MY EXPERIENCE DURING THE 2011 LIBYAN REVOLUTION
Benjie Bensing – HR Administrator, VAOS Company Libya
I can still remember vividly how the protests in Benghazi became the linchpin of the 2011 revolution that swept away the entire nation of Libya. It reached its zenith sometime in 15 February 2011. Most of the tribes in the east of Libya supported the dissent and by February 17, designated as the “day of rage”, the anti—Ghaddafi movement was unstoppable.
In Bin-Gazhir, where I was staying, we were told that in Tripoli fighting between forces loyal to Col. Muammar Ghaddafi and the anti-government protesters has turned for the worse. We were not supposed to worry because Bin Ghazir is about 25 kms from Tripoli, except that Bin Gazhir camp is located about half kilometer from one of the biggest military depot loyal to Ghaddafi.
It was difficult to sleep due to heavy artilleries every now and then. Frequent gun fires from Kalashnikov rifles can be heard at any given time; news of impending attacks and mobilization of military forces has drove us all to the edge. Communication lines were cut. On February 23, I have requested to be transferred from Bin-Ghazir to Tripoli, together with one of my colleagues.
In February 25, the fighting intensified. The day before, rebel militias has taken control over Misurata – one of the most organized military facility loyal to Ghaddafi. The Managing Director of the Company decided, for security reasons, to evacuate all of us to Tunisia in the west.
The coastal road travel from Tripoli to Ras Al Jeddir was not easy. Right after we left Tripoli, at the back of Rixos hotel, our convoy of about 7 vans were stopped by militias. That was our first check-point. Some of the personal luggage in one of the convoy vehicles were opened, as if the militias were searching for something. Of course it makes sense because our Finance Manager was carrying with him an unspecified amount of US dollar/Euro currency from the company vault.
Afterwards, we continued on our westward journey to Tunisia. I can see military personnel everywhere. It was a very tense situation. Before we arrived in Ras Jedder border, on check-point number 17, two of my colleagues in the van have lost their mobile phones. They were taken by the militias manning the check points. My SIM card was also taken; they ignored my old mobile phone. One of my colleagues has hidden his new mobile phone in an inconspicuous place between the seats and displayed his old mobile unit.
After check point number 29 (yes, that’s right, we passed twenty-nine check points from Libya to the border of Ras Jedder) and six (6) hours of gut-wrenching land travel, we finally arrived at the border. It was 6:30 PM. It was winter and the temperature was about 4-6 degrees centigrade.
The hotel at the border was full to the brim and we ended up on a vigil in the hotel lobby (you can’t sleep in such an uncomfortable situation). The next day, around 9:00 AM, we tried to cross the border. However, the border guards would not let us through because we have no exit visa. I estimated more than fifteen thousand evacuees on the border at that time. And from the crowd that I can see, several thousands more are pouring into the border. It was an appalling condition.
One of our colleagues called the Philippine Embassy in Tripoli for assistance. The Embassy officials assured us that they will come to our rescue. At around 2:00 PM, the next day, the Philippine Embassy service vehicle arrived at the border. I immediately went to see them and we had a short meeting while one of the Embassy staff was preparing a request letter addressed to the Immigration Office in Ras Jedder to allow VAOS employees to cross the border, even without an exit visa. The letter also stipulated that the Philippine Embassy would be personally responsible for us once we reached Tunisia. We were given the contact number of the Philippine Consulate in Tunisia. One of us made contact and was told that they are already at Tunisian side of the border.
Some of our European colleagues have remarked: “you’re Embassy is stronger than ours because they supported you and managed to get you out of here while our Embassy has already abandoned us”.
Before we left the hotel premises, one of the Filipino pastors working with VAOS led us in a short prayer. I believe it was one of the most sincerest prayer that each one of us has ever prayed. After two and a half hours on the cue line at the passport control area of the border and roughly 500 meters of dusty gravel, we managed to cross over to Tunisia.
It was past 6:00 PM and the temperature by this time dropped to about 2-4 degrees centigrade. The cold temperature plus the strong winds from the Mediterranean Sea made it worse. I thought I will die of hypothermia. Since we did not saw any of the officials from the Philippine Consulate in Tunisia, we contacted our colleagues who were already a day ahead of us and are already in Djerba (they have exit visa at that time). We waited for a few hours until the hotel bus arrived at the border. Afterwards, we travelled on the coastal road going to Djerba island in Tunisia. We arrived there past 1:30 AM on February 27, 2011.
I stayed in Tunisia until the end of March to help our company manage the transition and evacuation of our remaining employees who are still trapped in Libya. I was in contact with EDI Staffbuilders in the Philippines for updates on evacuation schedule and documentation that might be required by POEA, OWWA, DOLE, etc.. I was also in contact with colleagues in Malta who were coordinating the air tickets with our travel agent, for evacuation assistance. I was in regular contact with the families in the Philippines, giving them day-by-day updates and the assurance that VAOS is taking care of every single Filipino employee. Facebook became an important communication tool for us.
By end of March, we were able to evacuate 91% of our expat employees. The rest were evacuated via Egypt (Al Sallam border), and Malta (by ship) and brought back to their country of origin. The last evacuation took place on May 2011, in coordination with the Philippine Embassy in Cairo, Egypt.
Overall, our evacuation from Libya was a smashing success.