Benghazi: The long, loud road to revolution
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Getting to the Libyan rebel-held city of Benghazi is quite a challenge, FRANCE 24's Leela Jacinto (pictured) discovers on the long road from Cairo. But the blasting Arabic music on the car stereo helps.
FRANCE 24's special correspondent reporting from Benghazi, Libya
Breathing, the free, gloriously bracing air of Benghazi – finally.
It's been such a long, tortuously slow journey from the Egyptian capital of Cairo to the capital of liberated Libya. Almost 24 hours on the road through scrub-land, coast-land, border posts, hill-towns, hick-towns, hamlets and mostly just vast stretches of nothing, to reach Libya's second-largest city and provisional capital of a provisional administration trying to oversee a war that has been going provisionally forward and mostly backward.
The journey began with a tedious four-hour wait at Cairo International Airport while one of FRANCE 24's Arabic correspondents, Liyana Saleh, a Palestinian traveling on a Palestinian Authority passport, was stopped by numerous Egyptian officials and pointlessly questioned while the rest of us waited, taxi-drivers in tow.
We're a team of five and between us, we have a load of equipment, including satellite hookup gizmos - the sort that sends bored airport officials into paroxysms of obstruction.
Knowing this, I've taken care of packing as innocuously and dressing as touristy as possible so I can cruise out of the airport and hit the road to Benghazi.
But the minute I heard there was a Palestinian in our midst, I gave up all hopes of beating a hasty exit out of Cairo airport.
As any biased or unbiased Arab expert will tell you: Most Arab governments are masters of loudly bemoaning the sufferings of Palestinians while bureaucratically doing their darnedest to increase Palestinian suffering.
We've divided ourselves and our equipment between us and while the rest of us – mostly French and US passport-holders – swim through Egyptian immigration lines, Liyana is taken aside. At one point, I catch her eye and throw her a silent, “do you need a helpful intervention?” look. She throws me back a silent, but unmistakeable, “just GO, don't get sucked into my drama” look.
There may be Arab uprisings sweeping these parts and we still do not know what are their global geostrategic implications, but reporting from the frontline, I can attest that Arab bureaucracy has not changed – yet.
Almost four hours later, Liyana finally emerges and our Benghazi road trip begins at midnight, with Ahmed, our driver, tearing his way to the Egyptian border recklessly through the night.
At daylight, after a four-hour sleep stopover, we're still on the road, packed into two cars, heading to the Egyptian border town of Saloum.
The deep blue Mediterranean blinks beyond the scrubland as we tear through terrain at an insane 180 miles per hour, the car windows rolled down, the wind thundering in our ears, with Amr Diab – the Arabic Elvis-meets Bruce Springsteen – blasting as Imed - my Arabic counterpart - gustily sings along and our two drivers race each other like giddy schoolboys.
It's a long, loud road to revolution.
Business as unusual at the border
The Saloum border checkpoint has taken on a life of its own with hawkers peddling anything from tea to plastic slippers, stray African migrant workers still trying to make their way home, relief agency officials bustling about and hustlers exchanging every conceivable currency.
We swap our euros for Libyan dinars from a particularly arresting toothless, reeking, limping specimen. Nooruddin, our veteran cameraman who's done the Benghazi beat before, says it's the best rate, better than anything we can get in Benghazi.
One thing you can't get a hold of though is Libyan mobile sim cards. Gaddafi cut off the state cellphone network, an enterprising Abu Dhabi-based Libyan telecom expat succeeded in hijacking and rerouting eastern Libya's cellphone network, but it's still a work in progress.
Calls can't be made or received outside Libya. But calls within Libya – if you do manage to get through – are free.
The problem is there aren't enough sim cards to go around.
“Libyana? Libyana?” The sole mobile service provider has turned into a chorus here.
We manage to secure one Libyana card at an extravagantly exaggerated price and consider ourselves lucky. We will slowly learn that we really aren't that lucky, but more on that later.
