CNN’s Ben Wedeman reports from eastern Libya, reportedly the first Western TV reporter to enter the country during the current revolution:
“Your passports please,” said the young man in civilian clothing toting an AK-47 at the Libyan border.
“For what?” responded our driver, Saleh, a burly, bearded man who had picked us up just moments before. “There is no government. What is the point?” He pulled away with a dismissive laugh.
On the Libyan side, there were no officials, no passport control, no customs.
I’ve seen this before. In Afghanistan after the route of the Taliban, in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein. Government authority suddenly evaporates. It’s exhilarating on one level; its whiff of chaos disconcerting on another.
The scene on the Libyan side of the border was jarring. Men – and teenage boys – with clubs, pistols and machine guns were trying to establish a modicum of order.
Hundreds of Egyptian workers were trying to get out, their meager possessions – bags, blankets, odds and ends – piled high on top of minibuses.
Egyptian border officials told us that 15,000 people had crossed from Libya on Monday alone.
“Welcome to free Libya,” said one of the armed young men now controlling the border.
“Free Libya” was surprisingly normal, once we got out of the border area. We stopped for petrol – there were no lines – and saw some stores were open. The electricity was working. The cell phone system is still functioning, though you can’t call abroad. The internet, however, has been down for days.
On the other hand, we did see regular groups of more armed young men in civilian clothing, stopping cars, checking IDs, asking questions. All were surprised, but happy, to see the first television news crew to cross into Libya since the uprising began February 15.
They were polite, if a tad giddy. Having thrown off the yoke of Moammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule (longer than most Libyans have been alive), it’s understandable.
As we made our way westward from the border, driver Saleh gave me a running commentary on all the sins of the Gadhafi family and its cronies:
“You see all the potholes in this lousy road? This should be a four-lane highway. Gadhafi spent hardly a dinar on this part of the country.”
“You see that rest house? Gadhafi’s son built it, and overcharged the government.”
“You see that house? It was stolen from its owner and given to one of Gadhafi’s sons.”
“You see those flashes? That’s an ammunition dump an army officer loyal to Gadhafi set on fire before fleeing to Tripoli.”
Saleh was also full of useful advice, I think.
“If you get stopped by forces loyal to Gadhafi, tell them you’re a German doctor. Don’t say you’re a journalist. And say your colleagues are doctors, too.”