I went to Libya! Now and then (the 2nd last country in Africa!)
Change is inevitable
I am very good at logistics. Perhaps it wasn't always so and it's a skill I developed over time? I loved Lego as a child and I still do so today although I hardly touch those colorful plastic building blocks nowadays. Putting together building blocks will certainly develop your logistical senses. Perhaps that is where it all began?
The Saga in its purest form is for me a logistical masterpiece. For me logistics is an art form where the coordinator masters a vast amount of information and releases it to the right people, in the right amount, at the right time. If that is done professionally then everything else runs smoothly. It can be applied to almost anything in life from complex construction to organizing your home and your relation to those around you.
In front of my home in Libya.
It was as a shipping educated young man in my 20s that I was pushing management within the company that hired me. I had been behind a screen for 4 years making phone calls and connecting with customers regarding transportation. I wanted to be stationed abroad for all of those 4 years but the company needed me in Denmark. There was a change in management and that's when I met Henrik Dam Larsen. He took over as the office manager and not long after, he proposed that I could work in house for a major client on one of their projects: in Libya! While my peers where gunning for positions in London, New York, Tokyo, Sydney and other well known places, the prospects of working in Libya intrigued me and frightened me at the same time. Wasn't that the Arab country of Ghadaffi? Indeed it was. It was back in 2006 and Ghadaffi was still alive and ruling the country with an iron fist.
The cement factory.
The years between 2006 and 2008 changed me fundamentally. I developed skills beyond my comprehension. I grew confident. I learned about Islam and the Arab culture. I expanded my language skills to include a tiny vocabulary of Arabic and fell in love with Libya.
My friend Kris and I when he came to visit back in 2006-2008.
Libya back then was a safe country to travel and work within. I'm not saying that everything was good and you certainly had to be careful in regards to certain topics. However if you stayed neutral and friendly the country was open to you with all its rich culture and history. Libya was home to the berbers who probably settled about 7,000 years ago. Libya was long ago green and lush and inhabited by exotic animals such as giraffes and crocodiles. Cave paintings in Libya depict it and so do the fossils. Today you find the vast portion of the Sahara located within Libya with its incredible ocean of sand stretching beyond the horizon. While stationed in Libya I was contracted to work 60 hours per week and sometimes I worked much more than that. However I also found time to explore the country. The Phoenicians, the Greek, the Romans, the Arabs and many others settled across Libya throughout history. Impressive archeological sites such as the Sabratha and Leptis Magna are proof of the exceptional capacity of the Romans and can still be seen today. They are among the best archeological sites I've ever seen and I have seen a lot. But before the Romans the Greek built massive temples and statues as well. Sites at the Mediterranean Sea which can also been seen today and probably a thousand years from now. The Libyan coastline stretches across 1,770 km (1.099 mi) of pristine nearly untouched sand beaches with clear warm waters.
Kris and I in our beduin clothing (just for fun). 2006-2008.
The Arabic word for desert is sahara. So don't say Sahara desert ;) Within the Sahara of Libya you'll find camel caravans, dreamlike oases, old caravan stations and sand dunes as tall as mountains. I once visited the massive crater of the Waw al Namus volcano which exploded long ago and today boasts 3 colorful lakes: green, blue and red. The only thing I found missing in the Medina of Tripoli were snake charmers and flying carpets. And had they been there, they would have fit right in. The people would never hassle me and it was impossible to walk past anyone without being invited for tea. Often I found that the key to break the neutral weatherworn faces of a Libyan man was to greet him with a simple "Salaam Alaikum" (peace be upon you). Having greeted politely, any mans face would open up in a large welcoming smile and more tea. The hearts and hospitality of the Libyans are in my book warm, genuine and welcoming. These are things that do not change and are still true today. These are my memories from between 2006 - 2008.
My favorite street butcher. 2006-2008.
My youngest sister came to visit in 2007 and had henna done.
14,000 year old cave paintings in Libya.
Kris and I bobsledding in the Sahara. 2006-2008.
My dad visits Libya. 2006-2008.
Waw al Namus volcanic crater near the center of the Sahara.
