Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Advancing into Libya

Richard warming up in Mizrata, a decent seaside resort in Libya. According to convoy organisers, we left 2 hours ago, but a nice Libyan man predicted that we would not leave till 3pm. We actually left at 1510.

A Fundamental Change:
Just as I finished writing yesterday's piece, Munir in the driver's seat, said "There will be no more F words in this vehicle, and I replied that I would speak as I liked, so he got out and moved to another vehicle, in what was a pre-planned move. We had some fun on the trip, laughing about Mohammed's view that if you are reading or listening to the Koran at the time of your death, you will go straight to Paradise. "One of the Companions asked - 'Doesn't your intention matter?' - but the prophet replied 'no'". Munir said, as we were driving along listening to a tape of the Quran recited to the whoops and cheers of an obviously large crowd, 'So you're in luck, if we crash now, even as an infidel you'll be saved' Good Luck Munir. He brought little luggage, and no aid, his ambition in Palestine, as in the UK, is to preach Islam, and that was -and is - the journey purpose for him.
The issue of intention in Islam, however, does matter. A senior figure on the convoy preached a sermon in which he encouraged his congregation to remember that courtesy - respect for other people - must be behind all actions, or they have no or little value. I taped the sermon in a mosque that we stayed in a few days ago, after consulting the Imam, of course. The Mosque was warm and comfortable and welcomes any stranger in this way, but the cold water washing still leaves much to be desired in my opinion. Now I've left my washing kit behind in the last hotel, however, cold water with soap is better than cold water without.
My new co-driver is Richard - he snores. He warned me about this before coming across, and he is gently ZZZing behind me as I write this in the van at about 2pm in Tripoli. As usual, we have been ordered to be ready to move, but I'll write a whole piece before there is any action. Richard was the Group's spare driver, which sounds efficient, but was just an accident, but being spare, he liked the possibility of driving the Pea regularly, and I like his sardonic humour, so that's done then. He helped out whilst I had flu, and that's how we met.
Through him, I've broadened my social circle, meeting the Oxford Ambulance crew, Masroud and Shocut. They have been driving all day yesterday without any brakes - yes literally!!! Driving steadily and using gears to slow and hand brake to stop. They informed the Police escort provided specially for them in Tunisia, and in Libya, but shifts would change in front of them, with no communication, and the driving here demands sudden braking regularly. Once they had to over take their stopped police car on the inside verge, going through a police checkpoint in the process, triggering a rush to chase them before they eventually rolled to a stop. Mechanics have repaired the brakes to three wheels, but the fourth requires major surgery. they are continuing a considerable distance away from us! Two days later I can write that they have found a small workshop where the owner fabricated the parts that they need and fixed them properly. Needless to say, he would not take any money.
The fire engine from Manchester, crewed by the laconic Richard who bought the engine; the enormous Kamal, a Palestinian Australian who is not afraid to mix it, and Mumtiaz, a characterful bearded man of about seven stone. When they got a sudden ingress of another Convoy vehicle against their mirror, Kamal exploded out of the cab and took matters into his own hands. I saw that incident, but with the recklessness of driving increasing both in the world around, and in the convoy, I can't believe that it will be the only one. Two days later i have many reports of such overtaking incidents, including one against the vehicle that travels behind us, again damaging the wing mirror. Some of the younger men are getting fueled on Adrenaline as the convoy approaches the end of the line, but as the driver of the Blackburn van said: 'there is no point in the tail of the snake overtaking the head, no part moves forward any faster.'
The Pea has also been a casualty, overfilled with Oil by Munir, who didn't realise that you don't have to put all the bottle in. Soon after starting off it was making grinding, big end type noises and blowing black smoke, and we were pulled over by those travelling behind us. The oil was drained and changed by the Oxford crew within an hour. Everyone helped, and Kieran, team leader who claims to be pestered by me constantly (whereas I claim that I never see him) turned the tables on me by filming me talking about the problem. That was Algeria, and the Pea is now in Libya and is still running as beautifully as ever.
There are now several vehicles on low-loaders being transported towards Cairo. The number of odd-ball vehicles, like the small fishing boat, or the fire engine, that are travelling essentially outside the convoy, increases by one each time a vehicle gets put on a low loader or has to go off for repairs. We followed three ambulances, believing them to be the convoy, to a smart Mercedes garage, where we were obliged to wait for wait for the police to instruct us on how to re-join the convoy.
Two women and three men who went off in two cars to drive to Sfax for an oil filter, arrived late, booked a hotel, and were arrested by the secret police at 6am. They were not given a reason. The two women fought back, they told me in an interview, knocking over one man and elbowing another, and having eventually been restrained and put in an unmarked minibus they tried to hi-jack it at a petrol station. They were deported to Libya, and I met up with them at the border. They could think of no reason for their arrest, and knew nothing of the opposition Rally there that I had heard - but can't confirm - had been banned by the police, and which was scheduled for that night. It's fair to say that they had been off by themselves for a day or two before, but then it's also fair to say that they were following the printed route, going through the Algerian/Tunisian Border on our originally planned route. We (the convoy) saved time by cutting through the country's interior, crossing at Tebessa instead of near Annaba, but certainly I was only aware of that as we were rolling that day.
There have been many complaints at grassroots through the convoy that the host countries are keeping us away from the people, by refusing to let us drive through the big cities, but I have never been convinced. The convoy itself rebelled against going to Rabat, because of the excessive hours that it had had to drive through Europe. Subsequently, I believe that it is the organisers who are trying to short-cut the intentions of the hosts by insisting on avoiding Urban areas in the main.

