Benina Airport Project on the Outskirts of Benghazi, Libya, February 2011

John Macnab
Field Engineer
Benghazi, Libya

On 28 December, 2010, I travelled from Tunisia back to Benghazi, after a brief holiday, to continue work on the new Benina Airport Terminal. We had been constructing this project since 2009 and were on target to finish the job by year’s end 2011. The uprising in Tunisia was just gaining momentum and the mood amongst the Tunisian workers was upbeat though I could sense an underlying concern for their families back home. On 14 January, Ben Ali fled Tunisia and the celebrating began amongst the Tunisians at Benina.

17 January: Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi says he regrets the fall of Ben Ali, which has left the country in “chaos with no end in sight.” When protests began in Egypt the Libyan air force started flying daily reconnaissance missions from Benina Airport to the border area. Till this point nobody had discussed the possibility of protests spreading to Libya as we were certain Gaddafi would crack down very hard on any dissention amongst the population especially in Eastern Libya.

As the days passed and Egypt’s revolution remained mostly peaceful we hoped that Mubarak would do the right thing and step down which he did on 11 February, 2011. It wasn’t lost on us that Libya sat dead centre between these two revolutions but we just couldn’t conceive the possibility of a Libyan uprising against the Gaddafi regime. How wrong we were! Internet service was disrupted so we were unable to receive any news as to what was happening on the streets of Benghazi.

18 February: Our Filipino office clerk received a message from his wife who worked in a Benghazi school that a doctor had been shot dead at the next door medical clinic and the Filipino nurses were too afraid to continue working. There was also word of mercenaries roaming the streets killing unarmed protestors.

19 February: We were aware that Benghazi was in chaos and mid afternoon I witnessed a Russian Hind gunship flying low to the west of the airport firing on targets. Later that afternoon, I was told by an SNC Lavalin employee who had been at the airport arrivals gate that a plane load of African mercenaries had landed. We set up a survey instrument to get a closer look at what was happening around the airport terminal. I could see a large contingent of soldiers (+/- 200) in a defensive pattern around the west side of the runway. We didn’t know if these were mercenaries or Libyan government soldiers.

Three aircraft landed at Benina in the afternoon including Turkish, Afrikiyah, plus a large unmarked Russian transport plane and they flew scores of passengers out. The four Mig fighter jets based at Benina had taken off as usual that morning but never returned. Two Russian Hind gunships were active patrolling Benghazi and adjacent military installations. We decided it was time to retreat back to camp for safety reasons as there was much smoke rising to the west of the airport where the gunship had been concentrating its attack.

Just before dinner we witnessed a large aircraft with unlit running lights attempting to land. The soldiers at the airport opened fire with a massive barrage from machine guns and the plane veered away to the north and disappeared.

After dinner a co-worker and I went to the main SNC Lavalin office to see if we could connect to the internet. The state authorities had disconnected Libyan internet, phone, and cell coverage for the past week so our only contact with the outside world was via a direct internet connection through our Tunis office. I was able to logon the internet and sent out several messages and my co-worker was able to contact his son on Cyprus, who just happened to be a member of SAS, to give him our GPS coordinates. These would be our last messages sent via the office computers.

We could hear continuous machine gun fire at the airport at a distance of approximately 1km. I noticed a tank coming up the highway towards the end of the airport perimeter. As we left the office there was a convoy of trucks coming towards us and as they passed by we noticed the machine guns and AK47s. We hurried back to the compound where many of the Thai and Filipino employees had gathered.

Suddenly there was a flurry of gunfire and everybody scattered. We told everyone to get back to their cabins and keep out of sight. The invaders then proceeded to ransack our offices taking everything including hundreds of computers, furniture, and all our pickup trucks, heavy duty equipment and buses. Our main office in Ganfounda was overrun and burned to the ground so those employees travelled by bus to Benina for shelter. Our food and drinking water cache was also ransacked leaving us with only limited supplies for the 2500+ people now in camp. We spent the night hunkered down in our cabins listening to a continuous barrage of machine guns and AK47s. With no security it made for a very long sleepless night.

20 February: The shooting stopped at 4 a.m. and we were able to confirm that nobody had been injured. We surveyed what remained of the food and started distributing rice and whatever meat was left to the Thais & Filipinos. They began cooking on open fires around camp and generously offered us pancakes and meat dishes. Gaddafi sent fight jets to bomb Benghazi on Sunday and our fear was he would bomb the runways.

