Though the situation in Benghazi was stable in the immediate aftermath of the revolution the same could not be said of the rest of Libya.We remained glued to Al Jazeera as news of unrest in other areas of western Libya filtered in .Initial reports of Gadaffi fleeing to Venuzvela which was greeted with loud celebratory gunfire in Benghazi turned out to be false.Reports came in of the brutal supression of the revolt in Tripoli.Gaddafi himself came on television promising retribution ‘house by house’ to the residents of Benghazi .The speech created panic among our loved ones in India .In fact the madman had dispatched a few planes from Tripoli to bomb Benghazi.We spent a few anxious hours in the night gossiping and sipping tea till news came in that the planes had landed at Benghazi airport and did not carry out the bombing.A couple of pilots landed in neighbouring country of Malta as the pilots did not want to bomb their own people and one pilot ejected from his plane near Ajdabiya .Rumours also swirled that he could use chemical or biological weapons against Benghazi.
Seeing the unstable situation various governments began evacuating their nationals.Indian government too advised us to evacuate which was also seconded by Garyounis university officials where I worked .Benina airport in Benghazi had been shut as it had been dug up by the rebels .So the Indian govt chartered the Bahamian cruise liner ‘Scotia Prince’ to ferry Indian nationals from Benghazi to Alexandria in Egypt.
So ten days later we bid goodbye to the Libyan family hosting us.Our Libyan landlady who was ‘mamma’ to us Indians broke down at our departure.Thanks to them we carried back lovely memories of our Libyan stay.The hospitality we received from them was simply unparalleled.It was a pity we had to leave such lovely people but then, inshallah we would be back.
The port was crowded with people of many nationalities crowding it looking for a seat home.The huge contingent of Indians comprising of doctors,nurses from Kerala ,oil workers, labourers ,and factory workers from Hyundai were shepherded into a large warehouse where we waited through the afternoon for our exit visa to be stamped and the arrival of our ship.Most of us had left behind many of our belongings in making a hasty exit. A loud cheer went up as the Scotia Prince entered the port.However my celebration was premature as it was further six hours and a lot of jostling before I finally boarded the ship at midnight.
Things eased up once we were on the ship.In the hold the team of Indian embassy officials from Egypt processed our passports.Many who were without passports were issued temporary passports.Bunks were allocated with four people in one cabin.I managed to gang up with a couple of friends and got a cabin together.The cabins were very comfortable with air conditioning,clean sheets and towels and an attached bathroom.Once checked it we made a beeline for the dining hall where we had a very filling chicken meal before crashing for the night.A long dream of an all expenses paid Mediterranean cruise was coming true,so what if it was as a refugee!
It was a long journey to Alexandria in Egypt.In all we spent three nights in the ship due to delay in formalities.The sea is indeed very lovely and time passed quickly just gazing at it stretching from horizon to horizon from Africa to Europe.Queuing up for food became a daily chore as the queues were serpentine.Initially whoever got into the dining hall went into cruise dining mode,eating leisurely while stomachs growled outside the dining hall.As a north indian labourer quipped to his friend”aisa chicken mutton kaha kahne ko milega? lapet lo!”(“where will you get to eat such chicken ,mutton meals?gobble it!”).The joke going around was that after breakfast one should queue for lunch and after lunch for dinner !However the ship crew after being initially shell shocked to see their beloved cruise ship turning into a refugee ship soon got their act together and streamlined things.Being a refugee ship the casino and pubs were not functioning so we sat around the pub gossiping and gazing at the sea.
Finally on the third evening the lights of Alexandria were visible.Everyone crowded on to the deck.Arrangements had been made to send us in five planes from Alexandria airport to Mumbai and Delhi.However what should have been a fairly simple operation of dividing us into five batches and putting up the names on the noticeboard was bungled by the Indian embassy staff.The non transparent and sometimes haughty behavior of some of the senior Indian embassy officials on board led to a lot of avoidable confusion,acrimony and delay.Finally the next day evening I was on the way to the airport in a Volvo bus chartered by the Indian govt.
The drive from the port through Alexandria to the airport took about forty five minutes.The buses stopped at a souvenir shop for some late night shopping .the Egyptians are enterprising people and any tourism business in lean times is welcome even refugees.Many people unloaded their last Libyan dinars which was bought by the Egyptians at rock bottom rates.Some of us held on to the dinars with Gadaffi pictures as these may soon disappear. Some bought souvenirs of pyramids,mummies and camels ,all made in China of course.
Alexandria is an impressive city with well lit broad wide roads,busy shopping areas,trams and tanks.Egypt had just undergone its own revolution and security was tight.Of particular interest to me were the traffic policemen kiosks at the intersections which had quite a unique look.The brand new Borg al arab airport had been opened just days earlier.An all glass structure well lit up it made for an imposing site.After being cutoff for so many days wifi internet along with some hot coffee was welcome.A few hours restless wait later we were flown out to Mumbai by Egypt Air.It was goodbye Africa for now.