to steal a few more days and nights before his onward flight to his second West African adventure. Life was always fun despite the hardships and underhand political events that were affecting us at any given time. The two of us loved people, loved to socialise and debate, all the while enjoying good food and wine. Bashir was an absolute charmer and always attracted interesting people. All too quickly however, we were back at Gatwick Airport for yet another farewell. We clung onto each other right to the final minute, a few last kisses and Bashir disappeared into the tunnel with neither of us knowing when we would next be together.
When Bashir flew into Liberia along with the committee, apparently the government had not been informed they were arriving, nor did they have any idea that a Libyan Peoples Bureau was about to be established in the country. This was typical Gaddafi, the presumption that everyone would accommodate his every whim; he seemed to think that his authority over the people and institutions of Libya could be replicated wherever he turned his attention. Of course these agreements were always greased with dollars. This was something that was instilled in his children and cronies, and was to cause endless diplomatic crises in the future.
The Committee had dollars pouring out of their suitcases and set themselves up in the best and probably the only five Star Hotel. Bashir found the country, unlike Sierra Leone, dangerous and the people unfriendly. After just a few days when walking back to the hotel from a Portuguese restaurant he was held up by a gang, and had his expensive Rado watch and money stolen. This was a fast lesson, and from then on he would go out with no more than $50 in his sock and would make every effort not to look wealthy, walk quickly and have a car and driver wherever possible. He felt that Liberia was the Wild West, having come from relatively safe territories.
Of course Liberia is considered by many to be a United States outpost and by this time the international community was well aware that Libya’s policies were in direct conflict with the West. The arrival therefore of Libyan revolutionaries in Liberia with cash to spend on people attracted to the Green Book doctrine was not something that either the Liberian government or the US embassy welcomed. I was absolutely delighted to receive a call from Bashir just a short while later to say that they had once again been told to leave the country within 48 hours. For Bashir this was by now almost becoming a routine. Thankfully on this enforced departure there was little to pack up, and nothing to leave behind. There was no holding him he rushed onto the London plane, in fact happy to be leaving the country he had barely had time to get to know. I was to meet him yet again in Gatwick Arrivals.
By now it was a well – rehearsed routine from the airport back to the embassy in London to report what had happened and to await further instructions. This was becoming a well – trodden path for Bashir. Being the only diplomat and the only one well versed enough in the procedures and protocols that had to be followed, he was the one to negotiate and relay the information. Gaddafi, furious that this African country was not going to accept his answer to the evil colonial capitalist West’s domination as he saw it, now set in motion his cultivation of Taylor and Sankoh. This was to prove the undoing of both countries. Libya still had their man Ali in Freetown who was eager to do his great leader’s wishes and able to do so with unlimited Libyan funds. Thus the unhappy saga of West Africa began to unfold, in part bankrolled by Gaddafi.
It is an uncommon experience for a diplomat to have to leave a country once due to a breakdown in diplomatic relations, but for it to happen twice within a period of three months was quite extraordinary. Being a Third Secretary in a backwater was proving to be far more interesting than Bashir ever could have imagined and he was up to the task, utilising all of his diplomatic skills, most of which had not been taught at the diplomatic institute. This was new ground for a Libyan diplomat. He now had no regrets about not having been posted to Paris or London.
Bashir had by this time developed a feel for African diplomacy and could see that this would be an area of great interest for a Libyan diplomat, requiring demanding skills. When Diplomats talk and discuss where they have been and where they would like to be posted, their criteria sometimes does seem to be measured to talk on the quality of the social life and living conditions. While Bashir certainly enjoyed life’s comforts, he was also motivated by the interest and importance of the work to be done and he had earmarked Kenya as being somewhere he would like to be posted from the point of view of African interest. Also he wished to be in the vicinity of two Nairobi based United Nations’ headquarters one being the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the other United NationsHuman Settlements Programme (HABITAT). By choosing an African country there would not be much competition from his colleagues who viewed any posting to Africa as being a failure. Furthermore, he wanted to work with a UN agency as a way of working for the Libyan good within Libya rather than as an opponent abroad. Therefore when he returned to Libya he lobbied everyone he knew to be posted to Nairobi.
