Sitting on the dock of the bay, waiting for the story
On assignment in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto chases a story in the country of sleep-deprived men.
Stories are like women. Some you get easily, some must be pursued. But what do you do when the pursuit dissolves into pure comedy? And in the end, is the object of your hot pursuit even worth it?
So many questions, so little time... Oh well, at least I didn't miss the boat this time – literally.
It all began with a very specific story plan. We had to do a piece on refugees arriving in Benghazi from war-torn Misrata, where rebels are fighting a pitched battle against Muammar Gaddafi's forces.
But instead of a standard refugee “from the camps” story, I though we should spin the yarn as a “from the port” story instead.
I pictured a ship on the Mediterranean majestically streaming into port against a North African evening sky bearing refugees with tales of war horrors contrasting sharply against the backdrop of pure natural beauty. You get it?
Yeah, sure. Now try pulling it off.
Come tomorrow - or the day after...
First stop, Benghazi port, I announce to our team, which includes my Arabic colleague Imed, our driver Adnan, and his slurring, slow-moving friend whom we simply can't seem to shake-off. I'll call him Mohammed.
Let's just get to the port and find out when is the next boat from Misrata arriving.
One of the advantages of poorly administered places in conflict zones is the absence of bureaucracy as it makes it easier for reporters to talk their way into places.
But at the port gates, the guards regard us with contempt. Where's our press authorization from the NTC, the National Transitional Council?
The NTC has been administering eastern Libya since it slipped from Gaddafi's control earlier this year.
So the four of us make our way to the NTC press office.
Port authorization? No problem, no problem. Only one problem: the printer has broken down...
In the end, we get a handwritten authorization note and charge back to port.
It's dark by now and there are no senior port officials around. Come tomorrow.
We do – and the day after, and the day after that, between the grind of daily deadlines.
In the country of sleep-deprived men
Our perseverance pays off. We make a good contact at port: Mansoor Mukhtar al-Majbari, whose title, translated from the original Arabic goes something like, “Chief border security port management administration official for all land and sea borders of Libya”.
I hope you're impressed. I certainly was.
A quiet, serious man, al-Majbari tells me that before the current uprising, he didn't “live” for himself or his country.
Now he's making up for lost time. Since the uprising broke on February 17, he informs me, he's returned home just three times.
Gaddafi-free Libya needs the expertise of every qualified civil servant available. I wonder how many of them are sleep-deprived. Hisham Matar should title his next book, “In the country of sleep-deprived men”.
Tomato paste from Benghazi, refugees from Misrata
Sleep-deprived al-Majbari kindly gives us a port tour.
We scamper on board the “Anwaar Afriqya,” an oil-tanker that was once owned by Gaddafi's son, Hannibal.
We meet the heroic Hussein Sharataria, a first officer, who intercepted the oil-laden “Anwaar Afriqya” on its way to western Libya last month and brought it to Benghazi and “the people of Libya” as he puts it.
We arm-twist the heroic Hussein Sharataria to hold still so we can snap a pic of him. Click:
On our way out, al-Majbari points to a Greek-registered ship loading humanitarian aid bound for Misrata. Shrink-wrapped stacks of tomato paste await their entry into the belly of the cargo-hold.
These ships deliver humanitarian aid from Benghazi to Misrata and return with refugees fleeing the fighting, al-Majbari explains. So, it would take a couple of days before these ships make their return trip from Benghazi.
We give al-Majbari our phone number and beseech him to call us if he hears of any boats arriving from Misrata.
Missed the boat - once
Days later, while we're reporting on the outskirts of the city, we finally get the call. It's al-Majbari informing us that two ships from Misrata are coming into port within the next few hours.
We rush to the port on the other end of town. Too late. The refugees have disembarked, the injured taken to a hospital on the other side of town.
Back to car, back to zipping through Benghazi streets. Only this time, we are held up in traffic as a huge celebratory demonstration, complete with convoys of gun-toting young men firing into the air.
We finally reach the hospital. Check hospital lists. We've missed them again. The injured refugees have been transferred to another hospital in another part of this sprawling city.
Adnan, our driver, wants to know if we should go to the next hospital. I issue a firm no. Let's just go back and stake out the port. I'm sick of missing the boat and I'm not taking my chances in revolutionary traffic jams.
Watching the boats go by...
And that's how we arrive at Benghazi port shortly before sundown, sitting on the 'dock of the bay,' watching the time go by as we await the next ship.
We have other deadlines to meet and so we perch on a docked boat and type away.
The sun sets, the city lights are turned on, it's getting chilly and we're getting hungry.
And still no boat.
Once again, al-Majbari is handed our number and we dash to the corner for a quick bite.
At 10.30 pm, the call comes. The ship has arrived. But not at the port we now know so well. It's docked at another new port.
At Benghazi's New Giliana Port, we flash our authorization at a new set of hesitant port guards. I speak to them in English to hurry them along. Seeing a foreigner, they very sweetly dispatch a guard in a pickup truck to lead the way.
But the guard is hopelessly lost. We're driving around the darkest, bumpiest port I've seen in circles.
At one stage, our forward guard stops to tells us the port's state of dilapidation is proof of Gaddafi's neglect of eastern Libya. He wants to tell me more, but I shoo him off. I've had my fill of “bad Gaddafi” stories for the day.
Suddenly, a security van screeches up to us, a screaming port guard demanding to know what are we're doing. We've been spotted driving in circles around a port in a war zone like idiots.
Just as nerves in our car are starting to fray, I start finding this adventure hilarious.
“We've missed the boat, hee-hee-hee! At least we have a headline,” I proclaim.
Mohammed in the front passenger seat has shut his eyes and is praying to the good lord. “Don't say that,” he admonishes me.
Now we're passing minivans packed with refugees zipping the other way. I peer into one as it passes. “Children,” I announce helpfully. “We've missed the children.”
'We've missed everybody,' says Imed.
“WHY you saying that?” demands Mohammed.
'Because I can SEE that,' snaps Imed.
I'm clutching my sides, laughing. “WHY you saying that? Because I can SEE that,” I chorus all the way to the refugee ship.
We can't believe our luck. The boat is still there and there are still some refugees lined up on the dock, awaiting minibuses to take them to a refugee camp in the city.
We didn't miss the boat. But was the story worth the chase? You can judge for yourself. Just click here.