Mohammad's odyssey dawn
As we make our way past layers of checkpoints, we meet a group of men and children sitting on the road under the noonday sun, sharing an insubstantial meal.
Adeeb Mohammad, a 60-year-old Palestinian from Gaza, has been here with his wife, kids and grandkids for the past week.
“We're around 55 Palestinian people stuck here,” explains Mohammad. “We can't get any further than this checkpoint into Egypt. Everyday, we give people money to go buy us food. We get basic food and water from the UN, but look at how we're living,” he says pointing to his packed car.
Mohammad's wife is sitting in the driver's seat, her legs sticking out of the open door, eating. She goes inside and shuts the door when her husband approaches the car to pose with his sole reminder of a comfortable life.
“We didn't live like this in Libya. I left my home in Benghazi with all my furniture and everything three weeks ago after living in Libya for 30 years. We just left everything,” says the former travel agency manager.
As a teenager, Mohammad left his native Gaza in 1966 to continue his studies in Jordan. A year later, Israel invaded Gaza during the 1967 war and Mohammad has not been home since. Now he's trying to make his way from Libya to Egypt to Gaza.
When he tells me this, I just stand there dumbly regarding him. I cannot begin to imagine the gigantic bureaucratic hurdles this man is going to face on his odyssey back home.
The official word for the international Libyan operation is “Operation Odyssey Dawn”. Mohammad's odyssey has already dawned.
As a Mideast correspondent, I've often railed against the media's failure to cover the plight of migrant workers from developing countries in many oil-rich Arab nations. The governments of sending countries, I believe, have to do more to protect their powerless citizens abroad.
But in the arrivals hall here at the Libyan-Egyptian border, there are notices with the embassy numbers of several countries – Philippines, Bangladesh, Pakistan to name a few – urging citizens to seek help.
But what do you do when you have no state, when you're a refugee twice over?
The seconds slip past sadly before I can think up a new question.
Was his life in Libya better under Gaddafi?Would he prefer to have Gaddafi back?
“I don't care about who rules Libya. I want Libya to be good, no problems,” he says in shaky English.
“But now there are problems, this is not finished. All the world wants Gaddafi to leave. He wants to kill everyone. I hear the US is sending special planes,” he says referring to Obama's Predator drones contribution to the coalition effort. “But they won't work. Gaddafi will destroy everything. It is not safe. All the foreigners have left, everyone but the Palestinians.”
We leave the Palestinians, as we always do, in the no-man's land between states and cross the border into free Libya.
The war to liberate a stolen Libyana card
The checkpoints now are manned by a motley mix of men and kids in all manner of dress standing besides all manner of heavy weapons, waving us through.
We've left our Egyptian drivers behind and have now acquired Libyan ones.
Saad, our 33-year-old driver from Tobruk, a city east of Benghazi, says it will take us three-and-a-half hours to reach Benghazi.
Eight-and-a-half hours later, as we're still making our way through darkened roads to Benghazi, I hope Saad doesn't get a job with the Libyan interim administration's treasury department. I don't trust his figures.
Finally, in a haze of sleep-deprivation, we enter Benghazi. The Libyana mobile network has kicked in. We can now make or receive calls within Libya.
Our cell phone rings. Imed answers and is prattling off in Arabic. I can hear a woman's voice on the other end of the line. “Fickr, fickr,” - don't worry, don't worry in Arabic – is all I can understand.
Is this Imed's mother? Cannot be, she's in Tunisia. Has he secured himself a Libyan girlfriend already?
Not yet. The caller is a Libyan woman trying to retrieve her father's stolen Libyana sim card. We've bought an overpriced stolen Libyan sim card at the border. There's a desperate Libyan woman trying to get back her family's treasured sim card.
We're still negotiating a compromise deal. Last I heard, Imed was trying to use his credentials as a citizen of Tunisia - the first Arab country to overthrow their dictator earlier this year – to settle on a compromise of keeping the prized sim card until the end of our trip and returning it to the original owner before we leave. Insha'allah, god willing, as they say in these parts...