My dad at the Waw al Namus crater. 2006-2008.
My friend Marc visits Libya. We went to a barbershop, got trimmed, shaved and then had this classic photo collage done: "Best Frinds Forever" :) 2006-2008.
Todays Libya remains full of people who simply want a peaceful future. However since 2011 Libya has been thrown into an uncertain future with great political instability. I had been researching and preparing to enter Libya within the Saga since early 2017 and it was no picnic. I cannot remember a single person not warning me about going to Libya. "Why do you want to go there?!?" and "please don't go to Libya!!" had long ago become daily comments. Having spent much time in Libya in the past I knew that I would not need to spend more than the Sagas required 24 hours across the border. Where should I cross? How could I cross? When should I cross? Should I cross the border? Out of fear from alerting potential kidnappers about my progress or lack of same, I could not risk writing about any of this in the blog or in social media. And what about the visa? An invitation letter was required and who in their right mind would invite me?
The Nile running through Cairo (2017).
When I reached Egypt I assessed the possibilities for crossing the border from there. Information was scarce. Perhaps it could have been done and the east of Libya which is under control of General Haftar and his allies might have been and option? Some experts I consoled found that General Haftar was trying to appeal to European leaders and therefore I would be "untouchable" within his territory? Could I trust that? Could I risk that? Who knows...information was scarce.
I went to visit the Libyan embassy in Cairo who told me that if I could bring them a invitation letter number (not even the invitation) then they would issue a visa on the same day. Sounded easy enough? When I asked about safety in Libya they replied: "you should definitely enter from Tunisia!!" With scarce information on crossing from Egypt and with my head full of general warnings I opted to leave Egypt and reach Malta.
Onboard the Gunhilde Maersk from Egypt to Malta.
In Malta I approached the Libyan embassy which sent me to the Libyan Consulate. The man at the front desk was friendly and helpful. He assured that I could fly to Tripoli (Libya's capital) and be reasonably safe. He didn't advise to cross any land borders but thought it might be possible from Tunisia? Another issue for my visa was that I needed to be a resident in the country where I applied from. Being Danish I am also European and figured that with both Denmark and Malta in the European Union I could get away with that? Besides it sounded straight forward in Egypt? I found out what was needed and moved on to get myself an invitation letter. Some tourist agencies provide invitation letters by contacting Libyan companies and issuing them through them. At Tidwa Tours they offer an invitation letter for 350 euro. They offer no guarantees and in addition you still need to pay for the visa. Corinthia Hotels in Tripoli offered me 2 night complimentary if I could reach them. They couldn't help with an invitation letter as they were having their own issues in this regard. The Red Cross didn't want me to go to Libya so there was no help to be found there. Although I did receive a few updated scenarios from security incidents within Libya, which I could add to the long list of warnings and horror stories I already knew of.
It took me about 14 days to receive an invitation letter through Tidwa Tours. The Ramadan had started which meant that office hours were shorter and bureaucracy was much slower. With the invitation number I then approached the Libyan Consulate in Malta. Not good enough. They now wanted a list of other things too. Days later I had provided but they now wanted more and more and more... They never flat out said no. They simply kept making it harder for me. Meanwhile I had exhausted all possibilities for finding a boat to Libya. Lots of conversations and meetings had lead me to a dead end. One shipper told me that they were shot at the last time they tried to call a port in Libya. Maersk who has been exceptionally forthcoming regarding assisting me many times does not have an office in Malta. However they do service Libya and call 2 ports before continuing to Tunisia! How optimal was that? Could I possibly board a ship in Malta to Misurata in Libya, travel over land 73km (45 mi) to Al Khoms and reboard the ship again to Tunisia? This was explored and the overland route appeared "reasonably" safe. Was this an option? For that I certainly needed the visa first. Unfortunately I was at a dead end with the consulate. At one point I asked to meet the consular and was told that he was a very difficult man. I replied I was willing to give it a try to explain the situation. The consular was in a meeting and I was asked to wait. No problem! I waited and waited for 2 hours before an important looking man appeared behind the glass window to speak with the desk worker for a few minutes. Was this the consular? The man took a quick look at me - then continued to speak with the desk clerk before disappearing again. The kind desk clerk called me up to the window and said: "He doesn't want to see you. I'm sorry". Now what?
