The following story is the result of a reporting trip by Reuters correspondent Oliver Holmes to the Sahara desert town of Obari in southern Libya. Holmes, one of the first foreign journalists to visit the area since the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, has been reporting from the Middle East for the past three years, notably in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
By Oliver Holmes
GADDAFI’S VILLA JUST OUTSIDE OBARI, Libya (Reuters) - While I lay in silence, my eyes adjusted to the darkness and I could hear the fighters talking excitedly next door — I felt like a child who had been put to bed early.
Muammar Gaddafi’s room was large, but not enormous and his monstrous bed took up the majority of the room. Two tacky chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
Earlier that day, I had called a friend who used to be one of Gaddafi’s Colonels in the Libyan Air force before fleeing Tripoli with his children in February. He was now back, carrying members of the country’s provisional government around the country. “I’m flying to the Sahara in thirty minutes,” he said. “Come along.”
Gangs of pro-Gaddafi forces and armed mercenaries are believed to be roaming the country’s south and journalists had warned me of a kidnapping risk — a westerner always works as a nice bargaining chip — but flying down to avoid the seven-hour ride in open desert cut the danger considerably.
This trip, I found out on the flight down, was so members of the northern-based National Transitional Council (NTC) could reach out to the Tuareg tribal nomads who roam the desert and many of whom backed Gaddafi during the revolt which ousted the eccentric and brutal dictator.
Having landed, and after a hair-raising drive over cracked desert roads, we arrived at a walled compound which had been covered in NTC flags and revolutionary graffiti. Two pickup trucks with heavy machine guns stood at the metal gate, which was opened as we pulled up.
The sprinklers were on and lush green grass contrasted with the arid plains outside. Fighters loyal to the NTC in army fatigues mooched along the gravel paths and darker skinned Tuareg men, dressed in fantastic flowing robes and head scarves, sat chatting in some of the straw huts — each with its own air conditioning unit.
“This was Gaddafi’s desert retreat,” a fighter told me. “Now we are using it to reconcile with the tribes down here.”
The main building was two stories. Large rooms filled with sofas and empty cabinets were full of men running around talking about how to rebuild the country from the ground up.
What was shocking about the villa was that it was clearly rarely used. Gaddafi probably built it to stay on the off chance he might visit the nearby oil fields, I thought.
Nearby Obari, a town of about 40,000, is impoverished and the streets are full of rubbish.
One Tuareg man told me he used to play in the fields that were here before the villa was built in 1990. “A few days ago was the first time I’ve been in,” he said. I was glad that he was now clearly relaxing on the fake leather sofas.
I walked into the Gaddafi’s dining room. Here could I see sets of crockery and glassware. “My mum would love a set of Gaddafi’s tea cups,” I thought.
But while debating the ethics of looting Gaddafi’s house, I realized that the compound was still completely intact. Some things may had been stolen but many pocketable items were still in their place. I had read about, and seen, trashed government buildings and looted houses but here they clearly took a different approach.
In the kitchen, a northern fighter and a Tuareg man chatted over the sink, sleeves pulled up, while washing dishes.
As the debate stretched into the night, a towering Tuareg man came over to ask if I and my security advisor were tired. He walked us to Gaddafi’s room and I collapsed on the couch, profusely thanking him for lodging us in the best room.
Hospitality aside, the Tuareg were suspicious of the room. Some believed it to be cursed and dark magic could carry those who slept there “away.”
I slept like a self-assured dictator.
Editing by Giles Elgood