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The Oxonian Review of Books
Wednesday, 5 April, 2006

When Things Go Wrong In Libya

When things go wrong in Libya

by John Bohannon

Lonely Planet : Libya
Anthony Ham
Lonely Planet Publications 2002
264 pages
ISBN: 0864426992

Libya Report 2004
Amnesty International, London

‘Libya is the type of desert nation you thought only existed in the imagination.’
                                                                                                                   Anthony Ham

According to the Lonely Planet guide to Libya, by Anthony Ham, winter is ‘the most pleasant time to visit’, and I agree. As I sat listening to Zdravko Georgiev describe how he and his wife Kristiyana were tortured by the Libyan police, I longed to open the window and let in the cool breeze that blows off the Mediterranean in the evening. I felt claustrophobic, although the interview was held in one of Tripoli’s ‘elegant white-washed’ buildings from the Italian colonial era, with their graciously high ceilings.

I adore guidebooks. Not only do they give the traveller practical information—which items to pack besides a passport, where to find cheap lodging, how to say ‘please’, what to do when the passport is stolen—these days they include essays on local history, politics, and culture that make for good reading even at home. Secure at the top of the heap is Lonely Planet, the world’s largest independent travel publisher, always striving to be the first to stake out virgin territory, excluding neither the unreachable (Bhutan) nor the inadvisable (Iran). Anthony Ham has placed another jewel in the Lonely Planet crown with his eloquent and detailed guide to Libya. Before Lonely Planet came to the rescue, the only reliable overview of the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya had been Amnesty International’s annual human rights report. Prospective tourists—expected to pour in now that sanctions have been lifted—will be pleased by this alternative to Amnesty’s dry prose. I was lucky to visit Libya as a journalist in December 2004 and put Mr. Ham’s guide to the test.

Although ‘torture’ does not appear in the index of the Lonely Planet guide, nine pages are devoted to the coastal town of Benghazi where Zdravko and Kristiyana were arrested. Ham admits that Libya’s second largest city ‘lacks the obvious Mediterranean charm of Tripoli’, but says it is worth seeing ‘Freedom Square, one of Benghazi’s most enchanting spots, particularly in the late afternoon when Benghazi children play football.’ Ham does not mention nearby Al-Fateh Children’s Hospital where, should the play become too rough, children can be delivered for care.

Like most hospitals in the country, Al-Fateh is administered by Libyans but relies on many qualified foreigners such as Kristiyana, a nurse, to keep it running due to the shortage of local expertise. Late at night on 9 February 1999, Kristiyana was among 23 Bulgarian medics pulled from their beds, forced into cars, and driven away in blindfolds. Zdravko was working as a doctor in the Sahara when he heard that his wife had disappeared. He rushed to Benghazi and began visiting police stations for help. After several days, he too was arrested without explanation.

Months passed before the Libyan authorities fully explained the arrests. But by then the media had caught wind of the situation. Hundreds of children treated at Al-Fateh had been found to be HIV-infected, and dozens were already suffering AIDS-related illnesses. Zdravko and Kristiyana, along with five other Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor, were charged with deliberately injecting children with HIV-tainted blood to ‘undermine the security of the State’, a crime that calls for the death penalty.1

Later the country’s long-time leader, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, announced that the virus had been specially designed in a laboratory abroad and given to the medics for experiments on the children. He suspected the involvement of the CIA or of Israel’s Mossad. Libyans rallied around this theory when three of the medics admitted to the crimes. Public opinion did not change after it came to light that the authorities had used torture and rape to extract the ‘confessions’. When the Bulgarian embassy was allowed to visit the prison, some of the medics’ health was visibly deteriorating. A doctor’s examination revealed the scars of torture, although his report was criticised in court for not following correct procedure. (According to Amnesty, ‘human rights violations continue to be widespread’, including the ‘arbitrary arrest’ of political opponents and ‘heretics’ who are ‘detained incommunicado for long periods without charge’, suffering torture or ‘unexplained death’ in prison.)

