Three days of farce in Gaddafi's Libya
- 5 July 2011
- From the section Africa
More than 700km (435 miles) is a long way to go on a maybe.
But, up until this week, none of the foreign journalists locked up in our five-star gilded cage in Tripoli had been offered a chance to see Col Muammar Gaddafi's loyal fighters up close on the front lines.
So it was that my cameraman and I found ourselves piling aboard a white minibus and heading out into the sweltering heat of the Libyan desert.
Libya is an enormous land, and virtually empty. It took most of one day, and a good chunk of the next, to get there. For hour after hour we saw nothing but sand, scrub and the occasional group of scraggy camels.
But we all remained excited by the prospect ahead, a real encounter with the men still prepared to fight and die for the Libyan leader.
Imagine our surprise then when, hot and exhausted, mid-way through day two, we drew up next to a destroyed mobile phone tower 30km outside the little coastal town of Brega.
The mangled mass of steel lay prostrate beside the road, the control room shattered and burned.
"This," our guide told us, "was destroyed by a Nato bomb last week. Five workers were killed and a family in a passing car."
We all piled out and dutifully took pictures, but several of us were already starting to feel deep unease. Surely they had not dragged us all this way across Libya on a lie?
"When are we going to see the military?" one of my colleagues from the US media asked.
Ismail, our foreign ministry minder, looked evasive and my heart sank further.
We drove on down the road a few more kilometres before pulling off on to an airfield. Beside it stood the shattered remains of a huge hangar.
None of our minders was quite sure when this had been destroyed by Nato. But they were very sure it was a violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1973.
A couple of kilometres further on we arrived at the Brega oil terminal, a sprawling industrial complex next to the turquoise Mediterranean Sea.
A welcoming committee, familiar to all journalists working in Libya, was waiting for us. They waved pictures of Col Gaddafi, green flags and chanted "Libya, Gaddafi, Libya, Gaddafi!".
By now, it was becoming rapidly clear that our minders had no intention of taking us anywhere near anything even vaguely military.
Instead, we were shown the remains of a destroyed house, once the home, we were told, of the family of an oil worker.
"These were innocent people asleep in their beds when Nato killed them," a local official shouted angrily. "Why is Nato killing innocent people?"
But there was something not quite right about the bomb site. Clearly, a house had been destroyed. But, sitting in the rubble, was something very odd - it was an ejection seat from a Russian-built fighter jet.
"What is this?" we asked an oil company official.
"It is a motor for a boat," he said with complete confidence. "Many of the people here in the oil company have boats to go fishing in the sea."
I took a note of the Russian markings on the side to look up later. As I thought, it was a Zvezda K-36 ejection seat used in many front-line Russian-built fighter aircraft. But what on earth was it doing in the middle of an alleged Nato bombing site?
And there were more anomalies.
In the dirt next to the house I found dozens of spent cartridges. They were from large 20mm rounds - the sort used in anti-aircraft guns. Was an anti-aircraft gun parked next to the house that had been hit?
Around the corner we were shown another bomb site. But here the rubble had already been cleared.
"This was the site of a madrassa - 12 people were killed here while they were studying the Holy Koran," the irate official told us.
"They were studying the Koran in the middle of the night?" we asked.
"Yes," we were told emphatically.
"Can you take us to the graveyard to see where they are buried?" we asked.
"No, their bodies have all been taken to Tripoli," the official blurted, now looking somewhat less confident.
Disappointment was now turning to anger. We had been dragged more than 700km across the desert to see yet another propaganda display, and a pretty poor one at that.
"If you won't take us to see the military at least take us to Brega town to meet some real locals," we demanded.
After some negotiation, this was agreed. We piled back on to the bus and headed off. But, as the bus reached the main road, instead of turning left to Brega, it turned right back towards Tripoli.
"What is going on?" we demanded.
"First, we are going to have lunch," our minders insisted. "Then we go to Brega."
Some 20 minutes down the road, we entered another small town. As we drew up, a large group of people came dashing towards the bus. They were holding up more pictures of Col Gaddafi and chanting. Several of the faces were strangely familiar. Then I realised they were exactly the same people we had seen back at the oil terminal.
It was the final straw. Our anger exploded. One of my American colleagues who speaks good Arabic screamed at them.
"Enough of this! It's a farce!"
And that is how our trip to the front line in Brega ended - in anger and recrimination. We drove the 10 hours back to Tripoli in virtual silence, our minders unhappy at the task they had been assigned, us journalists angry at being tricked into taking part in a three-day farce.