The Road to Garabolli

We had everything ready for our trip to Misrata this morning—from the travel permits and satellite phones to hamburger sandwiches and Mars chocolate bars—when we received the alert about the sudden outbreak of hostilities in the northeastern town of Garabolli, about 62 kilometers from Tripoli.

From what we could gather, it appeared that units of the Libyan National Army (LNA) that were supposed to be under siege south of Garabolli were somehow able to surge forward and dislodge units of the Government of National Accord (GNA) from their positions in the town. Airstrikes and artillery exchanges were being reported.

We had reasons to be worried. For us to be able to get to Misrata, we would have to take the Coastal Highway and that highway cuts right through Garabolli. And with clashes reportedly taking place there, the highway is no longer passable.

We were going to Misrata to make sure our Assistance to Nationals Officer, Francis Enaje would be able to make it back to Tripoli safely. We were fortunate to get him accommodated in a United Nations aircraft that was allowed to land in Misrata.

Francis was actually due to return last month from his medical leave in Manila but he ended up getting stuck in Tunis after Libya and Tunisia closed their borders due to the coronavirus outbreak. As the Embassy was also undermanned, we needed him back in Tripoli as soon as possible. If his flight is cancelled, we would have to wait another two weeks or more to bring him in.

We monitored the clashes until very early in the morning. We barely slept. Given all the coordination that had to be done with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic police, we wanted to make sure the trip to Misrata proceeds.

We monitored the clashes until very early in the morning. We barely slept. Given all the coordination that had to be done with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the diplomatic police, we wanted to make sure the trip to Misrata proceeds.

About an hour before our scheduled departure, we contacted Diplomatic Security to check if the route is safe enough for us to proceed. We were told they still do not know but they were confident enough to assure us we can proceed and just turn back if there is trouble along the way. Our Cultural Officer Jas de Guzman advised me not to go.

“Huwag na po kayo sumama, Sir. Delikado sa dadaanan niyo [Sir, please do not go. The route is not safe],” Jas appealed to me from Tunis where she was based. I told her it was also not safe from where we have been on quarantine for the past three weeks.

I discussed our options with Lt. Col. Rommel Bognalbal and Lt. Col. Glenn Apresto, who were both sent by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) more than a month ago to assist the Embassy in responding to calls for assistance from distressed Filipinos. We all agreed to push through unless we are told that Francis’s flight is being cancelled due to the situation in Garabolli.

At 7:30 a.m., we departed Tripoli. A black Nissan Sentra with two officers from the diplomatic police led the way for us. We were on board two old model BMW 5 Series. I was driving the lead car. With me were Lieutenant Colonels Bognalbal and Apresto and ATN Officer Walter Villalobos. In the backup car were the Embassy interpreters Lacson Casim and Mok Tidto. This was the first time we were venturing out since we locked ourselves three weeks ago due to the coronavirus.

Embassy team in lead vehicle before leaving for Misrata. (Elmer G. Cato Photo)

As we made our way across Tripoli towards Tajoura, we noticed that there were still a number of people lining up outside bakeries and small stores. They were most likely preparing for the start of Ramadan tomorrow. There were also many vehicles along the Second Ring Road despite a government prohibition on vehicle movements that was announced a few days earlier as part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

There were only a few cars when we hit the Coastal Highway past Tajoura. We were sandwiched between the diplomatic police escort and our backup car and cruising at 100 kilometers per hour. Behind us was another convoy made up of another diplomatic police vehicle and two armored Land Cruisers belonging to the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).

Before leaving Tripoli, we made sure we had this large magnetized decal of the Philippine flag with us. Maj. Gen. Mario Chan brought with him a number of these the last time he was in Tripoli so we could our vehicles could be properly identified by sentries at checkpoints during long drives. We tried placing it on the windshield but it was blocking our view so we decided to place it on the dashboard. But then, we got reminded of the armed drones that have been playing a prominent role in the Libyan the conflict.

“Dapat visible ang flag from the air at baka mapagkamalan tayo ng mga drones [The flag should be visible from the air to avoid being targeted by mistake by those drones,]” I told Lieutenant Colonel Bognalbal who was in the front seat next to me. We all knew drones were utilized in Garabolli last night. We ended up placing the flag decal on the sunroof.

