It’s ten years since Libya began its rapid descent into chaos. Paul Martin recalls his Libya experiences — from the Libyan Peoples Bureau siege in London, to an embarrassing encounter with a posh British woman on board a ship anchored off Tripoli.16 December 2020
It was August 1981. American jetfighters had shot down two
Libyan planes over the disputed waters of the Gulf of Sirte. The BBC’s
foreign editor had decided, in his infinite wisdom, that I should nip
across the border of Egypt, where I was based, and get to the Libyan capital Tripoli as fast as possible.
This was however easier said than done: Egypt and Libya had fought a short but bloody border war in 1977, and their airlines did not fly to each other’s countries. I’d had to get in via Malta.
There were no decent hotels onshore so the Libyan authorities had hired three ships to accommodate the visitors. Including now, me.
As I looked around the ship’s onboard bar I realised that most of
the people were not there to report about the American-Libyan hostilities.
My fellow-drinkers were a motley collection of radicals and even
well-known terrorists from around the world – all invited by Colonel
Gaddafi to what was being billed as an anti-imperialist
conference in Tripoli.
Perched on the barstool alongside was a woman with a posh English
accent. “Who do you represent?” I asked her. “The Socialist Workers
Party of Great Britain,” she stated.
I’d never seen anyone who looked and sounded less like a British working-class person, but I recognised the party’s name instantly. It was a group of hardline Marxists who thought Vladimir Lenin was too conservative and supported a version of revolutionary activity attributed to Lenin’s (later assassinated) rival Leon Trotsky.
“Isn’t that the party of Vanessa Redgrave?” I enquired.
The elegant woman lounging in a bar-stool drew herself up to her full height.
“I AM Vanessa Redgrave,” she said.
I felt like jumping out of the nearest porthole. I’d seen her in various roles on screen, but had failed to recognise Britain’s most famous Oscar-winning actress in the flesh.
“Er, of course you are,” I mumbled.
“And who do YOU represent?” she asked. “The BBC,” I answered.
“Oh,” she sneered, “that reactionary body.”
I smiled weakly and, opportunistically, asked her for an interview — an invitation which, hardly surprisingly, she rejected. Two days later I bumped into her and her brother Corin at the private home of the Libyan foreign minister.
She and her brother had come, it seemed, in the hope and expectation that
they could obtain Libya’s financial support – Gaddafi was sponsoring
revolutionaries and hardliners worldwide at that time, including the
Irish Republican Army. I noticed Ms Redgrave had donned a green
Green was Colonel Gaddafi’s favourite colour. Strung across his highways
were a series of banners – written in green, some of them in English. One
of them particularly interested and even puzzled me. It read: ‘Committees
Everywhere.’ I soon found out that it reflected one of the political precepts
the Colonel had expounded on in his bizarre Little Green Book — on arrival I had been given a free green-covered copy, loosely modelled, it seemed, on Mao’s Little Red Book.
Watching his live television rant just before he was toppled in 2011, I was not surprised to see he was still waving his Little Green Book about and quoting himself from it. Libya, it declares, has to be run by committees.
Freedom to oppose these committees is not a feature of the Little Green Book.
In fact, the Libyan People’s Jamahiriya did not take kindly to any
opposition of any sort. Which may be why, when in April 1984
anti-Gaddafi demonstrators held a protest outside the Libyan embassy
in St James’s Square, security men inside shot and injured a few of them, but also made the politically disastrous mistake of killing a British woman police officer, Constable Yvonne Fletcher.
After that, armed British security forces surrounded the building and demanded that the killers come out. It was a stand-off, with Britain bound by an international diplomatic tradition that embassies cannot be entered by forces belonging to the host country.
The young man who was in charge of the Libyan embassy, or, as Gaddafi had renamed all his foreign outposts, the Libyan People’s Bureau, was Omar Sodani.
In 1977, Sodani had been a medical student in Benghazi when he ran the student council allegedly responsible for hanging ten Libyan critics of Gaddafi in a public square, accusing them of being spies.
That, I assume, had qualified Dr Sodani for higher things inside the Gaddafi set-up, and that’s why he had been put in charge of the Libyan Peoples Bureau in London.
However, Sodani had not been inside the building when the fatal shot rang out. He was, he said, at a police station after protesting vehemently at the fact that a demonstration was being allowed. So he was not being besieged, though why the British police had not picked him up after the shooting is hard to understand.
I managed to meet up with him and film him in hiding. Not too cunning a hiding-place, though. Our rendezvous took place at a plush Libyan consular address in Kensington.
Sodani suggested that the shooting might be understandable as the demonstrators had, after all, insulted Colonel Gaddafi. Our riveting encounter was broadcast on the BBC — just as he and his entire embassy staff were being expelled back to Libya. I also wrote a piece that got on the front page of The Guardian. (It must have been good or timely, because the usually parsimonious Guardian paid me double the usual wordage rate!)
Months later we were making a BBC film called ‘Siege’, on what happened at the embassy.
Mind you, Gaddafi and his security men did not take kindly to our cameraman being spotted going to the top of the British ‘interests section’ – formerly the embassy – and filming a communications tower nearby.
We were immediately put under arrest and confined to our hotel. We swam lengths of its swimming pool to cool down. The Libyan security men came in, to demand we hand over all that we had filmed. Luckily our producer managed to supply the Libyans with the wrong videotape, and our visit continued.
One of our hosts was Omar Sodani. We even got invited to a swish beachside club reserved only for Gaddafi’s chosen elite. So much, then, for Gaddafi’s professed equality-for-all mantra.
The Colonel obviously did not like the film, Siege, when it was shown exactly a year after the London shootings, and I was never allowed back to Gaddafi’s Libya.
When Libya imploded in 2011, Sodani was found and locked up by the victorious rebels.
Now, of course, I could return. But this time the danger would not be from arrest or worse – it would be from the armed gangs that still roam the streets in this now-ungovernable country.
Perhaps there was some wisdom in that Little Green Book, after all.