As luck would have it there was a vacancy in the embassy and so almost immediately he received his posting papers for Kenya; he was moving from West to East Africa. He had been in Liberia on an ordinary passport but now needed to be reissued with a diplomatic passport, as Kenya had not been asked to recognize a Peoples’ Bureau and the Libyan Embassy was still an embassy with an ambassador. I seemed to be spending more and more time waiting in Arrivals and Departure halls for Bashir. Once more I made my way down to Gatwick to be reunited before his departure for Kenya. We were to have a little precious time together, or so I hoped, before he left for Nairobi.
London, September 1981; it was Bashir’s 31st birthday and we went to the Palm Beach nightclub in the Berkley Hotel to celebrate. It was a great evening as we both loved dancing. I could never match Bashir’s wonderful moves but had a great time nonetheless. He was never one to hold back or be embarrassed, always wanting everyone to join in whether they were able or otherwise. For him it was the most blissful release from all the pressure that work was beginning to lay at his door.
It was around this time that I received the first copies of the books that I had contributed chapters and photographs to on Sierra Leone. It was a truly exciting new career that I was deeply motivated by. Bashir was enthusiastic about the contents of the books as there were detailed sections on Kenya. Thinking that I would just buy further copies, I gave him mine and that was the last that I ever saw of them.
Protocol can be an exceedingly good way of delaying something one country does not want to happen without causing a diplomatic incident. So it was when Bashir arrived in Nairobi airport that the Kenyan Foreign Ministry’s Protocol Department very politely advised him that they had received no information on his appointment to the Libyan embassy and therefore they would be unable to approve his appointment. Whether this was due to their having got wind of Gaddafi sending revolutionaries to all the African embassies or a genuine error in communications was unclear. Bashir was refused entry into the country despite having a visa issued in London. Tarah, the Libyan ambassador was a career diplomat with whom Bashir had worked in the International Cooperation department. He was keen for Bashir to join the embassy and suggested waiting in nearby Seychelles rather than returning to Libya. The problem would be quickly solved and in the meantime the Seychelles embassy would take care of his needs. Those were the days when certain embassies were flush with money and one of those, for some reason, was the Seychelles. Bashir flew to the Seychelles capital, Mahe where he was about to enter Paradise. He believed he was flying with two suitcases, one of which contained my two books.
On arrival at the small airport in Mahe, Bashir was greeted with the traditional highly fragrant jasmine necklace delivered by one of their stunning female airport staff. A welcome indeed, but where were the suitcases? Eventually one was tracked down. It had never left Nairobi, but the other with my books was never recovered. Until today I feel sorry that I did not go out and buy my own copies but they were expensive and I had limited funds.
Not only had my books been lost forever, but Bashir now had only the shoes he was wearing, the others being in the lost suitcase. In those days, 1981 Seychelles was still a relatively unknown tourist destination apart from the holidaying super rich who had no need to buy clothes or shoes when they came to the islands. It was a beautifully relaxed, casual place with a tropical climate so flip – flops were the standard footwear. There were no shoes to be found in Bashir’s size in the country, so the pair he was wearing would be all that he was to have for his stay. He was a stylish man but throughout his life he hated shopping, and now another shopping expedition was needed with no simple way to get anything into the country. I hinted that perhaps a London shopping trip and a visit to Seychelles bringing shoes could be a solution? I think the idea began to be considered as the beauty of the Seychelles became all too apparent.
Notwithstanding the shoe problem, for Bashir, who loved the sea having grown up in a house on the shores of the Mediterranean, it was a home from home. His entire childhood had been spent swimming and enjoying Gargaresh beach, so the Seychelles was the last word in a perfect, tropical Eden. Even better the Secretary of the Peoples Bureau, Habib was a career diplomat who had worked with Bashir in the International Cooperation Department. Habib had a massive budget and looked after Bashir royally, putting him into one of the very few five star hotels on the island at that time.
Obviously, Bashir’s intention was to be issued with his Kenyan visa and return to Nairobi quickly. An African – wide mistrust of Libya was beginning to ferment. Daniel Arap Moi, the Kenyan President was also the current President of the OAU and wary of Gaddafi and the Libyans he was stationing across Africa. Hence by the end of two weeks there was no update on the visa situation. Bashir was besotted with the Seychelles and called to say that I had to drop everything and come to Mahe to see this country, which was like no other he had ever visited; the marine life was beyond belief. It was impossible to resist the call and of course I brought the shoes. For once, it was a change Bashir meeting me at the airport looking totally relaxed from Seychelles life. I promptly discovered that the perfume of the frangipani, the lush landscape and the brilliant blue of the sea were exactly as he had described. In fact it was cheaper for me to be in the Seychelles than to part with the money we had been spending on those long, longing phone calls.
