Saleyha Ahsan

Back in Tatouine

Posted by Saleyha Ahsan on 27 August 2014 | 0 Comments

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27 Aug 2011

So I am back in Tatouine, Tunisia as I wait to cross the border into Libya. It was a bit of a last minute rush to get out here, after a couple of weeks of trying to arrange, plan and decide. Do I want to really do this? Then the events over the weekend of fighters making it to Tripoli and the renewed interest globally helped crystallise the plans. In conjunction with this I found help and a requirement for medics from World For Libya- an organisation with its HQ in London but with an office in Tatouine. I met one of its key workers on the return flight home from Tunis on my last trip in July. Nader was sitting next to me and the conversation began because of the T-shirt he wore, with the WFL logo. Call it fate.

I flew on the 5.45 pm flight which left nearer to 7pm from Heathrow. I found myself again sitting next to key people. There is something about the flights to and from Tunisia! I am not one to talk to fellow passengers on planes, but these few times, they have all proved key networking events. Behind me were a lively excited group of young men and across the aisle was a cardioid-thoracic surgeon. All of them Libyan and most from Tripoli. All of them going back to do what they can. The young group was the World Medical Camp-finally I met them after having looked them up on line. An impressive group who have responded to an urgent requirement of medical equipment and medication. One of them took photos of boxes being unloaded from the cargo hold with their emblem clearly on it.

They are driving their supplies from Tunis to Tripoli. They offered me a ride into Libya and I was rather tempted. The cardio-thoracic surgeon was going to co-ordinate a further effort – mainly logistics from Tunisia. He was from a group set up in Manchester called Tripoli Support Council which is essentially a network of Libyans living in Manchester getting ready for the next stage of support. Its quite impressive to see the unity and motivation of these people.

I ended up missing my connecting flight to Djerba. The kindness of strangers is an amazing thing. The cardio-thoracic surgeon and his engineer brother and his two kids, stayed with me for two hours to arrange my next flight and then offered me a place at their rented home in Tunis. I did have the option of the hotel but decided to accept the invitation. I don’t advocate going home with strangers or make a habit of it, but when they heard what my intended destination was, they kind of adopted me on the spot.

It was a great move. The young nine year old nephew, Mohammed, was pleased that I was going to be a guest in their home. He quietly asked for some money from his dad and ran, returning with twix and some water, as I wilted in the stationary queue at the Tunis air ticket office. I had been fasting all day and had still not caught up with fluid intake. On the flight I did not have to worry about breaking my fast because a massive tray of food with dates, rice, chicken and sticky traditional sweets was provided and the pilot or the steward kindly announced in Arabic that it was time for Iftar. I have never seen an in-flight meal like it. Outside I saw a beautiful red sky, with clouds sitting underneath us. We wondered if tonight was indeed the Night of Power, Laylat al Qadr, a rather important night for Muslims, falling towards the end of Ramadhan. It certainly felt magical and I felt immensely safe and amongst friends, if not brothers.

That night in the house of Khaled and his family, I was treated to a further gorgeous meal. It was about 1 am by now. I met his wife, Abir and his mother, who looked far too young to have two sons fast approaching middle age and was so engaging and kind. I played with the children, which also included the most friendly, most confident little 18 month old I have ever met. Her little head of curly hair bounced as she ran around the room and jumped into my arms. This family had endured the horrors of the war in Tripoli up until a month ago, but when the water and electricity was switched off, life just got too tough and so they moved. It took about a day to drive here. I was so thankful as I watched this family-so peaceful and so together – had not been harmed and had stayed safe. I tried to imagine them living in amongst the horrors and the fear. I just couldn’t.

I was invited to spend the night in prayer-and collectively we prayed the night prayer and plenty of dua (supplications) were made. Some of it was directed towards Gaddafi, to end his stubborn persistence to hold onto power that was no longer his to have, and for justice to be done. I felt that on this night amongst all nights Gaddafi must be the only human towards whom such a mass of prayer was directed against. What is it that they say about the power of prayer?

I was wilting I must confess, but the experience of it all and also the privilege to be hear amongst the family who had endured just as other Libyans had endured, kept me going. Suhur, the pre-dawn meal, was served and then after the Fajr prayer, the first one of the day, at about 4am I got about 3 hours sleep. Khaled had kindly offered to take me to the airport that morning. He had even less sleep than me. The generosity of these people was immense. I am so humbled. I just wonder how they lived under such a regime in fear. They deserve all the freedom of the world.

On the flight over, a family in obvious distress were sitting and crying together. A woman in her 40s was on the verge of collapse and needed to be supported by a younger female relative. An older man was quietly weeping. In the group of five, only one man was dry eyed as he took charge and steered his evidently grief stricken family onto the flight to Djerba. The news of whatever terrible thing had befallen that family was announced to them just prior to boarding at Djerba. Where they on their way to visit a sick relative? I wondered if it was a son, husband or brother? And then further on, I began to wonder, could they be Libyan? So many families were loosing loved ones right now. I never found out, but it was a heart wrenching flight to witness their distress.

I arrived finally in Djerba and my driver Hisham was waiting for me at the airport. He was exhausted – after having driven back and forth to pick me up last night and then return this morning once again, when I finally made it. I felt really embarrassed to have put this onto him, but he was so gracious and understood the flight issue. It must be a regular occurrence. I fell asleep in the car-totally washed out. Hisham was a safe careful driver, not like my previous Tunisian driver experiences. A huge relief.

I am now back at the Sangho hotel in Tatouine and most of the staff remember me which is nice. Even the doctors at the hospital remember me. Never has that ever happened before.

I meet Nader tomorrow in the office and Hisham is coming to get me. I wonder how it is going to work out-filming and doing medicine. It’s going to be tough but it’s got to be done. Rumours have it that Gaddafi is on his way to Algeria and further rumour says that most of his family are there already. This does not look good.

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