Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The homecoming

It's been an overwhelming couple of days. I have not had internet since Monday morning, but I'm back online.

I am now in Tripoli. It was a long and very exhausting trip to get here. It took me back to the days when Libya was under sanctions and the only way you could get in was to drive or take the ferry. It took us about 12 hours to make the drive from the capital of Tunisia to Tripoli. On our way, there were warnings about clashes near Ras Jdeir but by the time we got there the fighting subsided. However, there was still chaos at the borders. We also drove past refugee camps.  Although there are no longer in Libyans there, there's still many migrant workers and other non Libyan nationals.

The drive down was full of nervous anticipation. With every kilometre, we grew more and more apprehensive about what it would feel like for my dad.  We finally reached the border around 11pm. The Tunisians, like most European countries, have an 'exit' border. We gave them our passports for stamping. Although my dad had warned my brother months earlier never to give the Tunisians his Arabic name, my brother foolishly forgot and gave them my dad's full name in Arabic. Unfortunately, intelligence services often share information between countries, and of course, Gadaffi and Zein Al Abideen did exactly that.

My father is on Tunisia's 'no entry/arrest' list.  So the border officer enters my father's name and his facial expression darkened - he looks at my brother and says "your father is wanted in Tunisia, he's not even supposed to be in the country". A few weeks earlier, we had heard about one of my dad's colleagues who was trying to go back to Libya and was arrested. He was on the same list. The Tunisians detained him and after a short while deported him back to Canada. My dad was calm but I could tell the idea of getting arrested and being turned back after a 12 hour drive was going through his head.

But God was truly on our side in this trip. An older border officer showed up and told the other one "This list is from the old regime, just let him pass, but tell him not to give his real name in Arabic when he comes through on his way back.". [FYI when Arabic names are written in English letters, it's hard to tell what it is in Arabic, especially our name, it's completely not recognizable because the letters of our last name simply don't exist in the English alphabet, don't worry, we're not using aliases :-)]. We were so relieved. Until we got to the Libyan border.

The line up was insane. It actually wasn't a line up, it was a parking lot. The cars were off, no one was moving.  Personally, after a 12 hour drive, the thought of spending the night at a border crossing was not exactly appealing. And this isn't anything like our border crossings in Canada - it's a zoo, and some of the characters roaming about look like they just busted out of Alcatraz. Or Ben Gerdan - same difference. ha.

Anyways, turns out we were able to go through without having to wait. When we approached the border, my father handed his passport to the border officials - who were actually freedom-fighters- turned customs guys (they are SO MUCH nicer - wow - right away you could see the difference between the old and new Libya). You could see the border guys' eyes widen with amazement upon looking at my father's passport. It was the old passport - issued when he was 18. It was blue instead of green, made out of leather, written in English and Arabic. It was basically the same passports used during the time of King Idris.  Under the Gidafi regime, my father's passport could not be renewed until he traveled back to Libya - of course - so they can arrest him. When he sent his passport in to the Libyan embassy in Canada when it first opened, they simply cut off the corners to void it, and told him to go back to Libya.

My dad's passport. I would upload more photos but my connections is super slow today. But at least they're not sideways.
My father's exit visa is stamped on this passport: August 29, 1981. As the border officer looked through my father's passport in awe, my father broke down sobbing. The officer came out of his booth and approached my father and said "Alhamdulilah 3al salamah ya 7ajj" (literally translated to "thank god for your safe deliverance"). They all proceeded to hug my father and cheer "Allahu Akbar". My father walked across the border, and the first thing he did was prostrate to the ground in gratitude to God.

The news spread quickly at the border crossing, and within minutes a small crowd had gathered, including some of the freedom fighters. They were all cheering and congratulating my father. One of them gave my father his AK-47 and told him to shoot. We all protested (we've heard about all the gunfire injuries), but the man insisted and would not leave until my father fired at least one shot into the air (as I write this, guns are going off in the background - it sounds like a warzone. I won't lie, it's kind of scary - they're firing anti-aircraft missiles. I think something just happened [insert 20 min time break to go on facebook to figure out what's going on] Gidafi's son just got caught!!! No wonder everyone is going crazy).

My father finally relented and fired one shot into the air. Then another fighter started shooting a barrage of bullets into the air, and everyone began to cheer. I, of course, ducked. At least my reflexes work.

My father was very emotionally overwhelmed. My mom and dad held each other and cried for a bit while we all watched on. My brother then joined them in an embrace. (I was stuck videotaping it).  The Zwari border guys all invited my father over to their homes to celebrate. We politely declined and continued on our way.

We made it into Tripoli at about 2:30am. I was exhausted. My aunt was waiting for us in the apartment my brother rented. We had another border moment at the apartment door as my aunt and father held each other and cried.

I unpacked, washed up and went to sleep.  The next day, we went to visit my father's family. This was the moment we had all been waiting for. As we pulled into my father's neighbourhood (which consists of 4-5 houses just of our relatives) we could hear the women Za3*rit (the Arab screamy thing women do). The family was gathered outside the door as we pulled in. One by one, they hugged and kissed my father and cried. Up to this point, I had been busy trying to capture everything on camera, and there's something weird about being the 'cameraman' but it's like you're emotionally removed from the events you're filming. But watching this all unfold before me,  I finally had to put down my camera. I sobbed as one of my aunts held me.

I never dreamed I'd ever see my father re-united with his family. To watch what I had never even pictured in a daydream was truly incredible.


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