Jules the cat in Malta.
In order to reach Tunisia I had the option of taking a ferry to Sicily and another ferry to Tunisia. The ferry to Sicily is expensive and leaves every day. The ferry to Tunisia is reasonably priced and only leaves once a week. So in effect every ferry I missed would leave me with another week in Malta. Could I influence the consular somehow? Could I meet the ambassador? These options were explored as I missed another ferry to Tunisia. I suddenly received new contacts. I was meeting Libyans for shisha past midnight. I had friends in Djibouti who maybe knew someone who knew someone. Lots of promises were made in these days and many of them were broken. The slow bureaucratic life of the Ramadan did not help. I grew more and more frustrated!! All I needed was 24 hours across the border and I couldn't even get my visa. As promises and possible solutions continued to get postponed I lost hope. I found my psyche spiraling downward. It had been more that 2 years since I entered Africa and I "only" needed 3 more countries to complete the continent. It felt like no one cared. I felt alone. The weight of a thousand rocks tumbled down upon me. Had I not been hosted by Dave and Alex in Malta, I might have gone home and quit the project. It's hard to explain but it wasn't just Libya. It was all of the difficulties I had experienced since I left home in 2013 which weighed down upon me. I could cry. I couldn't take any more of this. Meanwhile so many people think I'm "living the dream" and I on and off get comments like: "Why don't you get a job!" I've never worked this hard in my life and it has completely drained my economy. My health has been jeopardized several times and yet I'm still standing. Not just because of me. I'm still standing because of the few out of the many who lift me up. Dave and Alex will never know how much they meant to the continuation of the Saga. And neither will many others. I never got this far alone.
Eventually I had to make a decision. The decision was to relocate to Tunisia and start all over again. The invitation letter I had received was specific to the Maltese consulate and could not be used anywhere else.
Onboard the ferry from Sicily to Tunisia.
I reached Tunisia and everything changed. I have a circle of Tunisian friends which I entered in January 2017 when I reached Djibouti. I just never realized how strong that circle was. In Tunisia I was taken care of and the circle grew. Eventually I was introduced to Adel who is a Libyan businessman living in Tunisia. Adel liked me and so did his children. I also believe that Adel saw the importance of a possible promotion of Libya in the storm of negative news. I'm not quite sure how I got my visa? One day I was told to go to the Libyan embassy in Tunis and collect it. At this point I hadn't even applied for a visa at the embassy? I turned up at the Libyan embassy, filled out the application, handed over 2 passport photos and 15 minutes later I left with the visa in my passport? Do you sense the power of having the right contacts?
I made my way to the Libyan border once Adel was ready to receive me. Adel had traveled to Tripoli by air together with his family. I travelled towards the border by land. The day before the head of the Danish diplomatic mission in Tunisia hD called me to ensure that I knew that the Danish government strongly advised against going to Libya! Believe me: I knew. The International Committee of the Red Cross had requested that I traveled to Libya completely Red Cross neutral. That meant no logos, emblems, paperwork or mentions of the Red Cross at all. Also they requested that I did no interviews in Libya and once more warned me not to go. The risk of kidnapping within Libya is said to be very high but Adel had told me to trust him and promised to take care of me.
While approaching the border I was stopped by several Tunisian checkpoints which questioned me professionally and questioned why I would go? I said I was going as a tourist to visit a friend for the Eid. In disbelief they let me go. This happened a few times before I reached the border. At the border I called Adel and spoke to his 13 year old son Mohammed who speaks English. I was told to wait at the border for Radwan who would come and pick me up. 15 minutes later Radwan did just that and drove me the 56km (35 mi) to Zuwarah. Everything looked calm and the turquoise waters looked inviting. Radwan speaks a little English and works for the police. After a short tour of sleepy Zuwarah he brought me to a nice hotel and told me to rest for a few hours.
