Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

I saw the happy face of Libya

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I am confused about Moammar Gadhafi's character. It started 25 years ago when Gadhafi got confused about mine.

On April 14, 1987, I was invited to a commemoration event in Tripoli. It was the first anniversary of Operation El Dorado Canyon, which the United States had carried out to bomb airfields and army bases in Libya. Gadhafi claimed the action had killed mostly civilian lives, including the life of his adopted 12-year-old daughter.

Gadhafi's invitation list included Louis Farrakhan of the American-based Nation of Islam and other mostly left-wing revolutionary types. I had helped Vietnam War-era draft resisters in Canada reunite with their families stateside, mostly a philanthropic gesture because the FBI would show up at funerals and weddings to throw these guys in jail for five years, instead of the healing and reconciliation they all needed.

But my War Resistors Information Program had sued then-president Gerald Ford over his clemency program and I guess anybody who so actively protested the conflict in Vietnam usually ended up with an FBI file.

Hence Gadhafi's confusion about my character. And the invite.

Since I was to be a guest of the Libyan government and they were taking care of all the expenses, and the trip included overnight stays in Rome on the way there and back, I ignored the warnings of my friends and headed off to North Africa.

At the time, I had more respect for Gadhafi's character than other Arab leaders who were spending billions on palatial mansions and millions on thoroughbred horses that were supposed to have royal bloodlines just like them.

Gadhafi was born in a Bedouin tent in the desert and followed a bloodless coup to power in Libya. His Libyan followers claimed he used their abundant oil revenues to "help the people" (the flight from Rome was a boring trek over a vast expanse of Sahara sand until we neared Tripoli and saw the greening of the desert created by irrigation projects). And isn't a national leader too busy to be held responsible if his "grant" to an Irish folk dance ensemble somehow ended up in the hands of the Irish Republican Army?

We all know truth is the first casualty of war so I assumed president Ronald Reagan's propaganda was just about as credible.

My visit to Libya was billed as a "social and cultural networking exercise" and our Libyan hosts were falling all over themselves to put on a happy face. Friendly as Disneyland ambassadors, part of their propaganda effort was to boost tourism if they could.

We were all put up in a brand-new, sparkling white Arabian-style hotel right on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. But the Libyans still needed some work on the nuances of the hospitality industry (graphic posters of dead civilians with body parts strewn about in a bloody mess under a banner "Reagan is a baby killer" on the hotel's main doors were a bit of a turnoff).

After a peaceful day in downtown Tripoli, including a tour of Gadhafi's bombed-out house that had been left exactly as it was following Reagan's attack, I had witnessed a lot of evidence the people of Libya were fervently behind their "Brother Leader Gadhafi," as he preferred to be called then. Everywhere we went, shopkeepers, pedestrians and gawky spectators would join our guides in most enthusiastic demonstrations of praise.

Yes, it all might have been staged but an incident back at the hotel at least convinced me the average Libyan is not some unstable terrorist.

Our hosts had been bending over backwards to meet every simple or selfish request. It was almost backfiring because I was getting convinced they faced a firing squad if anything went wrong with the propaganda effort.

Which did happen, and it was a Canadian who screwed things up.

It seems this recently divorced journalist from Toronto snuck a bottle of booze into the hotel (the one restriction our hosts were strict about). Then the man jumped off the roof in a sad state of suicide.

Or fell? Pushed?

In any case, the first headlines sent back to North America about our commemoration event were "Canadian journalist killed after visiting Gadhafi's house."

You could tell the Libyans were beside themselves with shock, horror and disappointment. I am sure that beneath their breath they were cursing Canadians to high heaven and praying it was out of virgins on this day.

But they continued to treat us with nothing but kindness and respect throughout (in sharp contrast to the Italians I experienced in Rome after foolishly renting a car and trying to drive in a city that has no street signs and everybody believes they are Mario Andretti).

So now, 25 years later, I am being asked to believe a lot of propaganda about Gadhafi and Libyans again.

Gadhafi and his supporters claim the current rebellion is fuelled by outside interests.

And speaking of fuel, I am also being told a lot of the unrest in Arab countries can be explained by "It's the crude, dude!"

We certainly didn't see all these "guardians of the citizen" be so quick to go into Rwanda.

I've decided to rely on the one thing my experience with the United States during the Vietnam War taught me.

There is no use trying to figure out which side is lying to you.

Because when it comes to this kind of thing, everybody will be lying to you.


Don Marks is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2011 A12

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