Sky’s Checkpoint Challenge Inside Libya
When you are driving around Libya to various hotspots and stories, you inevitably find yourself negotiating checkpoint after checkpoint.
These are now manned predominantly by rebels – apart from a smattering of die-hard outposts in the pockets where pro-Gaddafi forces are still holding out.
When I was last in Libya earlier this year, Colonel Gaddafi was still firmly at the helm and resisting all calls to step down.
Even once the UN resolution was passed and the airstrikes started, his troops continued to man checkpoints flying loyalist green flags every few hundred metres on every road.
As “guests” of the colonel and his cronies, we travelled around in government buses, so were waved through officiously everywhere we went.
Passing through one or two on the outskirts of Tripoli now, you would be forgiven for thinking the checkpoints have not changed despite the revolution and the changing of the guard.
They are still a few hundred metres apart, manned by four or five men sporting varying degrees of uniform and an array of different weapons.
Now though, as free-moving journalists, we no longer get waved through respectfully and Col Gaddafi’s green has been replaced everywhere by the new red, black and green colours.
But it is more than that: where in Gaddafi days the checkpoints were dictatorially uniform, now each has its own flavour, style and welcome.
There is the ‘drive-through’, which boasts the most generous and warm of Libyan welcomes. Despite limited supplies of food, water and electricity the locals appear by the side of our minibus thrusting through the windows plates of watermelon, freshly fried up flatbreads and chilled bottles of water.
There follows an exchange of broken English on their part and very broken Arabic on ours, a few handshakes, smiles, Allah u Akbars and we are waved on our way.
Then there are the “jobsworth” checkpoints, where a local commander has moved on from the euphoria of a “new and free Libya” and discovered bureaucracy.
We usually roll up to one of these at midnight after a long day and an already very short night’s sleep in the offing, or when we are against the clock on a story deadline.
The checkpoint chief will refuse point blank to allow us to pass through, leaving us stranded at the side of the road. That is until a frantic call to one of our senior rebel contacts opens the road to us with apologies from the over-zealous commanders.
And there are the “road rage” checkpoints, where the stifling heat causes tempers to flare. As we are standing minding our own business, waiting to be ushered on our way, a scrap will break out between two rebels, two motorists, or one of each.
This would not be so bad if they were not all armed and far too eager to cock weapons and wave them around in every direction including ours. Not to mention when others add to the confusion by firing in the air, escalating the argument further.
But the most noticeable change on all these checkpoints compared to when I was here last is that people are actually talking to us – even if it is to tell us we do not have the right paperwork – rather than keeping their distance, with one eye on us and the other on our Gaddafi minders.