I promised myself that when I was back from Libya I’d do a favour to other journalists — especially the freelance ones like me — and write a post about the specifics of getting into the rebel-held east. Forget the fears about heading into a warzone: before I left for Libya, it was the logistics that troubled me most. And, specifically, I was worried about how dicey or otherwise the trip across the north of eastern Libya would be.
It isn’t. The trip was safe. There’s a big difference between going to Benghazi, now deep inside rebel territory, and going to, say, Brega or Misrata. This post isn’t about that kind of trip.
So here, to prevent others going through the same fruitless Google search for information, is my Guide on How to Get from Egypt to Benghazi.
We went through Cairo. On the flight from Zurich, I was sitting next to a man who looked an awful lot like a young Muamnar Gaddafi (crossed with Jim Morrison) and, it turned out, he was from the Benghazi. So he offered to do the journey with us. We didn’t go with him in the end, because our fixer in Egypt thought he might be a Gaddafi spy (paranoid nonsense) and persuaded Eric, the photographer I was travelling with, and me to ditch him. But I learned an alternative and straightforward route from Muammar Morrison: go to the bus station in Cairo and, for very little money, catch a bus to Benghazi. That’s what he was going to do and I’ve since met many journalists who’ve done the same. I can’t vouch for how comfortable the ride is, but my guess is not very. But it’s a way in.
Instead, we met two Egyptian contacts a friend of Eric had arranged from Holland. One of them helped arrange a driver from a tourist shop off Tahrir Square. The driver, Mohammed, agreed to take us by car to Marsa Matrough, where we’d booked a hotel. The hotels in Marsa are cheap. And, because many of the European flights to Cairo get in in the afternoon, we wanted to stay somewhere close to the Egypt-Libya border and pass through the next day.
We got to our hotel — an out-of-season resort-type place called Carols Beau Rivage — at about 1am in the morning after a long drive from Cairo. (We left Cairo at about 5pm.) We paid around $100 for the bed in Marsa. And we paid about 550 Egyptian pounds (about $100) to Mohammed, plus a tip.
Marsa to the Salloum border crossing was a two hour drive with another taxi: we paid about $60 for that. The border crossing is about five kilomotres drive from the town itself. And you don’t want to spend too long in either place. (We did, for a story I was working on for The Economist about the refugee crisis in the town. That’s published next week.)
Our Egyptian fixer was planning to come to Libya with us. But he wasn’t allowed across the border. Meanwhile, the driver he’d tried to arrange to take us from Salloum to Benghazi didn’t show. And because the Libyana mobile network isn’t taking incoming foreign calls, we couldn’t get hold of him. So when we passed through, we were on our own.
Well, that’s not quite true. The border crossing is overrun with desperate refugees fleeing Libya — and with journalists trying to get in. We’d arranged to meet up on the other side of the border and share a cab with Adam Holloway, an MP and former ITN journalist. (My thinking: if he’s a Tory MP, David Cameron will probably send in the SAS to fetch him if something goes wrong. He also had a sat-phone.)
That didn’t work out either. He’s a nice guy n’all — truly — but Adam and his friend had already left for Benghazi. We were late, so I don’t blame them.
None of it mattered, though. After passing by foot into Libya and, thanks to our essential press cards, assuring the rebel border guards that we were journalists we simply rented one of the many drivers lined up to take hacks to Benghazi. We paid $300 for that trip, plus a tip. We left Salloum at about 3pm and were in Benghazi before 10pm. Our driver didn’t speak a word of English, but bought us some ropey food on the way and looked after us. We stopped in Tobruk to visit the World War II cemetery and the port. He drove like a maniac, but when you’ve already exceeded your risk quotient for the week by illegally entering a dictatorship engulfed in war, 180-km/h on a desert road without seatbelts doesn’t register much.
So: into Benghazi from Cairo took about two days, with a layover, and cost us about $500 for the driving.
If I were going to do it again I’d fly to Alexandria and shave three hours off the Egyptian side. And I’d probably try to make it in a day — a long day, to be sure. But if you can cut out the faff-factor, it’s doable.
As for hotels in Benghazi, we stayed in Noran. It was more expensive than the other journalist hotels (we paid $150 a night for a double, compared with $70/night in the Uzu), but — as The Economist’s Nick Pelham advised me beforehand — houses fewer hacks. I recognised the NYT crowd, the Guardian and the Independent in the Noran; but, mercifully, there weren’t any TV journalists. Uzu, by comparison (which happens to have one of the only two reliable wifi connections), is a Soviet-style dive. If you’ve seen camera pieces on the news from Benghazi, don’t be fooled by the backdrop of water behind the broadcaster’s head. It’s there, and it may look pretty, but the rest of Uzu ain’t. My fellow craftsmen have, alas, trashed the place. It sells extraordinarily bad food, for extortionate prices. You can’t blame the locals for gouging the journalists, but do avoid the $30 plate of slop. If hanging with the pack’s your thing, though, Uzu is where they’re all gathered. And many of the TNC’s press conferences are held there. Tibesti is another option. I interviewed someone there, but only saw the bottom part of the hotel: it looks pleasant enough. In any case, all of these places are hotels in a warzone (or not too far from one). So don’t expect much comfort, though staff are doing their best; and do expect some noises. We watched random gunfire from our hotel balcony in the Noran one night: kids with guns, not terribly worried about keeping us awake.
You’ll need to register yourself as a journalist when you arrive in Benghazi. It’s easily done: just find the court house in opposite the port in the centre and show your press card. The women working the media centre are efficient and helpful, up to a point, although the hand-written request list for interviews is more useful as a guide for what other journalists are hoping to do than as a way of organising one-on-ones.
You’ll need a fixer in Benghazi. For a trip to the frontline, the going rate when we were there was between $150-200 for the day. For Misrata, you’re looking at a 20-hour boat trip. For ferrying around Benghazi, the fixer’s rates are $100-150. The best way to find your fixer is by recommendation, either in the press centre or from other journalists. Find someone who’s trustworthy (obviously) and actually knows people. With luck, he’ll even have a seatbelt in the car. English-speaking fixers are essential for non-Arabic-speaking journalists. Our fixer was fluent in English (with an annoying Liverpudlian accent), but lax with his timekeeping, which is a serious no-no. He also occasionally tried to interject during interviews, which irritated me immensely. But we owe him our gratitude: on the night we were isolated as the only Westerners in Benghazi’s central square and witnessed a lynching that led to a murder, he successfully navigated us through an angry crowd to safety. After that, the irritations felt minor.
He also arranged a local sim card for us. They’re easy to come by: you can probably buy one from one of the journalists leaving town, or when you’re in Salloum and meet some coming back the other way. Don’t forget an unlocked phone.
We also paid our fixer to drive us back to Salloum when we left. That cost $250 and was even less eventful than the drive in.