By Darrin Zammit Lupi
When the Arab Spring got underway late in 2010, few of us imagined it would spread to Libya with any tangible effect. To those of us of my generation here in Malta, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the bogeyman – he’d always been there lurking not too far from our shores – Libya is less than 350 km to the south of the island, and Gaddafi was a frequent visitor and close friend of the Maltese government in the 70s, my childhood years.
A year later, when I look back on the events that kicked off on February 17, 2011, I’m amazed it all happened so fast. Who would have dreamed that Gaddafi would be overthrown within six months, and dead within eight?
The start of the uprising turned Malta, normally a rather quiet news backwater spot in Europe into the center of world attention, as countries from all over the world struggled to evacuate their nationals from Libya. As soon as we got the first indications that there may be evacuations, I immediately started looking into ways of how I could get as comprehensive a coverage as possible.
My plan was to try to fly into Tripoli on an evacuation flight and fly straight out again – the shots I was looking for were of Europeans boarding the aircraft. Evacuations seemed to be starting off slowly – my first point of contact was the Austrian Embassy in Malta, as they were the first to send a military plane to the island to be on standby to fly into Tripoli. The Reuters Vienna bureau got in touch with authorities there, but no luck. There was no way they would take a journalist with them, occupying a very precious seat on the plane on the return flight.
We next tried the Maltese national airline Air Malta, who were laying on extra flights to try get as many Maltese and other nationalities out of the country as it descended into chaos. Though I made it clear to the airline that I wouldn’t even need to walk away from the bottom of the aircraft stairs, they refused to take the risk of flying me in without a visa. And no visas were being issued by the Libyan embassy in Malta.