Drama as airlift ends Libyan nightmare

At the airport in Libya. Picture Bronwen Gifiths
At the airport in Libya. Picture Bronwen Gifiths
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AN intrepid holidaymaker has described how a dream trip to Libya turned into a nightmare. AN intrepid holidaymaker has described how a dream trip to Libya turned into a nightmare.

Bronwen Griffiths, of Langham Road, flew out to the trouble-hit north African country two weeks ago despite increasing popular unrest in the region.

The Foreign Office advised her the south west of the country where she was heading was safe and she was looking forward to trekking in the sand dunes and exploring Libya’s fascinating historical sites.

“There had been scuffles in Benghazi but everything seemed normal when we arrived in Tripoli,” said Ms Griffiths.

“We flew down to Sebha in the south which has the most incredible desert landscape and we did not notice anything - they were lots of children wandering about and we were looking forward to six days’ trekking.”

Sebha is still loyal to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi and so the violent demonstrations taking place elsewhere – with reports of protesters being shot by foreign mercenaries brought into quell the unrest – were some distance away. Ms Griffiths, 54, and her group lost mobile reception as they went further into the desert, and it was not until they came back towards the main roads that their phones beeped back into life.

“We suddenly all started getting text messages – I had one from my partner Dave saying that Libya was in turmoil and that a civil war was feared. People were telling us we had to get out but we didn’t really know what was going on. It was all very confusing and I was quite anxious.”

Last Wednesday the group set off through the desert again, accompanied by what Ms Griffiths describes as “an official vehicle with a guy with an AK47 and a green Gaddafi armband.”

At sunset they stopped at a checkpoint - the guides all got out to pray while the tourists wondered what was happening

“There was some argument but none of us spoke any Arabic. Then we set off towards Gat which surprised us because that is one of the places the Foreign Office tells you not to visit. It was all very surreal - we sat and had a pizza but there was a television on in the back of the cafe and we could see things were bad.”

That night they piled into the vehicles again and drove the six and a half hours back to Sebha. “People kept stopping us at checkpoints, shining torches into the vehicles to see who we were. One or two checkpoints were empty which made us nervous and sometimes there were groups we thought were militias - very young men with guns at the ready. That made me quite uneasy.”

At a camp near the airport the group met some other Europeans and tried to decide what to do. “Someone in our party kept saying we were stuffed and would have to wait for the SAS and we decided it was best to wait where we were. Then we were picked up by a minibus with a great big picture of Gaddafi on the side and I thought we were just a sitting duck.”

However they were ferried to the airport where they tried to arrange a flight out. “Our guides were working really hard but it was quite chaotic. We were given boarding passes but they were blank and when I asked our guide where we flying he said ‘I am sorry I don’t know.’

“Then we were told we were getting on an Italian military plane, but as I tried to leave the guy checking our passports could not find my exit visa. I was panicking thinking I was going to get left behind. When we got to the runway the plane was full so we ended up sitting in the cockpit.”

They were flown to Rome where British embassy officials met them and arranged for flights back to the UK. Ms Griffiths, who currently works overseeing the bid to restore Old St Helen’s Church, landed At Heathrow in the early hours of Saturday morning.

“When I landed in Rome I had about 20 text messages come through at once. I had no idea but my friends and family were extremely worried and I think my partner was beside himself. You cannot afford to get scared when you’re there, you just have to try and stay calm. We were lucky - we did not have the experience other people had in Tripoli or Benghazi.

“I was tired and relieved to be back but sad for Libya. That is my favourite part of the world and it’s an amazing country. Everyone we met had been extremely friendly and I made a solemn promise to our guide I would go back when thing settled down.”