After almost an hour, we were at the outskirts of Garabolli. We knew we were close because of the presence of armored fighting vehicles and heavily armed men in blue and khaki uniform.

After almost an hour, we were at the outskirts of Garabolli. We knew we were close because of the presence of armored fighting vehicles and heavily armed men in blue and khaki uniform. We slowed down as we approached security checkpoints but we were surprised that we were just waved through. We radioed Lucky in the backup car to ask what the situation was ahead. It was Lucky who was communicating with our escorts in the lead vehicle.

“Sir, mukhang nabawi na daw nila uli kanina ang Garabolli [Sir, it seems they were able to recover Garabolli earlier],” he told me.

Apparently, control over the town that was also known as Castelverde changed hands again just a few hours earlier. It was the GNA that was now in control. The highway to Misrata was once again open. The LNA units that captured it last night appear to have been pushed back but in the tug-o-war that the nature of the fighting here has been known to be, they will try to capture it again. And it could be anytime.

We made it safely to Misrata International Airport an hour ahead of the arrival of the plane carrying Francis and several UN workers. The two UN armored vehicles were parked near us. When those on board disemarked, we could not help but notice they had body armor on. We had none.

It took Francis about 30 minutes after his plane landed before he cleared immigration and customs. We expected the process to be faster since the airport was empty and theirs was the only plane that arrived. He told us it took longer because all passengers were subjected to a coronavirus test and not just the usual forehead thermometer scan we had when we arrived in Tripoli’s Mitiga Airport two months ago.

“Ang sakit, Sir [It was painful, Sir],” Francis said as he described how a cotton swab was inserted in his nostril to get a sample from his throat. He said the sample would be tested and he would be informed of the result after 24 hours.

By 2 p.m., we were headed back to Tripoli with our diplomatic security escort again leading the way. I asked Walter to take the wheel while I moved to the front passenger seat.

Embassy team at Misrata International Airport (Rommel Bognalbal Photo)

As we approached Garabolli, we encountered more armed men, pickup trucks with mounted anti-aircraft guns and heavy machineguns called arbatas, and tanks compared to what we saw in the morning. At one checkpoint, traffic was at a standstill.

“Baka Sir may labanan na naman sa harap kaya siguro nakahinto lahat [There might be fighting ahead, Sir, and that’s probably why all are being held here],” Walter told me.

I got a bit worried. We have to get back to Tripoli before it gets dark. If we get stuck there due to the fighting, we would have no choice but to return to Misrata and spend the night there. If the fighting in Garabolli lasts longer, we might get stranded there when I am supposed to be in Tripoli where some fighting was also raging. I was thinking of the scolding I would be getting from the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. Suddenly, it seemed that Jas was probably right in dissuading me from going.

At the checkpoint, we were stopped by militia armed with AK-47s who ordered us to pull over. A white armored Toyota Land Cruiser moved past us followed by an armored Toyota Hilux that had a turret on top with a mounted machinegun.

Our escort found a way to snake through all the vehicles that jammed the northbound lane of the highway. At the checkpoint, we were stopped by militia armed with AK-47s who ordered us to pull over. A white armored Toyota Land Cruiser moved past us followed by an armored Toyota Hilux that had a turret on top with a mounted machinegun. We were told to follow the two vehicles. We did. I checked the rearview mirror to see if Lucky and Mok were following us. They were and behind them was a second Toyota pickup similar with the one in front of us.

Embassy security escorts. (Elmer G. Cato Photo)

Walter’s phone then rang. It was Lucky. He called to tell us the armed escort vehicles were there to ensure that we make it safely past Garabolli just in case the LNA makes another attempt to capture it while we were passing through the town. The LNA does not have to send its fighting vehicles to engage the GNA head on. All it needs to do is to have their drones conduct airstrikes or send artillery or rockets flying from kilometers away. We have seen what those could do in Tripoli. The danger is very much real and, of course, we would not want to end up as collateral damage.

It was a tense 20-minute ride to the edge of the town. All of us were on alert as if we knew what to do in case artillery rounds explode in front of us. The escort vehicles slowed down and prepared to turn back. We were now in the safe zone. My companions heaved a sigh of relief not knowing that as we were driving through Garabolli, I was quietly praying that we would be able to make it back to Tripoli without incident.

Thank God, we did.

Tripoli, 23 April 2020

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