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Kidnapped in the Libyan Desert – Sunday Times

It was instantly terrifying. One moment we were driving quietly down the final stretch of the airport road into the southern Libyan oasis town of Ghadames, then suddenly, out of the darkness, armed men rushed into the road and surrounded our car. A band of Touareg — immediately recognisable from the cotton tagilmus veils wrapped around their heads — ordered us to stop.

“Stop the car! They’re going to shoot!” I shouted, as the car slowed. I was convinced we were not going to stop in time and they were going to fire straight through the windscreen. We would be dead in seconds.

“Get out of the car!” they screamed. Whichever way I looked, I was staring down the barrel of an AK-47 into the adrenaline-charged face of a man who looked as though he was going to pull the trigger. The windless calm of a desert night became a maelstrom of panic. In the driver’s seat my friend Taher, whom I have known since 1998, was shouting not to shoot. Sitting on his lap, his two-year-old son Mohammed started crying. A shrill note of distress came from Taher’s wife, shrouded from head to toe in black, in the back seat.

Before I had time to think, the Touareg were pulling me roughly out of the car on the passenger side, pointing rifles in my face and ordering me to lie down. Taher and his family were hauled out on the other side. I held up my hands in surrender, fearing summary execution. More screaming and jabbing of rifle barrels. Unseen hands grabbed me and threw me to the ground on my stomach. My arms were pulled up painfully behind my back and tied tightly. I could no longer see what was happening to Taher and his family. Then my head was raised, a blindfold was pulled around my head and all was darkness and noise.

Hauled into the back of a pick-up, I was rammed down flat onto a thin mat while my legs scraped uncomfortably against metal. Kalashnikovs, hands and feet shoved me into the required position. I felt completely powerless. They had prepared me for a roadside shooting and there was nothing I could do about it.
“Please,” I began feebly in Arabic.
“No please,” came a curt reply.

I kept silent for the next 30-40 minutes as we tore off into the desert, rearranged like luggage every few minutes. No one would know where we were. My wife in London and a couple of friends in Tripoli would not be expecting to hear from me for another 24-48 hours. I prayed the four of us would be spared.

I WONDERED how it had all happened on this, the eve of the 10th anniversary of 9/11. Years earlier, I had researched the history of the Touareg and written a book on Libya. Now I was heading to Ghadames to look up old friends and investigate suggestions that bad things had been happening in this far-flung oasis.

Historically uneasy relations between the town’s Arab-Berber population and the Touareg had apparently fractured into all-out conflict in the wake of the revolution that had ousted Colonel Muammar Gadaffi. For the past six months Gadaffi had been using a Touareg militia as his enforcers.

They had suppressed the initial uprising of February 20 with the regime’s customary brutality, rounding up, imprisoning and beating numerous Ghadamsis. On August 28 the town had risen up and thrown them out. A friend spoke of reprisals. Touareg homes had been torched and bulldozed. I had driven straight into an unreported front line.

For centuries, the Touareg, an ancient desert people, earned their living by escorting caravans through the Sahara. Merchants were “encouraged” to retain armed guards for the journey through areas under Touareg control. Those caravans that eschewed the protection racket were frequently plundered by the same men who had offered their services. James Richardson, the British explorer and anti-slave trade campaigner who travelled across the Libyan Sahara in 1845, was among the first Europeans to come into contact with the “Touarick”. They showed “an excessive arrogance”, he reported, and treated Ghadamsis with “great disdain, considering them as so many sheep which they are to protect from the wolves of the Sahara”. Sitting astride their magnificent white mehari camels, they looked “splendid and savage”.

My Touareg kidnappers, the Toyota Land Cruiser generation, certainly looked savage. The ragged wardrobe of T-shirts, filthy jalabiya robes, camouflage trousers and unkempt tagilmuses was anything but splendid.

Around this time, blindfolded face down in the back of a pick-up with hands tied and heart pumping, I began the sliding descent into fatalism that must be a common reaction to this sort of situation.

After about 40 minutes, the engine stopped. Hands hauled me to my feet. For some reason I imagined I was about to be thrown off a cliff and felt ridiculous going to my end so meekly. Instead I found myself on the ground. My hands were untied, the blindfold was kept on and arms guided me into the cabin of the pick-up where I was ordered to keep both hands on a handrail.
For another 90 minutes I clung on with clammy hands as we drove deeper into the Sahara. We stopped several times. At regular intervals came the disconcerting metallic click of men loading Kalashnikovs. Questions began. What was I doing going to Ghadames? Was I a spy? Why was I travelling when there was a war on? Was I working for Nato? What did I know about the Touareg? We stopped several times as different drivers took turns to ask me the same questions.

I explained I was a historian and journalist who had travelled in the Libyan Sahara with Touareg guides who had become good friends — perhaps they knew Abd al Wahab Behi? I loved Libya and admired the Touareg and their eastern counterparts of the desert, the Tabu. I had written a book about my expedition across the Sahara and wanted to find out more about the current situation.

Finally we stopped, I was pulled out and the blindfold was removed. It was an unforgettable sight. We were not quite at the bottom of a slight basin surrounded on three sides by dunes curving softly in black silhouettes. One side ran out into an unfathomable plain lit by an almost full moon. Above, the overwhelming dome of an indigo sky tapered gently into a pale blue halo ringing the horizon. The stars, already brilliantly clear, grew brighter by the minute. I couldn’t help thinking it would be hard to imagine a more beautiful place in which to meet one’s maker.
Behind me, halfway up the slope, was a cluster of silent Touareg. In front of me were three pick-ups and the beginnings of an overnight camp. I counted 16 men, all with Kalashnikovs.