I shifted uncomfortably in my seat as Georgiev stared at the floor. Compared to photographs I saw of him from a few years before, he seemed to have aged rapidly, his blue eyes trapped in a face of craggy, ashen rock. In his broken English, he quietly recalled his first year in prison. His mouth suddenly went dry and I silently wished he would pause to drink from a glass of water on the low table between us. (Ham accurately notes that the tap water is safe but ‘tends to be salty and not particularly pleasant’.) Although he had lost teeth from continual beatings, he explained, this paled next to being kept in a damp cage until his clothing rotted and his skin festered. I felt a stab of nausea when he looked up and said, ‘This was nothing, compared to what they did to my wife. This was nothing.’

Unusual for the guidebook genre, the author of the Lonely Planet guide to Libya ventures a few of his own political views. ‘Forget the myths about Libyan hostility to the outside world’, urges Ham. The reputation is unfair, claims the Australian travel writer, because Libya has been ‘maligned by a myopic Western media as a pariah state.’ As a member of the Western media, this appraisal gave me pause.

Was I being prejudicial and short-sighted? Would my reporting amount to yet more Western distortion at Libya’s expense? Taking Ham’s warning to heart, I did my best to give each side equal time. Staying in the Al-Kebir, one of Tripoli’s better hotels, proved to be a stroke of luck because it is the favourite haunt of Libya’s business and media personalities. (I also concur with Ham that the view from the tenth floor is superb and the hotel’s restaurant is ‘flash’.)

Among the dozens of conversations I had with Libyans about the Benghazi affair, the most interesting was with Khaled Deeb, the Libya correspondent for Al-Jazeera television. I was walking by as his film crew packed up after an interview in the Al-Kebir’s café. I introduced myself and asked if he might have time to meet. Standing together—me in T-shirt and jeans, Deeb in an immaculate, shimmering Italian suit—we couldn’t have better typified the difference between print and television journalists. ‘Maybe a coffee? Here?’ I added hopefully. ‘Call me,’ he said, smiling as he pushed a card into my hand and drove away.

A few days later, I met Deeb after work at about 10pm. Although his English seemed excellent to me, he brought his brother Jamie, who had spent many years in Canada, as a standby translator. Deeb was a natural for television, with his neatly trimmed moustache and wet-combed, senatorial hairstyle. He chose his words very carefully and often relied on his brother, confiding at length in Arabic for an English output that often amounted to a single sentence.

I never achieved the warm rapport I was trying to build. The brothers preferred mineral water to my offer of the hotel’s thick Turkish coffee. (Indeed, as Ham notes, because alcohol is illegal, ‘there’s not a lot of choice when it comes to beverages.’) My opening move was to ply Deeb with celebrity questions. ‘Have you had a chance to meet the Leader?’ Prompting one of his brief smiles, Deeb rejoined, ‘We are on a first-name basis.’ As I quizzed him on his impressions of Western journalists in Libya (‘quite friendly’) and whether he visited other countries (‘whenever Gaddafi travels’), the hotel’s two-metre wide television played non-stop Al-Jazeera. This was days before the tsunami struck the Indian Ocean and Ukrainian presidential candidate Yushenko’s poison-marred face stared at me over Deeb’s shoulder amid Arabic commentary.

Finally, I plunged in. ‘I met Zdravko Georgiev some days ago in the Bulgarian embassy.’ As if I had intoned a spell, Deeb underwent a dramatic transformation. Where moments ago he had been the sleek, confident journalist, he now seemed lost and childlike. He fidgeted and looked away anxiously as if needing the bathroom. ‘Georgiev described things that happened to him in prison that shocked me,’ I said. As Deeb seemed to lose interest in the conversation, his brother took over. We spoke intensely but without anger about American imperialism and Middle Eastern politics. I sympathised on many points. Some assertions were hard to swallow, such as his belief that Mossad had delivered ‘thousands and thousands of mice’ to destroy Libya’s agriculture. But eventually I felt we had found some common ground. I interrupted Jamie at times to thank him for speaking so frankly. ‘It’s no problem’, he assured me.

But I couldn’t let Deeb off the hook that easily, so I asked him directly, ‘Do you think the Bulgarians were tortured?’

‘They are lying’, he responded tersely.

