Escape from Tripoli: Surviving Libya's 'Tsunami'

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Stringer / Reuters

People waiting to be evacuated from Libya gather outside the airport in Tripoli on Feb. 22, 2011

Standing inside Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport on Tuesday, Cyrus Sany, 41, was waiting to make a connection to Washington, D.C. Dressed in an untucked white-and-blue dress shirt and pale jeans, the American systems engineer had a few days' growth of beard on his face. He flipped through the pages of his passport, which was filled with Libyan visas. He had been in Libya for his 28th time when the call came to evacuate. He was there to modernize three of the country's ports, but his company, Delex Systems, a Virginia-based contractor, said, "Put your pencil down. Get to the airport."

"In three days, a beautiful country with great opportunities was thrown into chaos," Sany said. The uprising came without warning, turning the country upside down. "It was like a tsunami," he said. "It happened in a couple of minutes. This city [the Libyan capital of Tripoli] that was alive like New York is now dead." Shops closed up. The streets emptied. A crowded hookah bar, which Sany had patronized, was devoid of customers. "The businesses vanished," he said. "It was like a bunch of plastic chairs and that's it."

The credit-card system was down, he said, so some restaurants were letting people leave without paying. Text-messaging didn't work. The Internet was available but at a crawl, and cell-phone reception was intermittent. Libyans, he said, wore "blank faces" and were afraid of what would happen next. "They kept asking me what I think: 'Why is Washington so quiet?' I said, 'I'm telling you, even [President] Obama is scared.' "

"Nobody expected this," said Michele Cafiero, an Italian businessman who on Tuesday evacuated Libya, where he had lived for three years. He said the streets of Tripoli were full of protesters on Feb. 20, with firefights outside his house, but that by the night of Feb. 21 the situation had quieted some. He saw smoke rising from the area of the Ministry of Interior (the head of which defected to the rebels), but the violence had stopped. At one point, helicopters fired south of the Green Square, the capital's main plaza, but Cafiero heard that it was merely to scare off the looters who were targeting the jewelry shops. Still, said Cafiero, the city completely shut down. And with the shops closed, water and food became scarce. "We could be looking at a humanitarian emergency, because soon there will be nothing to eat," he said. Meanwhile, Sany said the hotel where he was staying offered just one meal instead of the usual three.

Sany did not see any violence, the closest thing to it being a couple of police officers shooting their AK-47s into the air. He said he didn't see any military personnel — except in Muammar Gaddafi's compound, which people had been told to avoid lest they be shot at. But he said the streets of the Libyan capital were not exactly quiet but bustling with supporters of Gaddafi — young men and occasionally women honking the horns of their cars, carrying flags and sticks, and calling on anti-Gaddafi protesters to show themselves. "They're daring opponents to come out," said Sany. "Tripoli is in Gaddafi's hands, I tell you that much. It's so loud, you can't sleep." He added that when he left for the airport at 5:30 a.m. on Tuesday, the streets were still full of pro-Gaddafi demonstrators. "It's like they're working in shifts," he said.

Marco Albi, a geologist with the Italian construction firm Impregilo, recounted his trip to the airport as he prepared to leave the country. The terminal was packed with Gaddafi supporters, who pressed a rolled-up portrait of the dictator into his hands. Young people, including women, were cheering. Some of them wore green arm bands, the symbolic color of the regime. He saw a car with its windshield covered with Gaddafi posters. "I have no idea how they were driving," he said.

"I'll tell you one thing," said Sany. "Gaddafi is holding Tripoli. His supporters were all over the place. He doesn't give in just like that. He's not [former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine] Ben Ali. He's not [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak. He will kill. If he promises a civil war, there will be a civil war."

Meanwhile, the airport was a madhouse, clogged with people struggling to leave. "It took me 6½ hours just to get from the parking lot to the ticket counter," said Sany. Airport authorities eventually closed the doors, leaving hundreds of people crowding and pushing to enter. Sany made his way through the crowd and managed to maneuver his way inside the building. "I was about to have a heart attack," he said, so badly jostled that he could barely move. "At one point I was thinking, Forget my luggage, I'll just grab my laptop and go."

Expectant passengers sat amid discarded food wrappers, cans and food. Rain dripped from the ceiling. The monitors announcing departures were down, and rumors swirled about when planes would take off. "For, like, two cans of 7 Up, you had to stand in line for 2½ hours," Sany said.

He predicted it would be a while before business returned to Libya. "The trust is gone," he said. Tripoli, which had seemed to be a safe, stable place to invest, now bore the risk of anarchy. "It was perfectly set up to become a Saudi situation," he said, referring to the oil-rich kingdom's reputation of stability. "Now it could be a Somalia." He concluded, "Now all the companies, they're scared. They lost the security they need to do business. Everybody asks me, When are you going back? I say, Man, I have no idea."

Albi, the geologist, said his company pulled him out with the option to return after 15 days. But as he unrolled the poster of Gaddafi that had been pressed into his hands, he said, "I don't know if when we go back, he'll still be there."