An Acacia Tree in Libya

Maybe I wasn’t properly scared until I was back in England. When you are sitting under an acacia tree in the Libyan Desert everything feels so far away. Even when the text on your mobile says: ‘Civil War feared. Dead lying in streets. Gaddafi vowed 2 fight 2 the last man woman and bullet. Good luck,’ you still don’t think it is happening because all you can see is a huge sand-dune in one direction and a pinnacle of rock in the other. The sky is a perfect, unblemished blue and nine camels are idly nibbling at the dry branches of the tree. There is no noise, apart from the chewing camels, nothing to disturb the peace.
I think: we’ll just stay here, we’ll be fine. I want to watch the sun set, the rocks turn gold and red and finally a deep, dark blue. I want to lie in my sleeping bag and count the stars. But we have to get out because it is Wednesday 23rd February 2011 and the situation in Libya is deteriorating, fast. When the guides begin to look nervous, very nervous, we know it’s serious.
We are over 500 kilometres from Sabha. We must get back there. The road is long and rutted. It leads through the flat desert and dozens of check-points and already it is four in the afternoon. We pack up and wait. An hour passes. The shadows on the dune are deeper now. We do not say much.
Finally the drivers arrive and we set off. Through a grove of strange trees, past the sulphur springs we were to have visited. A pick-up truck drives by, sand spurting from the wheels. The young man in the back wears mirrored sunglasses. He carries an AK-47 and a green arm band on his arm. Green for Gaddafi.
Up and over the dunes. Down onto the road. Stop. There is a check-point ahead and it is prayer time. The guide prays, the drivers too. The sun sets. It begins to grow dark. We remain where we are. We chew mints and maybe we pray a little ourselves, quietly and inside.
The vehicles move forward, through the check-point. Night has fallen. We do not know where we are going. We do not know how we will get out of Libya.
At eight we are eating pizzas and drinking coffee in the border town of Ghat. The men in the cafe are glued to the television. Three small boys stare at us. Maybe we’re going to try for Algeria. No, we’re not. We must get a flight out with the French from Sabha.
Nine thirty. On the road: one car and one mini bus. Sometimes we take the lead, sometimes the car goes in front. Hours upon hours of the bumpy road and the red tail lights and Arabic rap music. Sometimes a car or a lorry passes going the other way. Slow down. Stop. Another check-point. A small fire burning. A man in a smart camel coat. Torches shone into the bus. Men with guns. On and on. A petrol stop. More check-points. Slow, slow.
Ubari, the small town where we stopped for coffee on the way down. It is two in the morning. There are men in the street, milling around, men with hard eyes and guns and green arm bands. Don't look. Stare right ahead. Stay calm.
A desert fox. An empty check-point.
Four am, that cold hour before dawn. The gate opens to the Sabha camp-site. Relief for now. We must try and sleep. We have missed the French flight. But perhaps there is another in the morning. We can only hope.
Thursday 24th February, 6pm, Sabha airport runway. Location: the cock-pit of an Italian Hercules plane. Destination: Rome.
Thursday 24th February, 6.30pm. The desert stretches out below the aeroplane. We wave. Maybe one day we will return. When peace comes.

B Griffiths

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