Queueing for the Lunch we weren't supposed to have in Mizrata. The man looking at the camera is Mohammed, a Libyan Youth Organiser.

The same thing is now happening in Libya.. The Libyan organisers have agreed a programme which now has been repudiated by our organisers. I was told that today we would be going to Tripoli for a reception, but our team leader told us officially that we would be avoiding Tripoli and driving a long 500 kilometres today. I'm writing this in the van after the reception in Tripoli that we attended has ended. We are waiting for the team leader and others to return from the Souk, and we'll be gone. To another reception outside Tripoli, says my source, and at 3.36 it's getting late for 500 kilometres, since we've only done 50. Two days later, and the pattern has repeated itself. I met a charming man in Mizrata, a large, faded resort along the coast from Tripoli where we stayed in bungalows, who told me: "you will not leave at 10, you will have lunch here before you go, and you will not go as far as your organisers say. The guest is not a free man, he is the prisoner of the host. Even in the Koran, it is said to be better to give than to be the supplicant, and in Bedouin culture, from which Libyan culture - and all Arab culture - derives, if your host asks you to stay for dinner, you have no choice"
'There is a reason for the programme: Your trip has two purposes, the first is to get to Gaza and get the gates open, but the second is the political work along the way, and this is just as important, and it is why the programme is agreed as it is.
Despite several public statements by the organisers to the contrary, we left at 3pm, and next stopped for a snack at a large reservoir project, which the Libyans call the man made river, and I write this extra bit as Richard is driving - at midnight, to our final destination. Libyan Architecture is very eclectic, and Architects certainly don't suffer from fear of self expression. This cross between a marauding dragon and a tiger moth plane is in Tripoli
We're also driving in Libya. In Tripoli at least the driving is aggressive and dangerous, worse than I remember in Cairo, even. I'm writing this as we canter through weaving traffic at 60, but if we need a new clutch, it'll be all those hours of crawling along the Tripoli Motorways at 0mph, fighting for every inch of road - and that's with a police escort.
One of Gaddafi's Hundred Trucks - not to mention 2 Fire Engines and a flock of Ambulances

But one of the reasons for the programme times is that we have been joined by 100 articulated lorries, donated by the Government of Libya, and although we are not in convoy with them, we are building a relationship with them as we pass and re-pass them, and they travel at night. We have also had added directly to group 11 an ambulance and a fire-engine, both brand new. There is also a press coach which also carries various others who are travelling with us, and all in all, in volume, the Libyan effort knocks ours into a cocked hat. At 30 tonnes per lorry, it's 3000 tonnes of mainly flour. But then, as my Libyan friend and I both agree, it is not the amount of aid that matters, because however much we take we will need as much tomorrow, it is the sheer weight of public opinion represented by all those rolling wheels which will batter the gates open, nothing else, and it is the opening of the gates that is the only acceptable outcome for the children of Gaza

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