I woke up feeling lost. For about a minute or so, I couldn’t remember where I was. I scanned the painted walls and ceiling of the modest, yet cozy room. Then I turned to my left and saw my roommate Raffy rearranging stuff in his luggage. I thought to myself, yes, we are in room 608-A of the Samira Club in Hammamet Sud, near Tunis. I overslept through dinner time, as it was already past seven in the evening, the 26th of February, 2011. Our last few days in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya had been “hell”.
Ten days prior, we heard about how demonstrations have been going on in Benghazi, but we thought it is nothing to worry about. People – Libyans and expatriates alike – were confident that Libya would not be a “Tunisia” or an “Egypt“. Or so we thought. The next day on February 17, Twitter was inundated with the hash tag #Feb17, calling all Libyans to go out on the streets to participate in a “Day of Rage”. The protesters want an end to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. Libya might go the way of its neighbors, after all.
We spent the following days wearily monitoring the demonstrations on Twitter and Facebook – the main outlets of “citizen journalism” nowadays – as mainstream media were a bit slow in reporting updates. Although there were reports of the internet being blocked in the country, we were lucky to have uninterrupted Web access due to our company’s “early strategic decisions”. We learned of demonstrators being killed in Bengahzi, Baydah and Zintan, of helicopters firing missiles on civilians and of mercenaries doing a house-to-house clean-up of perceived anti-Gaddafi strongholds. We also learned about police stations being overran and burned by demonstrators, government forces defecting to the rebels’ side, and entire towns being captured by anti-Gaddafi forces.
But through this upheaval and mayhem, our Korean employers were still in “panic control” mode. We were told to not to worry, as the unfolding events were still “very far away – a thousand kilometers to the east”. But when the looters came, we transformed our camp into a fortress.
One night, about two months or so before things came to a head, our project sites – all structural shells with no finishing and utilities – were occupied by local residents. Our projects involved the construction of two townships, one was supposed to have three thousand apartment units in 229 residential buildings and 32 public buildings including schools, markets, hospitals, mosques, a cultural center, a post office and a police station, among others. Our other project was supposed to have a thousand apartment units in 186 residential buildings and seven public buildings.
The raiders of our unfinished structures – about two hundred in our site and almost the same number in another – demanded that we hand over the units to them, because according to them, Gaddafi promised to do so. In the heat of the negotiation for the occupants to vacate the premises, a scuffle ensued that resulted in the injury of a few among us. A few days later, we learned that other housing projects – there were quite a number around Libya – were also occupied at the same time.
This telling sign of unrest was lost amongst us, especially me. I never thought that Gaddafi could be challenged in Libya. I was wrong. In the run up to the #Feb17 “Day of Rage”, members of our Libyan staff were already divided.
To be continued.