Sacrifice and courage in Libya

By Pascale Palmer
March 10, 2011

A friend of mine was on that delayed plane out of Tripoli. You remember the one? We saw images of it stuck on the runway at Gatwick, some technical problems making take-off impossible.

As we watched those tepid pictures of the plane, my friend had already been standing outside Tripoli airport for more than eight hours, soaked through and freezing. When she finally got into the airport there were thousands of people crammed in with their belongings, frightened and panicking. While she, a British citizen, was herded with others by UK embassy officials to the VIP area, Libyan police were trying to keep people calm – Libyan-style. As hundreds of Egyptians swelled and surged towards the entrance to the airport, police stepped out into the rain, shouting for people to stay still and firing rounds of ammunition into the air. And beating people with big sticks.

My friend had spent the week before trying to round up members of her team from outlying towns to Tripoli. As the unrest increased, her check-ins with staff became more alarming. One colleague spoke to my friend while he was lying on the floor with his wife at his side, as fighting exploded outside their apartment; another called and admitted his fear as tear gas was coming in through his window, and my friend offered words of comfort and advice on next actions.

One member of staff, an ex-soldier, decided there was no way she could get to Tripoli by road, and so made her way across the border into Egypt with a like-minded band of sewerage workers. With one set of colleagues, stuck where the fighting was worsening by the hour, my friend negotiated with a tribal contact to get the couple out. By the time the flight took off from Tripoli, all British staff were accounted for and either travelled on that delayed first plane, or on subsequent flights out.

But of course there are still my friend’s Libyan colleagues out in Tripoli and elsewhere, many of them more than colleagues. She has now lost contact with most of them as the fighting takes on a new, brutal aspect with Gaddafi’s insistence on retaining power. Many of those left are now working towards a new Libya and many must know they have only a slim chance of coming out of it alive. But as one Libyan on Channel 4 News said: “I will die, yes. But look at what I die for! A free Libya is worth dying for.” This courage and that shown in the stories my friend has told me of Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Bangladeshis and Britons is astonishing and humbling on so many levels.

The sacrifice protesters across the Middle East and North Africa have been willing to make in order to stand up for what is right and good is awe-inspiring. And it is right that their courage is in the spotlight. But let us also remember that across the world, where human rights are ignored or abused, or when people are faced with the results of conflict and disaster, that same proof of the determination and goodness of individuals and groups is displayed again and again.

CAFOD doesn’t work in Libya, but right now there is an emergency on the Liberian border as thousands flee conflict in neighbouring Cote d’Ivoire. The UN estimates that 30,000 people, most of them women and children, have crossed the border in the last three weeks alone. These new arrivals – many exhausted and weak after days of walking – are being taken in by local families. Read that last bit again. Families that are already poor, with their own families to feed, are welcoming strangers into their homes, to eat at their table and share the roof over their heads. Now that is really something.

As you can imagine, this incredible kindness means the communities in Liberia are facing difficulties with meagre supplies of food and water stretched to the limit. CAFOD is providing support for these communities, who are in turn supporting the thousands of refugees. It would be great if you could help too.


(c) Pascale Palmer is Policy Media Officer at CAFOD (

Keywords:Libya | cafod
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