It was a day to remember:
By Raissa Robles
Aug 24, 2011
I remember Colonel Muammar Gaddafi as a tall, soft-spoken man with effeminate gestures and tousled hair, urging a room packed with revolutionaries to band together and end America’s world domination.
The occasion was the first-ever gathering of leaders from revolutionary groups around the globe at a posh hotel in Misrata, Libya, in 1987.
I was invited to cover it since my beat then was the Libyan-backed peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front of Nur Misuari.
Gaddafi was late that cold, cloudy morning. Very late. My “guide”, a fresh chemistry graduate assigned to me, explained that the colonel was probably coming from afar because he had to move from place to place every night to elude US bombs.
The previous year, the US had dropped bombs on a palace where Gaddafi’s family was staying and killed a daughter, he told me with anger in his eyes.
Finally, a long convoy of cars and trucks rushed to a stop. Machine gun-toting soldiers clambered off the trucks and lined the driveway of the conference hall – a low, flat, white building that looks like a warehouse from the outside.
Then, one of the western world’s top enemies alighted gracefully, wearing a shirt he looked to have slept in.
Gaddafi was quickly encircled by a bevy of female bodyguards in black fatigues, all with pigtails. I thought then the pigtails were an interesting touch amid the heavy weaponry that accompanied the colonel.
Gaddafi then lectured the delegates, who included natives from Hawaii advocating the secession of their islands from the US, and Australian aborigines.
Those from opposing ideologies were also present – for instance, Filipino rebel Luis Jalandoni of the Maoist group, the National Democratic Front, as well as leaders of the rival Soviet-leaning group, the PKP.
The colonel lumped them together as “liberation movements”.
Gaddafi had his women guards bring a large map of the world onstage. He pointed to the areas controlled by the “terrorist and imperialist” – the US – and the areas where rebellion was rife.
He complained at length about how the US murdered members of his family, including children. He said the US could easily be defeated if the revolutionaries gathered there for the first time all banded together.
It was his version of an al-Qaeda network, but a purely secular movement, united in hatred of the US and its allies. He said he intended to set up a revolutionary fighting force trained and led by Libya. But the cost of the collective, worldwide revolution would be shared.
We were all told to remain on our seats as Gaddafi and his guards made a rapid exit. I guess he mistrusted even his fellow revolutionaries.
The next day we were treated to a parade of schoolchildren and soldiers. In the middle of the street, a new US flag was laid out.
The children and soldiers all marched and trampled on the flag, chanting: “Down, down USA. Down, down, USA.”
My guide, who spoke good English, told me the children enjoyed trampling on the US flag in school every day.
A dinner party was held for the entire delegation. Gaddafi did not attend due to security concerns. Not being part of any revolutionary organisation, I wandered around the room astonished that the revolutionary leaders looked like businessmen in their western suits. What I remember most vividly that night was a group of delegates from Aceh, Vanuatu and East Timor swapping anecdotes on the kinds of bombs they had successfully detonated or which had turned out to be duds.
We were not allowed to wander around Misrata. We could not anyway because our passports had been taken away at the airport. Libyan immigration did not stamp them. For example, my Philippine passport had a stamp saying the holder was banned from travelling to Libya.
The few times we were accompanied outside, I saw women in black burqas hunched in a circle, selling a western canned goods.
I also saw giant billboards bearing Gaddafi’s picture. In our hotel was a huge rug bearing his face, draped on a two-storey wall.
There was nothing to buy in Libya. So I ended up going home with
Gaddafi’s Green Book, a pin with his face on it and – even though it was against the law to take them out of the country – some Libyan coins. Fortunately, Libyan customs were sloppy.
Raissa Robles is South China Morning Post’s Philippines correspondent.