Monday, February 21, 2011

Colonel Qadhafi

Thirty years ago tensions between the United States and Libya were near the boiling point. In December, 1981, President Ronald Reagan ordered the approximately 1,500 American citizens living in Libya to leave or face legal action. That's when CBS News decided to dispatch me to Tripoli along with a reporter and a camera crew.

I was assigned to temporary duty in the London bureau of CBS News at the time. It's not bad work if you can get it. Shortly following the White House announcement I was off to Gatwick airport, about 25 miles south of London, where a charter Lear jet was on standby. Thankfully I had enough time to run next door to the Hyde Park Hotel and pack.

We loaded up the charter with camera gear and luggage and awaited clearance to take off on a snowy cold night. But we had one major problem--we were not cleared to land in Libya! And we didn't have the required visas either. After much consternation and consultation the CBS News foreign desk told us to fly on to Nice, France, where we could refuel.

Even at midnight Nice was very nice. Temperatures were in the mid 60's and the breeze off the Mediterranean Sea, which ran along the south side of the airport, was very refreshing. As our plane refueled, I continued to await word from New York that we had been cleared to land in Tripoli. Following a two hour wait the foreign desk decided that we should take off for Libya while they continued their efforts to get permission for us to land.

Into the darkness we headed for the 800-mile flight to Tripoli. I remember the nervous laughter in the cabin as we flew beneath the stars and a bright moon over the pitch-black sea. Periodically our pilots updated us on our landing status--still no clearance. Nearly half way on our journey we decided to attempt a landing even though we did not have permission. Believe me, there were plenty of jokes about returning to the French Riviera.

There it was in the distance, Tripoli. I could see the mass of lights straddling the North African coastline. Tripoli is Libya's capitol and most populous city and it appeared to be floating surrounded by nothing on either side. Through my porthole sized window I immediately scanned the nighttime horizon for signs of Libyan fighters. There were none. I asked the pilots whether they had heard any radio traffic. At first they could not raise the airport tower. But after a few minutes we were cleared to land. Whew.

When our plane touched down in the predawn hours, we were directed to a parking area quite some distance from the terminal. After we had been parked for a half hour, we decided to disembark. Standing on the runway I could feel the warm moist air but no signs of life. The airport was quiet.

A small transport bus arrived nearly an hour after we arrived and security shuttled us on board for a ride to the terminal. As we got to the terminal our passports were taken from us and we were assigned to a holding area. There our gracious hosts served us pear juice and crackers.

We were then taken by bus to a hotel on the coast. I believe the name of the hotel was The Beach, but it sure wasn't the Four Seasons! We entered the darkened lobby and found the front desk unmanned. Men were sleeping in the chairs that filled the lobby area. It took several minutes for security to find someone to check us in.

Remarkably, the hotel was pretty full. I was assigned a room in the basement. Although it was musty, the room appeared clean and I had a small cellar window from which I could see out toward the sea. I watched daylight slowly creep in that morning before falling asleep.

Over the next few days we waited to be summoned to meet with Libya's leader, Colonel Muammar Abu Minyar al-Qadhafi. It seems that he wanted to make a statement to the world's press, who were arriving by the droves.

Everyday, at about noon, anti-American and pro-Qadhafi demonstrators gathered outside our hotel bearing placards, written in Arabic and English, and making a whole lot of noise. We assumed they were government workers. They praised their leader and life in Libya.

One evening we visited the home of some Americans who had been ordered out of the country by their president. We ate lamb and drank vintage wine. While liquor was technically illegal in Libya it could be found in most private homes.

On our third day it was announced that the world's press would be taken to the People's Jamahiriya, the people's palace, for a press event. We assumed that Colonel Qadhafi was ready to speak to us. As we entered the building all of our equipment was confiscated. We were all left in a room with no clue what would happen next.

About thirty minutes later I heard the sound of a motorcade screeching to a halt outside. Several minutes passed before a man entered and slowly walked through the crowd of journalists. He then retraced his route and walked out the door. A couple minutes later several men, I assume security, came through the door followed by Colonel Qadhafi. He walked be me, nodded as he passed, and proceeded through a door on the other side of the room. A quiet sense of excitement filled our room as we awaited further instructions.

A few minutes later a man emerged with an announcement in broken English. "There will be no press conference, you go home." With that brief statement the man walked out. "What?" "No press conference?" We were confused, but security got the message. They gave us back our equipment and drove us back to our hotels. We later received clarification; we were to leave the country. That was it!

It turns out that as we awaited our press conference General Wojciech Jaruzelski declared martial law in Poland. That was December 13, 1981. Word reached us that Colonel Qadhafi, wanted to address the negative press coverage he had been receiving on the front pages of the world’s newspapers. Coverage of martial law in Poland would now dominate the front pages and the Libyan leader would be buried deep inside the newspaper.

At first the CBS News foreign desk did not want to pull us out. We waited a couple of days to see what would happen. After all, this was the man President Reagan called, "The mad dog of the Middle East."

But our hosts were growing increasingly impatient. We were among the last to leave. As we boarded our charter for a return trip to London, I wondered what life was really like for Libyans who lived under the absolute and whimsical control of an all-powerful dictator. And how long would they allow this tyrannical autocrat to lead their country.

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