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I went to Tripoli just to give a lecture -- and flew into a seven-day nightmare

Dubliner Helena Sheehan, a 66-year-old philosopher, Marxist and Professor Emeritus at Dublin City University, is a well-known figure to many students and graduates, having taught at the university since 1982. Her partner is Sam Nolan, secretary of the Dublin Council of Trade Unions.

In December 2010, she received an e-mail out of the blue, asking her to give a lecture in the history of philosophy at a Libyan academy. She hesitated, but then agreed.

After she arrived in Tripoli, she almost immediately became caught up in the bloodiest turmoil the north African state has seen since 1969, when Muammar Gaddafi seized power from King Idriss.

Abandoned by her hosts and forced to flee her hotel, Helena, living only on her wits, endured a frightening battle to get out of Libya, as bloody clashes between Gaddafi loyalists and rebels threatened to tear the country apart.

Now safely back in Dublin, Helena this week reflected on the uprising and said: "I was totally betrayed by my hosts who abandoned me to a reign of terror." On her decision to travel to Libya, she said simply: "With hindsight, I'm very lucky." -- CIARAN BYRNE

This is an edited version of a diary she kept of her tumultuous visit ...

Friday, Feb 18, 2011

On Amsterdam to Tripoli flight. Reading In the Country of Men -- a novel set in Tripoli, seeing the late 1970s through the eyes of a boy. Quite evocative. Arrived in Tripoli.

Passport control a protracted, stressful and confusing procedure. Eventually met by young driver and set off for hotel. He pointed to one of the many portraits of Gaddafi in various exotic outfits and heroic poses. Striking that road signs and adverts everywhere are entirely Arabic -- not a sign of English.

Arrived at plush Four Points Hotel in Tripoli, busy with Arabs and Europeans. Pleased to have TV, mobile phone and internet connectivity. On BBC a Libyan exile saying that there is no dignity and freedom in Libya. Then watched state TV, which was running footage of pro-regime demos in Tripoli yesterday with lots of young men waving green flags and portraits of G (Gaddafi) and chanting slogans.

Dr Jamal Elzway, very sophisticated in his 50s or early 60s, a political scientist and my main contact, arrived. He said that the riots were going on in the east, especially Benghazi, but not in Tripoli. The difference, he said, is that Benghazi is more tribal and Tripoli is more cosmopolitan.

On state TV, more footage of pro-government demonstrations in Tripoli yesterday and today. Many seem in a collective frenzy.

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Sat, February 19, 2011

Cool, cloudy and windy. Down to breakfast. Sat at table overlooking Med, which was looking very rough. Lovely buffet breakfast of fish, cheese, fruit and veg.

Thinking about Libya and why I have decided to engage with it. I have never focused on it too closely before, but had a left ambivalence about it, because it declared itself to be anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

At the same time, I had qualms about cult of the leader and the power of his sons in the scheme of things. Has one monarchy replaced another?

Jamal arrived along with his friend Osama, who works for an oil company. We drove along the coast road seeing many new high rise buildings and then to the old town with narrow streets and crumbling facades, where there are shops, homes, restaurants, mosques, etc.

People on street, male and female, wearing both modern and traditional attire. Most women have their heads covered. While walking around, intense political discussion. Asked about strength of Islam and about whether there are any atheists or agnostics. Jamal said there are very few. I asked if there are any Marxists. One, he said.

Visited Green Square where a pro-Gaddafi demonstration was taking place.

At lunch more discussion, including Lockerbie and Libya's position in wider world.

Back to hotel. Around 9pm heard noise outside. Went out on balcony. It was a cavalcade of cars honking horns, shouting slogans and waving green flags. Sky News website is reporting 120 dead.

Sunday, Feb 20, 2011

No internet access. Satellite TV signal was getting quite intermittent. Quite uneasy that I couldn't check out what was going on in the way that I did and I couldn't communicate outward like I could at first.

On state TV, a talk show with phone in and traditional singing. An angry black woman in green sequined veil holding green book, ranting for Allah and Gaddafi.

While waiting for Jamal to collect me, I spoke to someone working in the hotel. I asked why the lack of internet access. He said "you know why".

Perfect weather today. Expected to give my lecture yesterday and again today, but a number of the professors involved, even the director of the academy, were on a crisis committee to advise the government on how to deal with the crisis. Jamal felt it would all blow over.

We discussed the situation of unmarried mothers. It is illegal and they can be sent to prison for it. If she names a man, he is compelled to marry her.

In evening, went for a walk alone in the local area. The atmosphere seemed eerie, but I only later realised how dangerous that was. According to BBC, death toll at 173.

Sound of gunfire in the background, both from the tv soundtrack and outside the hotel.

Monday, Feb 21, 2011

Awoke at 4am and put on TV. International news now reporting protesters are in control of Benghazi with some army on their side and that the fighting has spread to Tripoli. Buildings in Tripoli set on fire.

