AMAL, Libya (Reuters) - Abdula Altako was killed in March guarding the oil field he worked for, one of the first but by no means the last of Libya’s oil workers to die defending the country’s lifeblood.
Abandoned by their foreign owners during the uprising against Muammar Gaddafi, the fields have been watched over by local workers aiming to deter looters and prevent facilities from falling into disrepair.
Altako, who worked for private German oil and gas company Wintershall, was starting his morning guard shift when he was ambushed and shot dead in his car.
“We have a lot of patriots protecting fields. I signed orders that sent engineers out that ended up dying,” interim oil and finance minister Ali Tarhouni told Reuters in an interview.
Tarhouni credits the heroism of ordinary Libyans for the fact that the industry is returning to normal faster than expected. But the sacrifice will come to nothing if oil firms are not prepared to send foreign workers back.
Libya is reliant on oil for about 80 percent of its GDP, exporting around 1.3 million barrels of oil per day before the war. Other potential sources of wealth -- a neglected tourism industry and unexploited mineral reserves in the south -- will take time to develop.
Almost all of Libya’s estimated $170 billion in assets are still frozen despite sweeping pledges to make funds available, and the country is desperate for cash.
It is little wonder then that there are still many Libyans prepared to make dangerous journeys to isolated areas of the vast Saharan desert, accompanied by squads of rebel fighters or simply armed locals, to evaluate the damage inflicted by the war and to carry out essential repairs.
“Makes sense really; no point in getting rid of the regime if you’re not willing to then do what it takes to repair the damage to the economy (and) oil sector,” said Zara Rahman, a researcher at OpenOil, an organization that promotes transparency in the oil industry.
Rahman spent a week in October interviewing oil workers at different companies in Libya for an OpenOil report.
“Given the high level of education that is required to have any sort of position in the oil sector, they’re all educated enough to realize that the oil sector is what drives the Libyan economy,” she said.
But there are still few signs foreign oil firms are prepared to take the plunge.
Oil companies are still mainly visible only in hotel lobbies in the form of security contractors hired to assess infrastructure and monitor threats to security. The first step no doubt, but it is only a tentative move.
The few foreign engineers here are understandably rattled by the constant ring of gunfire even in supposedly peaceful areas like Tripoli, where gun battles between rebels and pockets of Gaddafi loyalists erupted in four districts only a week ago.
Anti-aircraft rocket launchers and machine guns mounted on pick-up trucks across the capital and fighters brandishing AK-47s at every turn do little to soothe worries about further outbreaks of violence.
Foreigners are also disgruntled about a perceived build-up in tension within the new government and between tribes, and some are preparing for the worst.
“They put a lot of pressure on us to come back. But you’ll see, in a month we’ll be gone again,” said one Italian engineer, one of the first to be sent back by the foreign oil company he works for.
The dangers that local oil workers are agreeing to undertake to restart production remain unthinkable to many in the west.
Wintershall, Libya’s second largest foreign oil producer, succeeded in restarting output largely thanks to a small, mustachioed colonel.
Abelulla Mahdy volunteered to fly a team of around 20 of the company’s Libyan employees past the battlefield at Sirte, Gaddafi’s hometown and the city outside which he was killed last week, and over the Sahara for nearly 200 km (125 miles) to a base at an oil field called Amal, an hour’s drive to the Wintershall site.
The flight required special permission from NATO and the usual company plane had to be left behind in Tripoli.
“The pilot was too frightened to fly,” said Mahdy, dressed in his usual army-green jumpsuit, the lines on his deeply tanned face creasing into a grin.
Mahdy flew the team in a small cargo plane. Many of the passengers spent the two-hour flight on the freezing floor in between luggage, munching on cakes, flatbreads and cheese distributed by two engineers who had volunteered to act as stewards. As the plane began its descent, the tension in the air broke into smiles and laughter.
“The most important thing is that Libyans restart production,” said Sammy Nuas, one of the workers who had volunteered to return.
Many workers are anxious, however, worried that they are sitting ducks in the middle of the Sahara, armed with only a handful of Kalashnikovs and a few machine guns. Militia armed by Gaddafi still roam the desert and remote oil fields are obvious and vulnerable targets for groups aiming to weaken the new government.
Without the help of foreign workers, flows can only ramp up to a third or at best half of capacity depending on the field, Libyans say. The speed with which flows rise is tied to the state of wells and pipelines that have not been used for eight or nine months.
Even at Wintershall’s site, which pumped close to 100,000 barrels of oil per day before the war -- and where there is no trace of the battle that has scarred other parts of Libya -- it could take six months or more for flows to reach their pre-war output rate, according to workers onsite.
“It all depends on conditions here, whether pipelines are in good condition or we find leaks,” said Salah Abdulmalik, a product controller.
The return to production could take much longer in areas sabotaged or looted during the war, and some sites were even bombed by NATO because they were being used as a base for Gaddafi’s fighters.
In the southwest region of Fezzan, the scale of destruction at two huge sites that produced almost half a million barrels per day is severe, and firms have taken the first step of deploying small teams with squads of fighters to assess damage and begin making essential repairs. It could be many months before significant volumes of oil begins flowing from this area.
Meanwhile, in early October, even in safer, southeastern parts of the oil-rich Sirte basin, local workers were alone and still prepared for the worst.
Close to Wintershall’s site in the southeast, at the Amal oil field joint-operated by Canadian oil firm Suncor, the manager recounted how locals defended the site from looters and attacks during the war and were ready to face more action.
When war broke out, they obtained weapons from the local authority and were briefly shown how to use them. Then, alone, they mounted a defense for eight long months.
“We loaded trucks with missile launchers and coordinated with towns close by to protect the fields,” said Saad Ali Eshiem, who oversees the 50 or so workers who have returned so far.
The field’s 24-hour patrols continued and machine guns were still mounted in a row on pick-up trucks standing to attention in the shade.
Mohammad Zuay, a 26-year-old oil worker on patrol, was armed with a Kalashnikov. When asked if he had ever had to fire his gun, he broke out into a tired smile.
“Many times,” he replied.
Editing by Sonya Hepinstall