Larry Mendte: My Trip to Libya
My seven-year-old son, Michael, recently walked into first grade at Norwood Academy with a message for the class: “My daddy is on a peace mission all the way around the world.” Sister Roseann then led the class in prayer for a successful trip and the safe return of Michael’s daddy.
I can tell you that Michael’s daddy was nervous on the flight over to Tunisia. I was traveling with WPIX-TV photographer John Frasse, who brought body armor for him and me: “It’s better to have it and not need it.” I agreed. Although our host, former Delaware County Congressman Curt Weldon, got a chuckle over our extra protection—“We are going to be fine,” Weldon reassured. “But if anything does go wrong, that body armor probably isn’t going to help.” Reassurance dashed in the same breath.
I was in talks with Curt Weldon about doing a documentary on the suspicious circumstances that prompted the FBI to raid his daughter’s home in 2006—two weeks before voters would decide if the Congressman would be reelected for an eleventh term. (Five years later, no charges, no apologies, no reason for what smells of a political hit. Weldon has a book coming out at the end of this year that promises to be explosive.) It was in discussions about the documentary when Weldon told me, “I have been invited to go to Libya and meet with Gadhafi to see if I can help end this crisis.” Weldon had met with the leader of Libya more than any other elected official, and some in the Libyan government thought Weldon could talk Gadhafi into stepping aside. I was in a position every journalist dreams about, so I said, “Can I go?”
“I doubt it,” was Curt Weldon’s quick response.
Two days later I’m landing in Tunis with a nervous photographer, body armor and some first-graders’ prayers.
We were met at the Tunis airport by a woman named Jackie who looked stunningly like Kate Hudson. She smiled and spoke perfect English. She would be our escort for the trip to Tripoli to meet Gadhafi. As we sat waiting for a another plane to the Tunisian city of Jerba, I found out that Jackie met Moammar Gadhafi’s son Saadi when she was a big-ticket real-estate agent in Los Angeles. The two hit it off, and now Jackie is “with Saadi.” After getting to know Saadi’s friend, I walked over to John the photographer. “We’re not going to need the body armor,” I said, motioning to Jackie. “As long as we’re with her, we’re safe.”
Here is a travel tip: If you are going to venture into Libya, it is best to go with a former Congressman and his delegation at the invitation of the leader. When we arrived in Jerba, a caravan of brand-new CL550 Mercedeses was waiting for us. At the Libyan border, police cars cleared traffic for the Mercedes parade on its 100-mile drive from the border to Tripoli. I was sitting directly behind my driver, who seemed to have his rear-view mirror focused on my face. It seemed like every time I looked into the mirror, he was staring at me. I decided he was much more than a driver.
We counted 18 military checkpoints on the way to Tripoli; cars were stopped and people were being questioned as the Mercedes caravan blew right through them. Later, Nic Robertson from CNN would tell me that 18 was an enormous improvement from the 52 he passed through on the same route a couple of weeks before. I also counted 21 gas stations with lines of cars stretching back a half mile, reminiscent of our gas crisis in the ’70s. Many of the gas stations were closed, but no one wanted to give up his place in line. There is some irony in the fact that one of the most oil-rich nations in the world doesn’t have enough refineries to keep up a gas supply through the NATO embargo. If Gadhafi gives up power, it will not be the direct result of the opposition forces or the NATO air strikes, but the discontent of his own people because of the shortages.
There were also several demonstrations of support for Gadhafi along the way, small gatherings of people with green flags and pictures of the leader. There is a real possibility that they were all staged for our benefit, but we were in the western part of the country, where Gadhafi is popular. An underreported fact is that Libya is an African nation and the current conflict is not as much about democracy as it is about a tribal war that has deep and bitter roots in history. Gadhafi is loved by a large segment of the population in Libya, and some see him as a deity. When we drove by the presidential compound in Libya, dozens of people were sleeping outside the doors to serve as human shields against an attack. Later in the trip, a woman approached me with a box adorned with Gadhafi pictures, “a gift” she said. Inside were more pictures of Gadhafi spanning his 42 years of power. I noticed henna tattoos of flowers on her arms and hands. The woman showed me the palm of her right hand and said, “Gadhafi is the blossom of my soul.”
We stayed at the Radisson Blu Hotel next to an empty Port of Tripoli. The embargo kept the ships away. The embargo was also felt at the hotel restaurant, where no menus were handed out. The waiter just mentioned a choice of four entrées. The top floor of the hotel was riddled with holes from bullets and small missile fire. “A boat of opposition forces fired just outside the port,” the hotel manager told us. Every night we could hear explosions and gunfire in the distance. There was sustained anti-aircraft fire in Tripoli on only one night during our visit. We could see the flashes of guns from batteries across the street. I stood on my fifth-floor balcony to watch until the red dots of tracer fire came too close. It was intense for about 25 minutes, and then it was gone. I was struck by the fact that cars continued to drive at a normal pace through the sound of gunfire and past the anti-aircraft batteries. Hotel staff seemed unimpressed as they went about their business. The sound of war has become white noise in Tripoli.
We were told that Curt Weldon’s New York Times op-ed piece angered Gadhafi and caused the cancellation of the promised meeting. Weldon and his team did meet with Saadi Gadhafi, the chief of staff and the prime minister. Through the weeklong trip, there was constant back-channel communication between Washington and Weldon’s group. The message was sent that Saadi and Gadhafi’s oldest son, Saif, were not speaking and that Saif blocked our meeting with their father. Saif in recent weeks has taken a hard line, while Saadi has been trying to broker peace. The future of Libya could come down to a sibling rivalry and competition for a father’s love.
Congressman Weldon left Libya with a wax-sealed communication from the prime mister addressed to “Her Excellency Hillary Clinton.” It was the highest-level private communication between the two governments. A CIA agent picked up the document at the Tunisian border and “expedited” it to Washington. Weldon was asked by Washington to help push for the release of four foreign journalists, including two Americans, being held by Gadhafi forces. They were released two days after the trip. Most importantly, Weldon and his team presented 10 suggestions for a transition of power in Libya that still serve as the foundation for negotiations.
As the Mercedeses lined up to whisk us from Libya, I took one last notice of the beauty of the water and palm trees. I thought how wonderful this land would be if men didn’t fight over its oil. My thoughts were interrupted by the news that Jackie was not escorting us back to Tunisia. There goes our protection, I thought. It was a tense ride with my driver/watcher staring at me.
But we made it home safe and sound. I thank Michael, Sister Roseann and the first-graders at Norwood for helping to to guide us through a successful trip.