‘How do you know?’ I asked, pressing on. ‘What evidence have you seen that I haven’t?’ By then I had reviewed the case not only with the Libyan lawyer representing the Bulgarians, but also with the Association of the Families, a group of relatives of the infected Benghazi children. I spent hours with the Association’s spokesman, Ramadan Al-Faitore, who quit his job as an engineer years ago to devote himself full-time to ‘fighting the wrong idea that the Bulgarians are innocent.’ He was only too eager to share incriminating evidence with me, although much of it was difficult to believe, particularly as there is far more convincing evidence to the contrary. (One of the most outstanding facts in the Bulgarian medics’ favour was the hospital’s own record of when the HIV-infected children had been admitted. According to the official record, some children had been admitted for treatment before the accused had started to work at the hospital. In one case, a child of HIV-negative parents had been born at the hospital—and had become infected—long after the Bulgarians had been arrested. ‘Those records were wrong. We have the real record’, Al-Faitore told me, pulling files from his briefcase. Their version is very similar to the official record, although the dates of admission for all the HIV-infected children now fall neatly within the period of employment of the accused.)

Before Deeb left suddenly for ‘another meeting,’ Libya’s most respected journalist gave his final word on the matter. ‘I know they are lying because I know 110% that they are guilty. Why would my government use torture to make them say things if they are already guilty?’ And with that, he was gone. Following Ham’s advice, I left the waiter a tip of one Libyan dinar.

‘For those who’ve spent any time here, the friendliness and hospitality of the Libyan people are likely to be their enduring memories’, says Ham, and I can see how he reaches that conclusion. Most Libyans I met—particularly taxi drivers, children, and hôteliers—seemed thrilled to meet me. But then again, Ham and I are unusual visitors. The vast majority of non-Libyans who spend any time here are sub-Saharan refugees or migrant workers. I spent an afternoon with two brothers who, just a week after arriving in Tripoli from war-torn Liberia, had all their money taken by the police and were stuffed in a ‘stinking, packed cell like animals’ for months before release. (Their experience is not unusual according to Amnesty’s report.) ‘But it’s getting better’, they said. Until recently, ‘Libyans threw rocks at anyone black’.

But being white does not seem to guarantee hospitality at the hands of the Libyans. After examining the Benghazi hospital, visiting the children, families, doctors, and nurses, a team of European AIDS experts concluded that hospital-wide ‘negligence’ was to blame rather than any deliberate action by the medics.2 The children had been vulnerable to contamination from each others’ blood through many possible routes, including improper sterilization of instruments and the reuse of syringes. If anyone is to blame, said one of the scientists to me, ‘it is the Libyan Minister of Health’.

The Libyan court considered this scientific appraisal along with a counter-report written by five Libyan doctors claiming instead that all signs pointed to Bulgarian guilt. Although it was riddled with misunderstandings of basic molecular biology, the counter-report held sway in the view of the Libyan judges. On 6 May 2004, the medics were found guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad. Perhaps in light of the fact that he had not worked in Benghazi since 1995, Zdravko Georgiev was given only a four year suspended sentence and now lives inside the Bulgarian embassy. Libya’s highest court meets on 31 May (recently postponed from the original date of 29 March) to announce their decision on the medics' final appeal, although the Libyan government recently said it might reconsider the case if compensation is paid—Al-Faitore has suggested ten million euros for each of the 426 infected children—and if Britain hands over the Libyan suspect in the Lockerbie bombing.

As a friendly taxi driver whisked me away to the airport, I thought about Ham’s praise of Libyan ‘generosity and willingness to engage with the peoples of the world’. Had he looked through the eyes of the country’s more regular visitors, or had the opportunity to enjoy some Libyan generosity involving electrical cable, Ham might have included the amendment: ‘ long as you’re white, and nothing goes wrong.’

Notes :
1. Case 44/1999, People’s Prosecution Bureau, Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya.
2. The report is under review for scientific publication in April 2005. The principal author, Professor Vittorio Colizzi of Tor Vergata University in Rome, Italy, can be contacted at:

John Bohannon earned a DPhil in Molecular Biology from Balliol in 2002. He moved to Berlin as a Fulbright scholar last year. His articles on Libya can be found at

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