Inside Politics

My moment with Moammar

As we sprinted across Moammar Gadhafi's front lawn, we had to swerve to avoid the camels.

It was a bizarre obstacle course: dozens of the ungainly creatures, sitting, standing, and yes, fornicating.

It was December, 2004. Our media bus holding a dozen journalists, cameramen and photographers had been delayed after taking a wrong turn on the way in from the Tripoli Airport. Then-prime minister Paul Martin was already in the Bedouin tent inside the compound that the Libyan leader still calls home. If we didn't hustle, we'd miss the one photo-op: a brief handshake.
As we jumped off the bus, Alphee Moreau, the PMO's advance man at the time, shouted: "Run! Run! Be careful, the camels are dangerous!"
Jet-lagged and culture shocked, we giggled in spite of ourselves as we closed in on the tent. There, in a dimly-lit and incense-clouded corner, was the man of the hour, resplendent in robes and his trademark hat. He was shaking hands with our pale-faced Canadian leader.

What struck me was how young Gadhafi looked - nothing like recent photos of his tired and haggard mug. He looked healthy and youthful, clearly enjoying his renaissance in the limelight. In fact, he looked a lot like the dated image plastered on billboards all over Tripoli, where time seemed to have stood still.

In fact, the compound itself was like a bombed-out time warp: the palace and Gadhafi's former quarters had not been touched since a U.S. air-strike in the 1980s - retaliation for Gadhafi's bombings of a Berlin nightclub. Empty holes gaped and mortar crumbled where walls and windows once stood. The shell of a U.S. rocket was still intact, but now crushed by a massive fist in a sculpture of defiance.

The whole place seethed with anti-Western sentiment making it all the stranger for reporters to be there.

Of course, history was marching on despite the stuck-in-time feeling. Paul Martin's visit followed the lead of several European leaders who had recently made the pilgrimage to Tripoli to congratulate the Libyan strongman for his renunciation of terrorism.

I remember walking out into the streets of Tripoli to work on a story about Sudanese migrants, all the while being tailed by Gadhafi's secret police. The streets were eerily quiet, and all businesses were closed. An "election" was taking place, and for that the entire country shut down so that people could cast their "ballots."
Of course, Martin was also there representing Canadian interests in the region. SNC Lavalin has held construction contracts in Libya for decades, and a new bidding process was now opening up for drilling lots in the Libyan Sahara. Oil, or at least, the promise of it, was drawing corporations and politicians once again. It was certainly a factor in Europe's sudden coziness with Gadhafi following his purported conversion. 

Fast-forward six years and the seemingly timeless regime faces extinction. And Canada and its allies are no longer willing to share the political bed with this particular leader.

Louise Elliott is a national reporter with CBC NEWS. She covered Paul Martin's prime ministerial visit to Libya in 2004.

Comments are closed.