It could not have been more wonderful. The next weeks were utterly free of all cares. We swam snorkelled and saw every imaginable type of sea life. The Seychelles in 1981 was blissfully empty, tranquil and peaceful during the day. At night there were countless evenings in the hotel bar and the Segar dance competition which Bashir had predictably won the previous two weeks. On my arrival he had been banned from re – entering to give others a chance. Not many people could afford to stay in such a hotel for an extended period and Bashir’s stay was to last for 45 days until his visa finally came through.
One highlight of our stay was a flight on a six – seater plane which took us to Praslin Island; our heaven. We were the only people staying in a small complex of wooden huts on the beach. I can visualize that beach to this day with the two of us walking, swimming, lying, kissing and laughing in that remote idyllic place. Perhaps one of the best gifts Bashir gave me is the unique and wonderfully happy memories and his spirit of carpe diem. He was insistent not to leave anything until tomorrow, always do it today. We had so much of what we built together taken away in later years, but nobody could ever tarnish my vivid reminiscence of those magical tender loving days.
The Secretary of the People’s Bureau, Habib and his wife offered us the hand of friendship by inviting us to their glorious residence and introducing me to my first taste of the spices and flavours of Libyan cuisine. We were to meet again in Manila as colleagues. By contrast there was Abdu, the youngest member of the committee who seemed to be chiefly concerned with drinking and womanising, much to Habib’s annoyance. Abdu was from Sirte, the birthplace of Gaddafi, hence his luck at being sent to the Seychelles to earn a handsome salary and have fun. I think he looked at me as being Bashir’s European catch and was not interested in much more about us.
It was the other member of the committee, whose name I fail to remember, who was obviously put out by Bashir having an English girlfriend. Probably it is selective memory loss. Year after year I was to encounter his type, every night hanging out in bars drinking alcohol, picking up different women and then returning home to their unsuspecting wives. It was the hypocrisy of these men that was so repugnant, rather than their activities. Bashir warned me to steer clear of this man as he had labelled me a prostitute and a non – Muslim and therefore believed I would lead Bashir into evil ways.
At this time the People’s Bureaus were newly formed and included the new elite revolutionaries as members of the committees. No one knew quite what power they had, but it was obvious that they were Gaddafi men and he was building his power base in the foreign ministry and in all parts of Libya. Bashir was concerned at the influence that these people seemed to have given his experience in Sierra Leone and Liberia. This might be a good place to look back to pre – 1969 Libya under King Idris and at what was to come as well as where Bashir stood at the beginning of the revolution. This history would impact and colour his life in the future and our lives together.
Bashir was born in 1950 when Libya was a desert backwater having suffered from the ravages of occupation by the Italians, Germans and the Allies during World War II. He remembered vividly United Nations food parcels arriving at the house and of there being vitamin tablets which were forced down his throat by his mother saying ‘they will do you good’. Food was scarce and there were no mains electricity or water. Life was tough for the majority.
The country became independent in 1951 with King Idris being crowned the country’s monarch. The new King was from the large and powerful infamous eastern tribe of Senussi which had been politically active during World War ll giving vital support to the British 8th army in North Africa against the Italians and Germans. As head of the tribe and grandson of the Grand Senussi, Sayyid Mohamed Ibn Ali Senussi, King Idris was a popular choice both with the allies and the Libyan elite from eastern Libya. ‘Elite’ accurately describes the situation in Libya by 1969. Oil wealth was flowing into the country and the profits left over after foreign oil companies had taken their large slice were then generously distributed to members of the old clans and the King’s family.
Libya was divided into three fiercely autonomous regional areas. Gaddafi by overthrowing the monarchy and later declaring the Jamahiriya (a republic of the masses in which political power is passed to the people) made Libya into a one nation state. This fragile unity was maintained with an iron fist during his 42 years in power a fact frequently overlooked when assessing the pros and cons of NATO intervention and post – revolutionary Libya.
Events can impact our lives dramatically and for Bashir growing up during this period they were to heavily colour his view. Although I am not trying to write a history of Libya since the Second World War it is important to be aware that there are dramatically differing points of view on the reign of King Idris, both positive and negative. Also, at the start of the 1969 revolution, Bashir was nineteen and of a generation that is steadily disappearing, being the last to be able to accurately describe how the landscape was at that time. Gaddafi ensured that nothing positive could really be written about Libya under King Idris. The history was to be lost, buried, and forgotten. By September 1969 there were two groups: the old elite and tribal elders and the marginalized. Members of the latter group were initially to become Gaddafi supporters on the night of the 31st August and the following morning, as the news of the coup trickled through.