While resting up I felt 50% accomplished. If you climb Mt. Everest then the peak is only the halfway marker. Radwan had given me a Libyan simcard and after a while the phone rang. It was Mohammed again telling me that they were on their way from Tripoli to Zuwarah. Mohammeds 11 year old sister Abrar also wanted to speak to me: "Welcome to Libya Thor!!! Just enjoy yourself and we will see you in a few hours". A few hours later Radwan picked me up again: "did you get some sleep" he asked? We drove to the beach and small talked for a bit. Then Adel showed up with Mohammed and Abrar. I got into their car and never saw Radwan again.
Lots of cars in Libya marked CH. If you're from Switzerland and your car is missing...well? ;)
We headed to Riqdallin which is a Arab town just 20 minutes south of Zuwarah which is Berber. Adel was speaking to me through his children. He was telling me that Libya has no rules. License plates are optional, there are no speed limits, everyone has a gun... "In fact there is a gun under your seat right now". I halfway jokingly reached out for it knowing that I would probably find it. Adel opened a purse next to my leg and handed me a black Belgian 9mm handgun. "Do you want to shoot it? We can go and shoot at a tree somewhere". No thank you... I was fine and handed the gun back to him. Adel explained that these days everyone has to protect themselves. If someone tries to steal the car, he is ready. He told me that everyone has a weapon although I wouldn't see it. Guns are hidden in every home and in every shop. During the next few days I wouldn't see any weapons except with the police and military but I knew Adel was right. Mohammed and Abrar were telling me that I was completely safe: "Nobody can touch you". And I did feel safe. The children were taking about movies, PlayStation, fidget spinners and Abrar said she wanted to be a lawyer or a doctor or work within oil or be an architect. Then we passed a checkpoint into Riqdallin and Abrar pointed at a heavy machine gun saying: "That one can fire 250 rounds per minute".
Adel together with Mohammed and Abrar. Adel has 3 sons and 3 daughters.
We arrived at Adel's family home as the sun set and we got ready for the last Iftar of this year's Ramadan. The fast would be over with tonight's sunset and Eid al Fitr would last the next 3 days. A kind of New Year's celebration where families and friend come together and meet to say sorry for any wrongdoings and confess their love amongst each other. We sat at a table in the courtyard. I had been warmly welcomed by everyone in the family and the table was probably just for me. When the food arrived I suggested that we could sit and eat it on the carpets which had been laid out beside us? Everyone seemed relieved by this and we sat together and enjoyed Iftar. The food was good and the company was lovely. Afterwards we enjoyed some fruit and drinks while resting up. Mohammed's uncle approached me to tell me that there was some fighting going on nearby: "Do you want to go and see?" This somehow reminded me of how the people of Iceland often drive towards the erupting volcanos with a few cold beers. What appears freighting to some are natural to others. However I opted out of heading towards the firefight. Didn't feel the need to witness combat on my first night back in Libya. Besides: It felt like a test and a provocation in a friendly way.
Mohammed, Adel and I drove back to Zuwarah and while passing the Riqdallin checkpoint on our way out Adel explained that they were the town's protection. If anyone armed or harmful would try to pass, they would be stopped. If strangers approached with good intentions they were free to enter. This became how I came to view the Libya of today. Everyone is slightly suspicious and protecting their own interests. Every village or town is a separate entity living in relative peace waiting for national safety and security to take effect. How long will they wait? Mohammed told me that he started driving when he was 6 years old but back then he needed something to sit on to see out of the windshield. Indeed I witnessed him drive a few times and he seemed very capable. It's not an uncommon sight to see 11-14 year old boys drive around. Mostly I found Libya to be pretty normal and quite peaceful. I really had to wonder how I would be viewing Libya if I hadn't known about the political instability and simply crossed the border. It looked much like when I first came there 10 years earlier. As we reached Zuwarah we cruised around a bit and ended up having coffee on the side of the road. After a while a civilian dressed man came to say hello. Adel asked if I recognized him? I kind of did but couldn't quite place him? Adel explained that he was the immigration officer at the border who stamped me in. Adel had called him to come and say hello. The Arab world masters networking.
