Crazy Qaddafi Déjà Vu

A former New York Times editor recalls an earlier press trip to Libya at the invitation of the dictator that was just as surreal as the ones taking place now.

Posted:
 
gaddafi400
Gangne/AFP/Getty Images

Paul Delaney is an inveterate diarist. In January 1989 he was the Madrid bureau chief for the New York Times when he was dispatched to Tripoli, Libya. His account of the trip from his diary will be included in a memoir he is completing.

Jan. 3: Things heating up in Libya. U.S. President [Ronald] Reagan accused President [Muammar] Qaddafi of building a plant to make poison gas. Qaddafi denies it. Foreign desk wants me to go there. Exciting. Ed Schumacher covered previous bombing of Libya, ordered by Reagan, that killed Qaddafi's daughter in 1986. Ed suggests that I apply for visa, which probably won't be granted, but then just fly to Tripoli.

Lots of other action in the region as well. John Hooper of the Guardian called to see if I was going to Morocco, where the U.N. is sending in a delegation to broker peace between Polisario guerrillas and Morocco. Told him more than likely I will go. Then Luisa Schmidt, Lisbon stringer, called to report that the government is in trouble because the economy has tanked. Good story.

Jan. 4: Ali, my Madrid Polisario contact, says there's been breakthrough in talks in Morocco between Polisario and King Hassan. Told foreign desk I should go, but desk said no. I disagreed, but am aware that desk is so swamped with Pan Am 103 crash in Lockerbie, Scotland, and Libya stories. Turned out, it was Libya for me, even though Elaine Sciolino applied for visa in Paris and Alan Cowell called from vacation offering to go. I was informed late today that my visa to Libya had been approved and will be awaiting my arrival at Tripoli airport tomorrow.

Jan. 5: So, off to the shores of Tripoli, through Rome, where other journalists from across Europe packed the flight, including my old New York Times colleague Barbara Slavin, and her husband, Mike Ross, Los Angeles Times. I sat next to two Libyans who spoke perfect English. One, a computer specialist, studied and lived in Houston; they're on the way home to be with family during these tense times, controversy with America. They were anti-American, more anti-Reagan, the kind of sentiment I've found all over North Africa, and it's getting worse. The counter, of course, is the anti-Arab bias in U.S., which my seatmates said they experienced frequently in their American stay. I can certainly understand that.

At the airport [in Tripoli], journalists were herded and kept together; at the hotel, we were under strict control and watchful eyes of keepers, who tried to make nice, and we had to pay hotel bill in advance and in dollars (do they know how long our stay will be?). At least the hotel was better than anything I found in Algeria.

Jan. 6: And the Big Wait became a game of cat and mouse: Will they or will they not show us the plant in question? There is real fear among the Libyans -- and journalists -- that crazy Reagan will bomb the place again. With all these journalists here? I certainly did not come to Tripoli to die. We were not really concerned about that. We were promised a visit to the site, but they drove us in the opposite direction, east to the Leptis Magna Roman ruins. Mike Ross called it "septic magnum."

He and I were so peeved that we hailed a cab to try and get back to Tripoli, but an agent told the cabbie not to take us, that it was a security matter. Our handler also gave the two of us a warning: A couple of journalists wandered off before and were never heard from again. Mike and I got the message. The buses took the long way, the scenic route, back to the hotel. We were getting antsy and disgusted, and complained strongly to our press handler, who apologized and said he had no idea we'd be treated that way. Sure.

He held three press conferences: in English, Arabic and finally for the cameras. He promised we'd see the plant. It was a media frenzy. At one point, I stood next to him and got in a couple questions. An octogenarian British photographer, Tanya Matthews, was knocked into a dry pool; she was OK, fortunately. Thirty minutes later, Qaddafi jumped into his Peugeot and sped away as abruptly as he had arrived, like Santa Claus.

We were then herded again on the buses and told, this is it, to the plant. Sure enough, we went to the plant. Or, more accurately, to the plant area. It was surrounded by military encampments and missiles, supported by thousands of civilians bused in to show solidarity and to die, in case of an American air strike. It was already near sundown, and our guides poked around until sunset with phony press conferences by "plant officials" and "protests" by demonstrators. Then it was pitch dark when the buses rolled by the plant, all lit up like a Christmas tree, but we could see nothing. We drove back to the hotel in anger, and I dashed off the bus and was the first reporter to use the hotel's telex room to file my story.