Bashir would be the first to say that under the Kingdom he received a first rate primary and secondary education given that Libya was a developing country coming out from the ravages of World War ll. Teachers were qualified, many coming from Iraq, Egypt and Sudan and the professors in the universities were from the USA and UK. Up to date textbooks were supplied to every child free, and there was a desk for each one of them in clean, airy classrooms. Bashir started to learn English at his state secondary school an institution in stark contrast to the fee – paying elite Tripoli College where only English was used as the language of instruction. When he reached university his best friend was the late Bashir Bishti (the son of a former foreign minister and to whom from now on I shall refer simply as Bishti) who had attended Tripoli College and whose, Arabic as a result was poor. The joke was that Bishti helped with the English assignments while Bashir did the Arabic. Bishti had little or no idea of how to write literate Arabic but had a wonderful grasp of English and the two of them made good companions.
On the medical side the hospitals were well maintained and staffed by qualified expatriate doctors and nurses with all treatment being free. There was also a private hospital, and those patients needing treatment unavailable in Libya would be sent for private treatment in London, paid for by the government. When Bashir’s cousin needed a kidney transplant (which sadly was unsuccessful) he was sent to Hammersmith Hospital in London.
There was little if any crime; gold shops packed with expensive wedding jewellery would be closed at prayer time with two broomsticks across the door. A population of approximately three million lived more or less harmoniously. However, the distribution of the oil wealth, property and the allocation of the choicest jobs were not based on merit but rather through nepotism, cronyism and tribal influence, overseen by the royal family. The most coveted jobs were in oil and the military as for both there were opportunities for training abroad, huge salaries and the chance to skim large helpings of cream from multiple deals. Where there is inequality, there is fertile ground for dissent and uprising.
I have talked to numerous expatriates who were in Libya before and after the revolution and without exception they will all say that living and working in Libya was pleasurable before 1969. Huge salaries, luxurious housing, wonderful beach clubs just for expatriates and a few elite Libyans, casinos, restaurants, excellent shopping coupled with a very pleasant Mediterranean climate made for an extremely easy lifestyle and an opportunity to build quite a nest egg.
Throughout Libya’s post world war history the expatriates have been beneficiaries whereas the majority of Libyans have been the losers. For the Shkuka family Bashir’s brother Ismael had recently spent six months in prison for joining a rally expressing dissatisfaction at the inequalities within the society. The majority of Libyans, certainly outside of Tripoli and Benghazi, tolerated appalling infrastructure and lacked any of the benefits such as mains water and electricity that I in London had taken for granted as a child growing up at the same time. Even in 1969 it is hard to imagine studying by candlelight and a kerosene lamp and getting news through a makeshift radio, yet this was how Bashir studied as a child and in his first year at university. For a society with new found oil wealth it was becoming apparent that despite improved aspects in the area of health and education there were a few who lived lavishly with the majority eking out a living.
On the evening of the 31st August 1969 Bashir and his brother – in – law to be, Shaban, were enjoying the twilight on Gargaresh beach. They could see the sports cars being driven into the New Florida and Polyranna casinos. The floodlights were shining on Underwater and Rimmal, the two exclusive sports and social clubs for expatriates and a few select Libyans, occupying the best positions on Gargaresh beach. Of course these two young Gargaresh lads could in no way ever dream of joining these famously exclusive playgrounds. They sat on the beach discussing their lack of opportunities and marginalization within the society. Late in the evening as frantic sports cars began screeching out of the clubs, Bashir and Shaban had their first inkling of the peaceful coup that had taken place in Benghazi. Gargaresh beach and Libya would never be the same again.
Initially there was euphoria on the Libyan streets and it was rumoured that in the Libyan embassy in London some were seen jumping on the tables to celebrate the overthrow of the monarch. King Idris was in Turkey at the time: he never returned to Libya but instead went into exile in Egypt. The monarchy was abolished and a new state formed with the ideals of ‘freedom, socialism and unity’. The charismatic and exceedingly handsome Gaddafi had taken power along with his compatriots and formed the new governing revolutionary council. Bashir recounted how it took him along with others, less than a year to realise that they had replaced inequality with a monster.
