Inside Libya and other tales
More form Mark Seddon’s new book; ‘Standing for Something – Life in the Awkward Squad’, published this week, is available by buying the book
March 2011: Perched in the offices of ‘Big Think’, just up from the Flat Iron building on Broadway in mid town Manhattan, and with Libya exploding all over the headlines, it seems an age since I watched the opening salvos of the allied operation to re-take Kuwait from occupying Iraqis. Then as now, the screens and newspapers were full of pyrotechnics. Then as now, the studios are full of talking heads. The difference in the intervening years is probably the massive expansion of social networking sites and the rise of the Arab media. Yet curiously, as Allied planes struck against Muammar Gadhafi’s forces, the TV studios still contained a selection of arm chair generals and real Generals, all tending to agree amongst themselves. There wasn’t an Arab or a representative of the Arab media, such as my old channel al Jazeera, in sight.
I remember watching the opening allied missile attacks on Iraqi positions in and around Kuwait in the Foreign Office I seem to recall, having been standing around making small talk at an FCO party. As the attacks opened, Francis Wheen and I were hustled down to the press office to watch the action on the big screen. I remember being largely in favour of the ultimately successful attempts to drive Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, despite the pathetic cowardice of the ruling family, who had immediately evacuated themselves out of Kuwait City, to the flesh pots of Cairo as soon as the Iraqi army arrived. It was only later that we discovered that the Iraqis seem to have been given the impression that the US wouldn’t object to their invading.
Now, over a decade on, the curious madness of Colonel Gadhafi had blunted even the most strident anti war campaigner. And in the opening days of that fight back against Gadhafi’s forces, I was once again back in New York, and getting ready to go over to the United Nations to take the pulse of diplomats and journalists. In the previous week, the UN Security Council had defied all expectations and voted for a ‘no fly zone’, and giving a much needed boost to morale at the UN itself – anxious to see doing what it could to protect Libyan civilians from attack. As the rain gave way to a soft drizzle, and the tops of buildings disappeared under a blanket of low-lying fog, I speculated on this most unusual of New York days. For a start it was grey and cold, yet barely a day or so before, it had been too warm to wear a jacket. But then this time of year, which marks the ending of Winter and the beginning of the short North American Spring, usually blows hot and cold; rather like Muammar Gadhafi of course. Gadhafi had gone from “most wanted” bogeyman to “most wanted” friend of the West and within a shortish time frame. The Gadhafi clan had pitched their Bedouin tent in Hyde Park, London and repeated the exercise in time for the United Nations General Assembly in New York, and senior son, Saif, had scattered Libyan cheques around like confetti – most notably at the London School of Economics, where that old fraud and progenitor of the ‘Third Way’, Anthony Giddens was based. Hilariously Giddens had gone to Tripoli and been suckered by the Colonel into believing that the “Third Way’ bore a striking similarity to his own impenetrable ‘Green Book’ of complete nonsense. I wonder if Giddens, who boasted of his special treatment inside the Colonel’s Bedouin tent, had also been subject to Gadhafi’s legendary flatulence. The BBC’s John Simpson has testified to the Colonel’s farting – and I once asked former Foreign Office Minister, Mike O’Brien if this were all true during a particularly boring Labour Party meeting in Warwick. He immediately confirmed that it was, having spent an uncomfortable hour in the Colonel’s tent, presumably running some errand for the Colonel’s great friend, Tony Blair.
Watching the scurrying shoppers on 5th Avenue, I recalled some of my reporting and other forays into the mad World of Muammar and his Green Revolution, as the old rascal became a YouTube sensation with one of his deranged speeches set to rap, as he ranted and raved, umbrella in hand.
The call had come from an old trade union friend of mine, Phil Read, who back in the Eighties was one of the mainstays of both Norwich Labour Party and the Trades Council. “Are you alright boy?” he asked. “Do you want to come to Libya with Bernie (Grant) and a few of us?” At the time, this was in the early Nineties – Libya was still subject to strict sanctions, and a handful of MPs, including the late Bernie Grant, opposed them. The only way in was by road via Tunisia, as a number of Libyan planes had dropped from the skies for lack of spare parts. The purpose of our ‘fact finding mission’ to Libya, was in retrospect, rather dubious – namely to lobby for the lifting of sanctions, and the visit got off to a poor start with our progress halted at the Tunisian border for three hours in the broiling Sun. It transpired that Bernie Grant’s assistant, who had departed London in a lightweight suit, but who was now sporting a spectacular wrap around West African robes, had changed his name from Winston Brown to “Sharka Fela Kuti”. Which was fine, expect his passport carried his previous name and the disparity was causing Libyan officialdom some problems. But before getting to the Libyan border, and arriving in Tunis, half the party was detached, put in the back of a cavalcade of Mercedes with black blindfolds tied tightly. After around twenty minutes spinning around Tunis, the car slowed, and the blindfolds lifted. In front of me was a small suburban house, surrounded by pink Bougainvillea and with gun toting guides on either side of the entrance. Once inside, we were ushered into a reception room with large posters of Swiss skiing chalets and one of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. At which point Yasser Arafat emerged, pushed a picture of himself into my hands and began speaking for what seemed an age. Animated and by turn passionate and angry, here was a leader as fugitive, constantly on the move and never sleeping in the same place once. I was to see Arafat a decade on, when working for the BBC, I managed to get an interview with him in the old British fort that had become his prison on the West Bank. The man who had once been so ebullient was now a shrivelled husk, his hands shaking presumably with Parkinson’s, and his manner imploring.