We were surrounded by military installations to the southeast, to the northwest and probably other sites that we weren’t aware of. The ridge behind our camp was a massive network of bunkers and radar installation so we were in a very vulnerable situation with no cover other that our metal cabins. That afternoon a group of locals came to the camp and offered us protection. Many of the men had worked for Lavalin in the past, or knew somebody who had, and commented that they had been treated fairly and wanted to offer support. This development was a big relief for us as now the perimeter of the camp would be patrolled. It was another day of constant gunfire which kept us indoors and again the shooting continued throughout the night.

21 February: There was constant gun fire around the airport but we managed to get some rest. The Thais were very concerned about the situation and wanted assurance that SNC was working on an evacuation plan to get everybody out. All I could do was confirm that the Montreal office was working on a plan to have several planes flown from Europe that would evacuate everybody. The stumbling block to this plan was the airport runway being blocked by our heavy duty equipment to prevent more mercenaries from landing. SNC had somebody negotiating with the General who had defected to the rebels’ side and was now directing the defence of the airport. We soon realized that the runway would not be opened any time soon and therefore flying out of Benina would not be an option.

22 February: The military set up anti aircraft guns at the airport and started firing over us towards the bunkers on the ridge above. As we were sitting in the kitchen we heard aircraft overhead and then bombs being dropped at a distance. We found out later the pilots had dropped the runway bombs to the north and south of the runway but had refused to follow orders to destroy the runways. We knew the importance of controlling the airport which added to our stress level. By now most of the food was gone and we were eating meals with the Thais & Filipinos who spent their days collecting firewood and cooking over open fires.

23 February: Security was busy with intruders and in the middle of the night somebody tried to enter our cabin. This night the first seven buses left Benina to attempt the 700km journey to the Egyptian border. Amongst the passengers were a Canadian and a Brit. Three of the buses broke down before even getting through Benghazi. The majority of us refused to travel by bus as it was a long, dangerous journey in poorly maintained vehicles. It must have been a horrific journey of two plus days with constant breakdowns and road blocks. I was told later that the buses had no glass in the windows and it was very cold throughout the night. They were stopped at roadblocks and armed men would board and intimidate the travellers. Eventually all the foreign workers would escape Libya via this long journey to the Egyptian border where they were met by buses to be driven to Alexandria and then to Cairo for flights home.

24 February: Early in the day we received word that the British frigate HMS Cumberland would be arriving in Benghazi harbour and evacuating us to Malta. By this point the food was consisting of rice and whatever else could be scrapped together so we were eager to vacate. The bus ride to the port took us past the army barracks now occupied by the Freedom Fighters and what an amazing sight that was. The gates were open and dozens of people milled around the guard post. We noticed much graffiti on concrete walls and the tri-coloured flag had replaced the green Gaddafi flag. We encountered several road blocks but were waved through politely by the soldiers. The best sight in days was seeing HMS Cumberland docked at the port with the Union Jack fluttering in the breeze. We were quickly processed onto the ship and within the hour were on the 34 hour journey on rough seas to Malta. Many thanks to the crew of the Cumberland for such a warm welcome aboard.

It was such a relief to be out of Benghazi and in the coming days I would travel to Malta, Italy, France and eventually North America.

In early May I received a message from a friend in Jalu, Libya, saying they were being attacked by hundreds of Gaddafi soldiers. I had been following the Libya blog on Al Jazeera and out of desperation contacted a popular blogger to seek help for my friends in the desert. The guys would forward the GPS coordinates of the location of the Gaddafi soldiers and a description of the surrounding area, for example, “They are in Waha oil field in a grove of palm trees”. I would confirm the coordinates on Google Earth then forward them to my contact. This worked very well and continued well into July when the final attacks were repelled and peace was restored to the desert oasis.

I wish I could have written this more as a story than words from my diary but this is okay. It is hard to put into words the fear we were feeling at this time in February; and it is just as hard to describe my resentment about the Gaddafi family for damaging so many lives and forcing us to leave, my reaction to the many threats I received and my sleeplessness on many nights as I thought of my friends being attacked. There is so much to say. I tell some people, “It was like watching a movie … except we were in the movie”.

We are all hoping for a peaceful transition to democracy for Libya and soon I hope to return to Benina to finish construction of the new airport that is so desperately needed. It would also be very nice to welcome to Benghazi some of the many bloggers who have offered so much support to Libya.