Alas, as I try to review the historical facts I continually find differences in the sequence of events and how they are recounted. Gaddafi rewrote his history and his sycophantic followers assisted him in recording their own versions of the pre and post 42 years of Gaddafi rule. I do so wish that Bashir had lived to write this story rather than myself, his wife. He always promised that either when he retired and was living in England or when Gaddafi was gone that he would write his memoirs. I have had to keep all my memories in my head. However, whenever Bashir spoke of the political events which occurred prior to our meeting, he always described them as being as clear in his mind as they were when they occurred.
My recollections are those of a foreigner living in my adopted country of Libya but also through the eyes of my Libyan husband. Right up to the beginning of the revolution in 2011 nobody talked about Libya before Gaddafi apart from perhaps in very tight family groups. It is suspected, and I believe it to be well grounded, that Gaddafi recruited one third of the country’s adults into the intelligence service in various capacities to act as ‘antenna’ or listeners/reporters as Bashir liked to call them. In this way Gaddafi was able to write history through his own eyes. Fairly accurate smuggled stories were occasionally reported in the western press, but more often news of life under the Gaddafi regime was based on hearsay and assumptions. People lived in very real fear of being caught speaking against the leader or his family, so silence was the rule for all but the bravest.
Gaddafi was a disciple of President Jamal Abdul Nasser who had led the Egyptian revolution against the monarchy in 1952. Nasser introduced far – reaching land reforms and cracked down on the Muslim Brotherhood. He was to become an iconic figure in the Arab world due to his anti – imperialist stance especially in his successful nationalization of the Suez Canal out of the grips of the French and British. He was equally admired and lauded for his efforts for Arab unity and his moves towards social justice for Egypt.
Emulating his role model Gaddafi immediately promoted himself to the same military rank of Colonel. He then set about tackling the unfair legacy of foreign domination of the Libyan oil industry. He demanded the renegotiation of oil contracts and threatened to shut off oil production if the oil companies refused. He memorably told oil executives ‘people who have lived without oil for 5000 years can live without it for a few years in order to attain their legitimate rights’. The gamble paid off and Libya became the first developing country to secure a majority share of the revenues of its own oil production. Production levels, matched those of the Gulf States with Libya having one of the smallest populations in Africa of (less than 3 million at that time). It was at this early point, that Gaddafi enjoyed the support of most, including Bashir. There should have been more than enough for one and all.
However, it was perhaps the in – flow of wealth that became Libya’s ‘curse’ as Bashir called this black gold. It is easy to say ‘what if’ but I do wonder whether a Gaddafi, without billions of dollars to hand might have been a very different Gaddafi. Perhaps the Libyan people might have enjoyed a different kind of prosperity and freedom? Gaddafi may have secured vast wealth for Libya but shortly after renegotiating all the contracts the ten members of the revolutionary council awarded themselves 10 million dollars each for leading the revolution, with no such largesse for the rest of the population. In later years Gaddafi was to claim the oil wealth was for himself and his family, the rest of what little remained being for the Libyans. This greed has never been admitted or even acknowledged by any of the Gaddafi clan.
There were two individuals who received very different treatment at this time. The first was Ali Mdorid, a high ranking military officer and the second was Ahmed Bishti, a former Libyan foreign minister and father of Bashir’s university friend, Bashir Bishti. The purge between 1971/72 saw seven former prime ministers, numerous government officials, as well as King Idris in absentia, brought to trial on charges of treason and corruption in the Libyan People’s Court. A good number of these men were subsequently acquitted which was also the fate for both Ali Mdorid and Ahmed Bishti but in different ways. Ali had taught Gaddafi at the military college and had gone with the young Gaddafi to England for training at Sandhurst. For some reason or other the Colonel (as Gaddafi began to become known by Libyans) never forgot how Ali had taught him so on learning that he had been arrested, ordered his immediate release. It was at this point that Ali resigned his commission and joined the Foreign Ministry. Ahmed Bishti on the other hand was imprisoned but later acquitted. When these former senior officials and ministers were arrested the majority of people were terrified at what was occuring and wanted more than anything that this new legal authority would see no connection with themselves and those arrested or their families for fear of being found guilty by association. Nonetheless, Bashir and Bishti went to the prison to discover the circumstances of Ahmed’s incarceration. They were horrified to find the old man sitting on a concrete floor with no bedding and a bucket in the corner that had not been emptied and stank of excrement. He was restricted to a daily ration of a loaf of bread and a cup of milk or water. Perhaps the only piece of good luck was that he had a cell to himself. Despite these circumstances Ahmed Bishti was dignified and stoical; he was a deeply religious man who still somehow believed that justice would result in him being released. The two young men visited him daily for a period of around three weeks. His family and relatives stayed away as did his so – called friends. This shunning of those in political trouble seems to be a characteristic of many Libyans and was certainly the case when it came to Bashir being on the Gaddafi blacklist for eight years. No one was willing to help, even his own family. The experience of Ahmed Bishti’s imprisonment was one of the events that had a profound effect on Bashir in turning him from being a Gaddafi supporter to becoming one of the many silent opponents.