In Tripoli, I was put on immediate standby for an interview with Colonel Gadhafi. “You must be prepared! This may happen at any time”, my minder told me. “He may ask you to go to him, or he may come to the hotel”. Having spent a restless day and night waiting for the call to come and the Colonel to arrive, a group of us amused ourselves by pretending to be Libyan security and calling the hotel room of one of the researchers who had come with the British MPs. “We understand you have been taking many pictures, including of our airfields”, I said in my best fake Arabic accent muffled through a towel. “It is essential that you will now come to the hotel reception and bring your camera and equipment with you. You must do this now!” This was the early hours, as we hid in the foyer and watched the poor lad stagger down looking terrified in his pyjamas laden with camera equipment.
The following day I skipped the trip to the Colonel’s bombed out HQ – the place where family members had been killed during the Reagan era bombing of Tripoli. Years later, when Gadhafi had finally so infuriated the international community that the UN Security Council instituted a no fly zone across the Colonel’s domain, he appeared in the ruins, sitting in what looked like a destroyed car, ranting while holding an umbrella. But then Libya has been a pretty surreal place throughout the Colonel’s long rule.
My minder was less inclined to let me give him the slip later. “You will attend a meeting this afternoon with the man the West wants to take as hostage!” It turned out that he was referring to a Mr. Al Megrahi, whom had been accused of the Lockerbie bombing. Al Megrahi, from memory, droned on and on. His minders in turn did the same. Phil Read, my old union friend from Norwich had consumed much of a bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label, which he had purloined down at the docks the previous evening, and was clearly in a reverie. I guess the meeting with Al Megrahi was the point of us being in Libya, but I don’t recall any writing or broadcasting that followed in its wake from me. Both Tam Dalyell, the former Linlithgow MP and the late Paul Foot were convinced that Al Megrahi was a fall guy. They believed that there was Syrian involvement in the downing of the Pan Am flight over Lockerbie, and not the Libyans, which made for a pleasant change. Since Tam and Paul were invariably right and honest to the core, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate what they said and wrote at the time.
Some years later, I was invited back to Libya at the behest of a friend of mine who was advising the Libyans on restoring links with the West. Bizarrely it was to speak at a peace conference in the town of Sirte, where the protagonists to the Darfur conflict had been invited by the Colonel to talk peace amongst themselves. I asked my old friend Glyn Ford MEP if he could come and the pair of us gave peaceful exhortations to a bemused gathering of Sudanese. We bumped into a British diplomat at the back of the hall, who told us that the Colonel’s peace conferences were quite regular occurrences; that both sides in the Darfur conflict would show up, stay in the best hotels, rub along fine with each other during the conferences and then go back to killing each other when they got back home.
A few years later and I was back in Libya again, this time writing a travel piece for the Evening Standard based on the activities of a small company, Simoon Travel, run by a friend, Amelia Stewart, which was bravely helping to open up some of the marvellous Roman ruins to tourists, and much else besides. This gave me an opportunity to see parts of Libya that I would never have imagined seeing, including the incredible Roman ruins at Leptus Magna. It was while waiting to be let in to see the ruins – as far as I could see we were the only ones trying to see them – I nearly got myself in trouble with the security men by laughing at one of the typical news reports from the official media. One minute the Colonel was dressed in flamboyant green robes, then yellow, then brown. The news consisted of a whole series of cameo shots of the Colonel shaking the hands of other African potentates in ridiculous uniforms. In fact the Colonel’s penchant for bizarre uniforms verges on the camp. This was confirmed when we turned up at a beach one day, to be told that a monstrous building perched near the beach was actually one of the Colonels getaways. On closer inspection, Amelia and I discovered that the rooms could be rented – that is aside from one very large locked room at the top of the building. Eventually we prevailed on someone to show us it. Marble floors, gilded mirrors everywhere, including over the bed, confirmed my suspicion that the Colonel liked a bit of ‘Bunga Bunga’ from time to time.
But was it with women or men?
More form Mark Seddon’s new book; ‘Standing for Something – Life in the Awkward Squad’ is available by buying the book