11 Apr 2011

Libya: my last night in Tripoli

As Jonathan Rugman leaves Libya, he remains concerned about the civilians left behind in what he fears will be a long drawn-out conflict.

It is my last night in Tripoli. I have been here four weeks out of the last six – not as long as some of my colleagues, but enough for me, and it is time to go home and back to the job of being a husband and father.

The sun has faded behind the trees in the hotel garden. Ray, my cameraman, has packed up his TV equipment on the “live position” which is my balcony; and the mosquitoes – lured into my room by Ray’s television lights – are settling in for what I suspect will be a long and final night of bombing raids on me as I lie in bed.

There is much about Government-controlled Libya that I will not miss.

Like the Government minder who threatened to smash my pocket camera yesterday. True, I had tried to film an air warning system destroyed by NATO jets outside Misrata, the radar’s rotating wings flapping hopelessly like the broken sails of an abandoned windmill.

In fact, the epic trip to Misrata, the western city besieged by Gaddafi’s forces, is best forgotten. The coach ride took several hours to reach the outskirts, not helped by our minders’ decision to stop for a late afternoon sandwich at a nearby hotel.

Read more: Misrata faces humanitarian disaster

When we reached the fringes of Misrata, we saw a few plumes of smoke rising from a NATO air attack. Then we were told to get back on the coach, and that was all we would see, apart from a pro-Gaddafi rally apparently laid on for our benefit in a neighbouring village.

At the rally, fine-looking men were riding horses, which cavorted about to the photographers’ delight. Pretty pictures for the world’s press, though everyone complained about Messrs Obama, Sarkozy and Cameron and NATO’s jets keeping them awake at night.

Nobody spoke about the humanitarian disaster unfolding a few miles away in Misrata, where the UN has accused Gaddafi’s forces of killing children and using civilians as human shields.

And if they had spoken about these things, our Government minders would have been listening in. After a few such rallies – one a day on average, in fact – some journalists begin to wilt and stop reporting them at all.

Our coach then took an inexplicable detour into the desert, and a row between the press and our minders ensued. It was partly about the tortuous route, and partly about the appalling choice of Libyan music on board, and at one point it threatened to develop into a fight.

I fell asleep on a Belgian photographer’s shoulder and we were returned to the hotel at around midnight, only to find that a press conference had started in the ballroom, where our presence was required.

I won’t miss these insane press conferences, which like the Government press trips take no account whatsoever of the difference between day and night or the deadlines journalists must work towards.

Nor will I miss the constant uncertainty as to the visa rules for arriving and departing press. At one point last week, a list of 26 names was posted around the hotel and we were told all of them had to leave the country the next morning. Journalists love it when they become the story. What greater glory is there than being thrown out by a despotic state? But by the next morning, this was no longer the case. The hacks could stay. Quite why can only be explained if you know how to decipher the turf wars between feuding Libyan officials – and that requires a degree in the Libyan equivalent of Kremlinology which I do not possess.

In much of my reporting from here, I have suggested that the conflict in Libya would be a long drawn out affair. That there was too much wishful thinking amid Libya’s rebels and in western capitals that Colonel Gaddafi would step down any time soon.

Read more on Libya: ‘we are in for the long haul’

I have seen resistance to him brutally suppressed in the towns of Zawiyah to the West and Tajoura to the East. The mosque in Zawiyah, which was used as a clinic to treat rebel fighters, has been bulldozed flat, and unknown numbers of Libyans have been taken away for questioning there.

A contact in Tajoura tells me peaceful demonstrations after Friday prayers are immediately broken up with tear gas and live bullets. I could no longer witness these protests myself without risk of being detained and bringing further trouble on those I met.

Now NATO air strikes are pretty much all there is to stop Misrata suffering a similar fate. The defection of Moussa Koussa, Libya’s Foreign Minister, has not proved to be a “tipping point” which would trigger the regime’s collapse. The rebels may have to consider a ceasefire deal which leaves Colonel Gaddafi ensconced in Tripoli, which they will find it difficult though not impossible to accept.

It feels as if Libya will stay geographically divided between east and west, until the military balance changes, or Gaddafi runs out of oil and money, or the loyalty of his sons and commanders reaches a low ebb.

And in the meantime, I will join the group of smiling, relieved journalists waiting in the hotel lobby for a Government bus to the Tunisian border. As is ever the case in my line of work, I can leave, while most of those around me cannot.