Bashir had had no contact with the pre – revolutionary elite and his view of them was that they lived an opulent lifestyle with no regard for the majority of Libyans. Ahmed Bishti though, he saw as a devout man wishing to promote Libyan interests. Bashir, like the majority of Libyans, had genuinely believed that summary arrests, torture and disappearances were to be a thing of the past but seeing Ahmed Bishti in prison was a clear illustration that things had not changed and were in fact changing for the worse. When Ahmed Bishti was released he retired to his farm in Zawiya where he lived quietly until his death. His wife was still alive in 2002, aged 91 when we left Libya for Manila. I wish I could have interviewed her but Gaddafi was still very much at the helm and no one spoke or asked, ever.
By 1973 Gaddafi had handed over the day – to – day running of the country to Major Jaloud while he started writing his infamous Green book. The model that was created was an ultra – hierarchical pyramid with the Gaddafi family and close allies at the top wielding power unchecked, protected by a brutal security apparatus. Tales abounded of torture and lengthy jail terms without trial, executions and disappearances. This saw the beginning of many of Libya’s educated and qualified citizens choosing exile rather than paying lip service to Gaddafi and his Green Book supporters. The majority of those able to go into exile were the wealthy elite who had the financial means to enable them to escape. Gaddafi also began his reward system for allegiance at this time with scholarships to study abroad. Many who took advantage of this benefit would never return to Libya, choosing to settle primarily in the UK, USA and Italy as the Gaddafi regime became ever more robust and fearsome. Bashir wished to do a MA abroad but was only offered a Canadian scholarship to study Library Science, a subject in which he had no interest, so chose not to take up the offer.
There was one more episode of friendship and another of terror that confirmed Bashir’s belief that Gaddafi was a colossal error. He had been at school with Milad Awassa who of the two was slightly older. Milad was not a particularly spectacular student, and was held back several times. His family was from a wealthy clan in Aziziyah, twenty kilometres out of Tripoli. Their income derived from farming and owning extensive property in Hay Andulus an upmarket Tripoli suburb, which was primarily rented out to expatriate oil workers for high rents. Bashir and Milad become inseparable friends and on one occasion he remembered going with Milad and his father to collect the rent money. To a young and impressionable poor Gargaresh lad this must have seemed like wealth beyond belief. Nevertheless it did not impact on their friendship. Happy times were spent together down on the beach and Bashir grew to know and like the whole family. Based on Milad’s family background it was therefore in many ways strange that he became one of Gaddafi’s last bullets (a Libyan/Arabic expression for a close confident and the final protector). He joined the Libyan forces fighting in the Yom Kippur war against Israel and through this came to the notice of Gaddafi on his return to Libya. There was no harm to their friendship at this stage but while Milad had been away, Bashir had made new friends at the university with different ideologies to those of Gaddafi’s. He had completely lost faith in Gaddafi as a leader, and was about to devastatingly lose faith in his friend Milad.
The events leading to this chasm began to become apparent in 1973 when Gaddafi gave a speech in Zawarah, a city 102 kilometres west of Tripoli in which he initiated a five – point plan that included the removal of all opponents of the revolution and all traces of bureaucracy and the bourgeoisie; to ‘expunge Libya of all foreign influences’. Storm clouds were appearing on the horizon. In 1974 a legal reliance on sharia law was introduced with adultery and homosexual activity to be punishable by flogging (although I have to say that I heard no account of flogging ever being used as a punishment). Alcohol at the beginning of the revolution immediately became illegal and this led to some enterprising expatriates, unscrupulous foreign diplomats and the Gargaresh mafia setting up illicit stills and becoming millionaires through the sale of illegal alcohol.
Also it was around this time that conscription for all 18 year olds was enforced. No longer could the sons of the elite be exempt, and those at university would be targets for over enthusiastic revolutionary officers. It was a truly miserable time for those undergoing training. There were many stories of young men having to crawl on bare knees across the yard for two hours and then having to stand for hours in the hot Libyan sun without hats or water; Bashir was one of these young men. This was revenge for the newly appointed revolutionary army officers and it was payback time for those who had marginalized them. It must have been incredibly hard for ordinary Libyans to know where to position themselves.
These radical reforms combined with the abolition of a parliament being replaced by The People’s Committees led to widespread discontent, especially when it became known that the Revolutionary Council Committee (RCC) had decided to spend money on foreign causes. By 1975 as well, members of the original RCC were beginning to recognize that Gaddafi was moving the revolution in the wrong direction. Bashir Saghir al Hawaasi and Omar Mfeheshi then launched a failed coup leaving just five members of the original ten – member council.
The red line had been crossed with this seeming blanket imposition of new laws. Bashir remembered going to the University in April 1975 and joining his friends to demonstrate against these laws and enactments brought in at the maniacal whim of Gaddafi and his followers. They were also joined by conservative Muslim brotherhood followers who had been outlawed as being anti – revolutionary. What they failed to know was that the police and the newly formed and very well armed revolutionary brigade had been called in to put down the demonstration. Bashir recounted there were pools of blood spilling everywhere, students and demonstrators screaming, shouting and yelling all desperately trying to escape the bullets and the brutality of the police clubbing, hitting and kicking them. Imagine his horror when along with Major Jalloud he saw his best friend of old Milad brandishing a Kalashnikov as he stood on a roof top mowing down the students. Bashir swore never to have any personal contact with Milad again; the friendship of so many years was cut, over, irreconcilable. At one point much later when we were homeless, people suggested that Bashir should ask Milad for help as he was powerful and could undoubtedly have found a solution. Bashir never went back on his word. Their lives had gone in dramatically different directions. Milad became one of Gaddafi’s last bullets; his reward was complete control of meat importation to the entire fiefdom, a highly lucrative contract. He committed suicide during the revolution when his Gargaresh house was surrounded by the revolutionaries. It was after long drawn out fierce fighting that he jumped from the roof in a hail of bullets. He and Bashir had made their choices long ago. When Bashir heard this news despite everything I saw a tinge of sadness in his eyes, he made no comment and I did not ask.
Bashir and his friends were lucky on that day and escaped to their homes unhurt but were aware that there had been countless injuries and deaths. Could it be possible that Libyans had harmed each other in such a brutal fashion? They were having difficulty believing what they had witnessed, the sheer carnage of what they had just seen and experienced. Gaddafi did not want it known that there was any dissent; nothing was reported in the press. It is believed at least thirty students were killed on that terrible day.
Bashir and Bishti, the two Bashirs, were to discover in the evening, that one of their friends, whom they called Sheikh because of his deeply held religious beliefs, had been arrested. Once again it was down to the two of them to locate their friend and to see how they could help. As was beginning to be the pattern, other so called friends faded into the woodwork. Thankfully Sheikh was released after two days and allowed to return to a small flat where he was living, not wishing to bring attention and danger to his own family. He had begun writing against the regime and this in all probability was the reason for his imprisonment. Bashir recalled it was a desperately sad meeting as Sheikh begged the two not to return and visit him again as he knew that he was going to be rearrested and that they should not put themselves and their families in danger, this being especially true for Bishti. These events left such a deep impression on Bashir and cemented his belief that Gaddafi had to go, but the question was how? The terrifying reign of terror was to continue through to 2011 when the bubble burst. Bashir lost so many of his friends; Bishti went into exile in the USA and died there, Sheikh was arrested and rearrested, spending long periods in prison, and Milad was a dead name. The friendships of Bashir’s youth were shattered. Gaddafi had fractured the foundation of Libyan society and in so doing was able to control it. Fast – forward to the present and perhaps it can be better understood why the revolution has failed. These people had been cooped – up in this desolate desert setting and pitched against itself for decades, Gaddafi’s handiwork is still endemic in every level of Libyan life today.
If you would like to read the book in it's entirety, it is available on:
Title: Libya, A Love Lived, A Life Betrayed - 9/36
Author: Susan M. SandoverPublished: 28/11/2016
Seller: Troubador Publishing Ltd
Goodreads: Susan M. Sandover