Zuwarah was now bursting with life. The relentless heat from the Libyan sun had kept people indoor all day but now they were shopping, chatting, socializing and going about normal everyday life. A fruit store was fully stocked as a fruit store would be anywhere else. I saw modern electronic stores, clothing stories and people were window shopping and bargaining like you'd see it anywhere else across Northern Africa.
The roads were completely jammed and lots of boys were running about with plastic toy guns playing soldiers or a modern day version of cowboys and Indians. Lots of boys had fidget spinners which was as much a craze in Zuwarah as anywhere else. Adel introduced me to his friend Sameer, whom I thought was a shop owner. I thought that because we entered his shop earlier that night and I found myself looking at some Czech crystal on a shelf along with other decorative items for the home. Sure enough Sameer was a shop owner. He's actually got a few of them. He also owns land, houses, a transport company, a cardboard box company and then finally he is the chairman of Libya for Petrochemical & Oil Derivatives Co. Didn't see that coming?
I only discovered that after we went on a 03:00am drive to his white spirits factory which was more than impressive. The night ended around 04:00am when Sameer and Adel brought me back to my hotel and instructed the manager to take extra good care of me. Before I went to bed I asked if I was free to walk around on my own and they both ensured me that it was no problem: "Go wherever you want. You are safe here". Young boys on tricycles and kids playing football in the middle of the night seemed to support that.
I got up the next morning at 09:00am and had breakfast. I went back to sleep and woke up in the afternoon. Adel's son Mohammed called to ask if everything was fine, which it was. It was really Adel calling me through Mohammed's English translation. I asked again if I could walk about and he assured that it was no problem. So with that in mind I went out for a stroll. I passed a football stadium which looked quite new. The green grass of the stadium had been lit during the night. The streets were empty and only a few lazy cars where whizzing by now and again. The beach was just a 10 minute walk from the hotel and I headed straight for it. There were a few people there enjoying the incredible turquoise waters. From there I turned right and passed an unfinished construction of a luxury hotel with 3 tower cranes hovering above it. Like with most development construction had halted in 2011 and never been resumed.
I continued back down to the beach and smelled a rotten stench coming from the beach where seaweed and trash had piled up. I went down to the water and gazed across this marvelous beach...then followed it further to the right. Then my heart skipped a beat as I saw something which looked like a dead body lying in the surf! Could it be? Noooo...just my imagination. Besides it didn't really look like a body and could easily be some garbage of some sort. But it was a body! I froze up. I felt all of my blood getting heavy and looked around to see if I was alone? I was completely alone next to the turquoise water under the blue sky. I went as close as I dared while my mind was racing at full speed!! There's a dead man in front of me!? Why was he dead? Why was he there? Who was he? Was I safe? What should I do? What could I do? He had obviously been dead for days. I turned around while I tried to gain control and walked back on the shore in the opposite direction. Minutes later I found another one. And then a third one. Meanwhile evidence was building that these were the unfortunate men of a shipwreck. There were wooden pieces and large heavy tarpaulins nearby which could have formed some kind of raft. I also found several life jackets washed up on the beach. The scene was macabre!! I found a 4th body and became slightly more at ease with the sight. Horrific however most likely the faith of many. Since 2011 Libya has become a gateway for refugees to leave Africa in an attempt to reach the shores of Europe. I have read that as many as 181,000 have tried their luck. I myself have been on small boats with poor or no safety measures available and it sunk into me what I would look like lying on a beach somewhere after floating for days in the ocean. These men might not have been Libyans. They could have come across the Sahara hidden in the darkness of the night. Who is missing them? Who were they? Some were wearing jeans and t-shirts. I've spoken to men like those several times. Horrible! Something I have been waging if I should tell you all or not? Something I must live with for the rest of my life.
I have decided not to show you any pictures of tarpauling, rafts or bodies.
Not much further down the beach I reached an area where people were swimming and enjoying the sun. The first two men I met were dressed in swimming trunks and lying in the sand under the shade of a parasol. Life was back to normal again? I wanted to tell someone but decided I shouldn't. It was best to keep this horrific secret and move on for now. Smile and wave boys... just smile and wave. I walked past this beach area with the parasols and a beach volley court. Life was back to normal again. Fun in the sun.
