Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Malta-Tripoli-Muscat Oct 17-19

This is just a quick one -- haven't had time to do this since we left Washington, and there's a lot to say but I am just going to get down the main details and try to fill it in later.

We left Washington on Monday morning and flew through the day to land in Malta 10 hours later in the middle of the night their time. We went straight to the hotel and checked in, and I got to bed around 5 a.m. We were back in the press van at 9:00 to follow Clinton to her meeting with the Maltese PM. Malta looked pretty nice outside the window...lots of bays, old buildings, statues..I don't know much about it as a place but they have a crazy hybrid language (apparently one of the most difficult ones in the EU which is a cross between Romance languages and Arabic. Made for some very weird looking signs.

Clinton had a few public words after her meeting with the Maltese, and then we were back off to the airport. This time, instead of her regular plane, we all loaded onto a massive C-17 military transport plane. They are impressive pieces of equipment, but without any of the ususal frills. In the big empty interior they had bolted a "pod" of four business class seats for Clinton and her top advisors. Unfortunately these looked directly at two porta-potties, which were the plane's only facilities. Behind them was another bolted pod of about 20 regular plane seats, which the other officials sat in. The press and various other hangers on all sat along the sides. The plane only has a couple of small windows, so you feel like you are in a rocket as you take off...its ascent is very steep, but then it levels out and it feels absolutely rock solid.

The flight from Malta to Tripoli is only about 45 minutes, so shortly afterwards we were on the ground. The Diplomatic Security guys were all pretty nervous and as soon as we got out in was obvious why -- the airport is under the control of one of the various militias and they all were waiting outside, with guns and big smiles on their faces.

For the wire reporters it was hectic because we all had satphones and were trying to call in first word of Clinton's visit, which had been kept officially secret until her arrival. The service was patchy, the lines wouldn't go through..but eventually they did (although I fear mine was the last call to make it in so my story was probably last on the wire). We were taken to the interim offices of the interim gov't...a former Islamic center.. and Clinton had her meetings with the new leadership. Then she did a press conference and hit the themes that were repeated all day: congratulations for Libya, but also urging them to make good on their promises to open up the political sphere and to get the militias under control. I think she was also hoping to do some expectation management: its not all going to get better right away. Disillusionment could become a big problem.

From the gov't offices we went to Tripoli University, where Clinton had one of her "town hall" meetings with students. The students themselves were very impressive: all speaking good English (they must have been screened for English skills) and questions about women's rights, freedom of expression, preventing dictatorship, and how to integrate Libya in the broader international community. There were also a few wild card questions ("I am a dental student and I am interested in U.S. dentistry") and Clinton seemed tired -- she coughed her way all through the speech. The university looked fairly grim but it was festooned with pro-revolution graffiti and caricatures of Gaddafi being stamped by a boot etc.

After the university she went to a big Tripoli hospital where she visited some soldiers wounded in the fighting. She came to Libya with promises of more U.S. help for treating the "war wounded" and she met with one guy who had his legs shot off in the battle for Bani Walid. We weren't allowed in the hospital (except for a photographer).

Then it was off to the temporary U.S. embassy, now located in the former U.S. ambassador's residence because the main building had been trashed by Gaddafi's forces. She did her usual "meet and greet" speech but also gave special notice to the Libyan staff, who had stayed on through some pretty dire political pressure and kept things safe. Amazing what people will do.

Then..the drive back to the airport. Halfway there we passed from the zone of one militia to the zone of another, and the cars/trucks accompanying us all changed..jeeps packed with young guys carrying guys and wearing an assortment of fatigues, cheering and laughing and hanging out of their car windows, weaving back and forth in and out of the convoy. It was wild...and they went with us right out to the plane. There Clinton, always a good sport, posed with some of them, doing the "V" for victory sign. They all shouted "Allah Akbar" as she climbed back on the plane to leave.

Then back to Malta, plane change, six hours to Oman, where we arrived at 5 a.m. An hour to the hotel, and sleep -- for about five hours. Late lunch, back on the plane and now we are in Kabul.

I'll try to update/expand this later but wanted to get it down now while it is still fresh. Below is a shot of a mosque in Muscat that we passed on the way to the airport.