A Touareg handed me a damp quilt and ordered me to lie down away from the main group. There was no sign of Taher and his family but I was told they were with us. I wrapped myself in the quilt and tried to sleep, as the Touareg made a fire. A clear mind would be more use than one fuzzy with exhaustion.

Much later, a man approached and offered food. I declined and asked for some water, regretting the chance to establish a rapport with my kidnappers but utterly without hunger. Around the campfire, the twentysomething Touaregs gossiped into the early hours.

Before dawn broke, one of the group hustled me awake and we were off. With huge relief I glimpsed Taher and his family 100 yards away, but was told not to look. On we drove.
Eventually, we spilt out of the pick-up, and I was handed some water, a plastic carton of olives, three tiny tins of tuna, half a pack of La vache qui rit cheese and an armful of half-stale bread and motioned to join Taher’s group.

“If they want to kill us, there’s nothing we can do about it,” I said. “It’s up to Allah.” Taher nodded at this statement of the obvious. “Of course, our lives are in the hands of Allah.”

Looking at Taher, I remembered the passage in Ahmed Hassanein Bey’s extraordinary book The Lost Oases, published in 1925, when he described how the Bedouin, when lost in the desert with exhausted camels and dwindling supplies of water, having received no answer to his prayers, would finally sink down upon the sands and await “with astounding equanimity the decreed death. This is the faith in which the journey across the desert must be made”.

This was an altogether different, entirely involuntary journey, but I understood this very Muslim and ultimately liberating reaction, at the heart of which lies the understanding that one’s life is in the hands of a higher, irresistible force.

“They told me if the Touareg prisoners in Ghadames are not released by 12 o’clock, they will kill all of us,” Taher said.

This tested my newfound fatalism rather more keenly than I had expected.

The sun rose and poured down the paralysing heat of a late Saharan summer. Our tiny patch of shade grew smaller and smaller. We squashed together to keep Taher’s wife and brave little child as cool as possible. Three of our captors kept watch on the highest dune far above us. We fell in and out of sleep.

As the deadline neared, I heard a pick-up approach and out jumped a couple of Touareg with their AK-47s and a spade. One started digging and my stomach tightened. This was it. He was digging our graves. A bullet in the head and a desert burial. Instead, he pulled out a thin strip of cloth and a couple of bamboo poles and erected a Heath Robinson shade. Another reprieve.
Around the hottest part of the day I was taken off separately. More questioning. An Algerian translator ran through the usual Nato-spy-infidel stuff. I repeated the desert-loving, Touareg-admiring lines and mentioned that only recently I had been talking to the head of the United Nations in Libya about the difficulties in the south and the problems of the Touareg. I might be able to help, I hinted. One of the kidnappers stepped forward.

“We want you to tell the world what has happened in Ghadames,” he said. “For 800 years we have lived together. The desert came before the city, the Touareg before the Arabs. All Libya is desert. But the Ghadamsis say no, we cannot live in the city any more. They have burnt and bulldozed our houses, killed our camels, sheep and goats, stolen our money and gold.”
I asked if I could take notes and scribbled furiously in my notebook, hastening the transformation from hapless hostage to working journalist. Slightly irritated by the constant kuffar (infidel) remarks, I told them that as a Christian I was one of the Ahl al-Kitab, or people of the book, a Koranic reference to the Christian, Jewish and Sabian religions. Encouragingly, they started calling me modeer, or director.

Then it was back into the pick-up and a long afternoon twisting and turning through an astonishingly beautiful sand sea, moving from the dazzling blandness of the desert into postcard scenes of wilting palms, dollops of green scrub and an ancient fort in what I later found was the tiny oasis of Mougazem. In the late afternoon we stopped for the obligatory tea, a ritual as beloved by the Touareg as the British. One of my captors drew a finger across his throat and said the Touareg were honourable people. They would not kill me. Night came, the stars swung up into the sky, and I was put into another pick-up with a blindfolded old man and Taher’s wife and child. Taher was being held until the Touareg prisoners were released, they said. They would take us towards Dirj, the next town north of Ghadames.

A couple of hundred yards away from the desert road the Toyota stopped. My mobile phone was thrust into my hands, there was a brief farewell handshake and the pick-up disappeared behind a blur of sand. It was over.

AT the time of writing, Taher is still being held in the desert. For the Touareg kidnappers, desperate remnants of Gadaffi’s forces, it is a dangerous and ill-advised move. It has widened the existing fractures within Ghadames. Even before the kidnap, many of the Touareg, whom the local council says number 1,800 of the population of 12,000, had fled, intimidated by the reprisals. “The Touareg can never come back,” says one Ghadamsi. “Not after this.”

Abubakr Haroun, a member of the local interim council, strikes an almost solitary note of reconciliation. “People are very angry now, but the Touareg are a part of Ghadames,” he says. “Of course, of course, of course they’ll come back and they’ll be represented on the council when we have elections.”

In this isolated oasis is a microcosm of the many challenges facing the new Libya. Ghadames needs the urgent attention of Tripoli and its international partners. Reconciliation here, as across Libya, must be the order of the day.