As I walked past this leisure area of the beach people thinned out until I was once again alone. Guess what? I found a fifth body lying in the sand and decided to turn inland and head back to my hotel. I decided to include this to stress a point! While Libya most definitely is an incredible country and while I dearly wish that you could one day visit and enjoy the hospitality and mutual unique sites...now is not the time. Wait. Libya will someday offer tourism and it will be a shining pearl on the Mediterranean coastline. Even today I have heard that Libya has begun to issue tourism visas and I know that within certain parts of this very large country Tidwa Tours among others are already capable of offering tailor made tourism in and around Tripoli if you fly. The above description is not a true picture of what Libya is, has been and will be one day. However it is a very expressive sand grain within the sands of time.
If I know the media right and they get a hold of this story then I know that this will be the headline! Because the media will find that sensational while fidget spinners, fresh fruit, unbelievable hospitality, cultural magnificence and millenniums of impressive history will be undermined completely. The truth of Libya is that there are 6 million people who move forward every day. Schools are open, football is being played, children joke, mothers cook, shops stay open, people listen to music, get married, complain about the heat and wonder about when they can once again cross Libya from one side to the other. Change is inevitable.
In Libya I saw a lot of cats but I never saw a dog. In Libya I never saw any beggars or anyone who looked homeless. People were definitely surprised to see me but I never experienced any form of hostility. Everyone I met were friendly and welcoming. I reached the hotel and went to have a shower. In the evening Adel and Mohammed came to pick me up. We met with Sameer and his 14 year old son Malik. Together we headed out for dinner and then ended up at Sameer's impressive villa. We enjoyed sweets and coffee within the luxury of his Italian decor. What a place! The boys were gaming on a large flatscreen television in one of the villas many impressive rooms. I let Adel know that 2 nights in Libya was enough for me and that I was good to head back to Tunisia the next day. That suited Adel well as he could then return to Tripoli with his family. We agreed that I would get picked up at 11am the next day and I was back in the hotel by midnight. Sameer and Adel took care of the bill and they really didn't have too. Then Adel stuck a little money in my pocket which he definitely did not have too. That is Libyan hospitality for you where the guest is king for as long as he stays.
Adel and Sameer in the back with their sons and me.
I had trouble falling asleep that night. I found myself reading in Karen Blixen's "seven gothic tales" until late into the night. My dreams were a bit weird that night too. Fireworks celebrating the Eid sporadically blasted into the sky all night.
Waiting, waiting, waiting...
The next day I got up at 09:00am for breakfast and was ready on time as a true Dane for my 11:00am pickup. At midday I received a call being told that Mohammed and his uncle would come for me at 2:00pm. They came at 3:00pm and together we drove to the border where everything went smooth. I said my farewells and thanked them many times.
Back in Tunisia!
Inside Tunisia there was a lot of questioning about who I was and what I was doing in Libya. That I was a bearded fellow in a black long sleeve t-shirt probably didn't help much on my image either. However I stayed friendly and so did the Tunisian checkpoints. Apparently there was so much suspicion about my visit that they had to call headquarters a few times before they let me go. That offered me enough time to share some pasta with one of the soldiers. As I said: they were friendly although thorough. Safely across the border and deeper into Tunisia I could begin contacting friends and family and debriefing them on "what Libya was like". And you know, Libya was mostly fine. I felt safe and welcome everywhere and if it hadn't been for that walk up the beach then your memories of this particular blog might just have been a lot different. Don't you think?
I reached Sfax in Tunisia on my first day out of Libya. That is 385km (238 mi) from Zuwarah. And I slept a lot better that night.
I truly love Libya. When first you fall in love you do not easily fall out of love again. Libya is such a magnificent country and if I could have just one wish right now then it would be that you could some day go there for yourself and see it the way I have done over the past decade. Just not now. I wish for peace and golden prosperity across the nation.
Libya: 100% accomplished.
Next stop: Algeria. After that: Africa: 100% accomplished like nobody else before me. Now that has been a heck of an adventure!
Thank you for reaching this last few lines. I know this was a long one. I hope it was worth it.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - with a heart spread out across a hundred nations.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga