Libya dispatch: Borders (1)

The Tunisia-Libya border

Today we inaugurate a new series of dispatches from Libya by our intrepid war correspondent Abu Ray, who is headed to Tripoli where bored journalists await the final battle.

Coming into Libya again, once again I was greeted by graffiti, but this time it was "God, Gadhafi, Libya and that's it." And in fact that was pretty much it for the spray painted slogans for the whole trip from the Tunisian border to Tripoli. As the Palestinian TV producer I was traveling with pointed out, it was somewhat heartening that God at least came before Gadhafi in this instance.

It was certainly a contrast to the jubiliant, riot of "Libya is free" graffiti on the eastern side that I saw four months ago when I came to cover a nationwide rebellion that has since turned into a stalemated civil war and a cautionary tale for any would be Arab democracy activists.

Across Morocco, and elsewhere in the region, ordinary people are suddenly praising the advantages of the go slow approach for fear of sinking into the bloody fighting that has convulsed Libya since March.

There was one similarity to the east, aside from the scrub filled desert landscape, and that was the soldiers at checkpoints. Weeks with the rag tag rebel irregulars had convinced me that somewhere out there was a disciplined, uniformed Libyan government force hurling artillery shells at us with deadly accuracy. Instead, at least at the dozens of checkpoints on the two hour drive to the capital, it was the same mish mash of t-shirts, fatigue pants, some camouflage, the odd beret and the ubiquitous Kalashnikov dangling from their hands.

Gadhafi's Libya is apparently not about spit and polish uniforms.

For miles along the Tunisian road leading to the border, there were young men selling large jerry cans of gasoline. Once upon a time, these were Libyans, smuggling over their super subsidized gasoline, selling it to the Tunisians.

Now gasoline has vanished from Libya and it's the Tunisians and Libyans loading up the trunks of their car and driving across the border to sell it. During the drive to Tripoli, every gas station was surrounded by earthen walls or barb wire and a long line of cars. In some cases it seemed as though maybe everyone had given up, as the gas stations were deserted and the dozens of cars covered in sand and empty of inhabitants -- like some sort of post-apocalyptic harbinger of the day the world runs out of oil.

As we sat for hours on the border, our bags getting searched and subject to the weird time warp that seems to exist at the frontiers of authoritarian countries, we watched ramshackle Tunisians cars held together by twine with backseats filled with gasoline driven through the border by cigarette puffing young men.

They were followed by the gleaming SUVs of rich Libyans taking some time out to relax at the Tunisian resorts before returning home.

The nearby Tunisian resort island of Djerba is apparently overrun by rich Libyans, residents told me as I spent a not unpleasant day there waiting to cross into Libya. One taxi driver groused how they were renting houses at outrageous rates and buying up all the food, driving up prices even more right before Ramadan. And even worse, they brought their own cars and didn't need cabs.

Meanwhile the people that needed cabs, the tourists, were just staying away. Even if Europeans had reconciled themselves to Tunisians uprising, they were now spooked by months of fighting just across the border and hotel occupancy rates were an anemic 50 percent, a far cry from last year when they were calling around the island to find rooms for their overflow numbers of guests. Probably the one city in Tunisia that isn't hurting from the drop in tourism is Sfax, the commercial capital and center of the country's business community. In fact it's these people that are probably profiting from all the food that Tunisia is sending to Libya.

It's also the home of the Libyan consulate in Tunisia and primary contact point for the hundreds of thousands of poor Libyans stuck in the country. A non descript apartment building just a few blocks from the town center, it is surrounded by barbed wire to help control the crowds of desperate Libyans that gather around it every day. It's almost a microcosm of Libya's woes as uncaring officials shout at pleading crowds through locked iron bars.

I'm not sure if anyone is ever allowed into the consulate, but on the two days I sat outside pleading for my visa, that was not the case. The windows are all barred and the doors have heavy rolling gates in front of them.

It became clear throughout the days why those gates where there as periodically someone would just completely lose it and start throwing themselves against the bars. At one point a bunch of revolutionary sympathizers showed up and tried to start a demonstrations, rattling the bars, much to the fury of people waiting outside, clustered in the fast diminishing shadows as the awful July sun climbed to its zenith.

See, the Libyan government wants to take care of its people abroad, so it pays for medical care and in some cases accommodation, but only if you are a loyal citizen and not a rebel sympathizer. So most of the crowd is clutching x-rays and medical notes begging for the funding for their operations, one man showed up with an enormous fleshy goiter overtaking much of his chin and neck and overflowing an inadequate bandage. All subject to the whim of the embassy employees.

The various officials I talked to just kept telling me my fax approving my visa had never arrived, even while my counterpart in Tripoli, desperate to escape, told me it had been sent three times.

At one point, I shoved the phone with a Tripoli-based official on the line to talk to the embassy employee. He nodded his head and said in Arabic, "yes yes, we will stamp them, it will be taken care of," then got off the line and said to me in French. "Sorry, they haven't sent the fax yet."

I suggested at one point that maybe a tip was in order to ease the process, which the embassy official thought was a capital idea as we spoke through a barred window around the corner from the shouting mobs, but “wait until I get your visas, you see I’m Tunisian, and we only take money once we’ve have results – we’re not like the Libyans.”