Up again at 8am. BBC reporting rumours that G has fled. Son Saif al-Islam Gaddafi on TV saying this crisis will lead to civil war and chaos, but they will fight to the last bullet, that the number of dead exaggerated.

He blamed Libyan exiles, Arab foreigners, trade unions and Islamic organisations.

Down to breakfast at 9am. It was as if supplies were running out and many staff had gone. Lots of people in lobby checking out. Could see huge plumes of black smoke out the window. Helicopters overhead. Dead estimated to be over 300 now.

I was told the hotel was being evacuated. Threw my things together and took taxi to Hotel Corinthia. Talking to Libyan working in hotel, who said that he hopes G goes or is gone. He said most people are fed up with the corruption and lies and want a change.

After multiple efforts, finally got through to Jamal around midnight. He sounded odd, but said all would be okay. I started to wonder. No sleep.

Tuesday, Feb 22, 2011

Now clear that my hosts have abandoned me. Hoped to re-book my KLM flight to leave today, but their office was closed. At breakfast, met Irene Fairless and Bruce Walker, intrepid travellers from Britain, who had come from desert and saw shooting, looting, roadblocks.

They said they'd gone to the airport yesterday trying to get a flight anywhere, but couldn't. Airport packed and chaotic.

I never wanted to leave anywhere so badly or felt so pessimistic about my chances of doing so. Feeling very stressed and depressed.

Spoke to a member of hotel staff who told me that there were no commercial flights. Contacted Department of Foreign Affairs asking for help.

Dinner with four others in hotel. One of them outlined scenarios more frightening than anything I had yet imagined. The hotel was winding down and would be closing. I would have nowhere to go. I would have no roof over my head, have all my things taken from me and die here in wretchedness.

Then returned to room and got call from DFA telling me that an Irish flight was leaving for Malta, but hadn't yet got permission to land, but I should make my way to airport in morning. Some thread of hope. Communications fragile, but lots of requests for media interviews and messages of solidarity and concern.

Wednesday, Feb 23, 2011

No sleep. Checked out of hotel and took taxi to airport. Libya moving towards breakdown of law and order and reports of robbery, looting, ransacking and hijacking, I felt fear of being robbed and abandoned on the road, but all the taxi driver did was overcharge me. Or perhaps it was 'danger money'.

Many cars approaching airport and huge numbers of people crushing to get into it. Along the approach road, there were massive numbers of Egyptians and Tunisians camping in the rain, unable to get into airport.

Eventually got into the airport. Trying to move through it was hell. Thousands of people, mostly Arabs, crammed in there, with all the possessions they could carry, including televisions, vacuum cleaners and even radiators.

Eventually found people waiting for the Irish evacuation. Most living and working here. I spent 22 hours in their company.

One woman told me that they had buried 17 of their neighbours on Monday and 20 on Tuesday. They spoke of all the crimes of past decades too: hanging students, terrorising the whole population. But they still hoped to return to their jobs and homes in Libya. One woman had reached the end of her endurance and started screaming.

Airport staff were profiteering in distress. There were baton charges and tear gas inside the terminal. Waste and filth everywhere. We waited on and on for our Irish evacuation but eventually got on a list for a UK airlift.

In evening we were told an Irish plane had finally arrived, but that we could take only one small piece of hand luggage per person. I abandoned my suitcase. Some stayed for the British flight rather than do that.

UK officials impressively handled the logistics of trying to get us to the Irish plane. We got on the bus and went round and round the tarmac for 45 minutes, unable to find the plane. It came and left without us on it.

Thursday, Feb 24, 2011

At 5.45am we took off from Tripoli for Gatwick. I have never felt so happy in my life to be on a departing plane.

We arrived in UK just three hours later. A reception area set up for us, where we were debriefed and offered food and drink, use of phones and help with connecting flights. Booked Aer Lingus flight to Dublin for €300.

Arrived in T2.

DFA did not contact me or debrief me. They failed and only seem to want to justify their failure. I hope my life is never in their hands again.

(The Department of Foreign Affairs said it was happy that every Irish national that was seeking to leave the country was able to do so safely and said Ireland did not have the resources which larger countries have. "Every resource which this Department could apply to assisting Irish nationals was carried out. It was a fast-changing and difficult ... The situation was not under our control.")

On adrenalin overdrive. Did many interviews but by the time I did CNN in the evening I could hardly summon words. I collapsed in exhaustion. Worst days of my life.

I was abandoned by my hosts, my country, the hotel, the airline, but thanks to the kindness of strangers, lived to tell the tale. So much death, destruction, displacement.

Any ambivalence about that regime is gone. It is brutal, corrupt, delusional. Looking forward to denouement: regime change and reconstruction.

Relieved to be watching it now from here, where I belong, but I am tense with hope for the liberation of Libya.


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