Businessman escapes Libya posing as Gaddafi loyalist

By Tara Bahrampour and Samuel Sockol
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 12, 2011; 2:00 AM

IN RAS JDIR, TUNISIA On the dusty road out of Libya, the flood of humanity has narrowed to a trickle, mostly carloads of Libyans doing cross-border trade or foreign laborers on foot, lugging cheap suitcases and overstuffed plastic bags toward a teeming tent camp.

But about midday Friday, a late-model sedan pulled away from the row of green flags strung across the Libyan side of the border and parked just inside Tunisia. The driver, a burly man in a suit, sank his face into his hands and wept. The day before, he'd been a prosperous businessman with friends all over the country. Now he was an outcast.

"I have no future. I have no future," he said, a tear rolling down his nose. "If my name appears anywhere, they will kill me."

The man said he had spent two days crossing Libya, praying that his name would not be on the lists awaiting travelers at the myriad checkpoints that have popped up on the western route out of the country. He had seen other drivers pulled out of their cars, blindfolded, handcuffed and taken into tents, their cars abandoned on the road.

Sitting in his car for fear of eavesdroppers, he said he had worked in public relations for a firm in Tripoli. He had supported the opposition, he said, but was often mistaken for a government security employee because of his physique and confident stride. Last week, he visited hospitals where staff members told him of wounded patients being shot and dragged away to what they said was a Tripoli crematorium.

On Wednesday, a friend who works for Moammar Gaddafi's security apparatus had warned that the government might be after him. Without a word to friends or family, he packed a small overnight bag, put it in his trunk and started driving.

"I said that I came here for business, but in fact I'm running away," he said, adding that he was leaving behind his parents, friends and career as he nears age 40. He let out a deep sigh. Now that he was out, he said, phoning them could endanger them.

"How would you feel if everyone you knew could be killed, even if you managed to save yourself?" he said.

Gaddafi, he said, was "the Hitler of this generation."

But after a lifetime in Libya, the businessman also knew how to praise his leader. At checkpoint after checkpoint, he said, he greeted government soldiers warmly, hailing Gaddafi, putting them at ease.

When he approached Zawiyah, a city west of Tripoli that government forces violently recaptured this week, he decided to make a stop.

"I wanted to see with my own eyes what happened to those thousands that were demonstrating in the square," he said. "I was scared for their fate. I knew there was a massacre there."

As he approached the town, he said, his cellphone signal died; most telephone and Internet service has been cut off for days. He was greeted by people cheering and waving the green flags of the government. The scene chilled him, coming so soon after the residents' fierce resistance, but did not surprise him. Today, he said, "you can't say in Zawiyah that you're against Gaddafi."

Even on the Tunisian side of the border, most Libyans driving in and out smiled glassily, saying that everything inside their country was "good" but offering no details. It was "good" that Gaddafi was in control. How were things going in Ras Lanuf, in Brega, towns that had reportedly been bombarded the day before? There, too, they said, things were "good." Then they sped away.

But the businessman sat in his car, hemmed in by aid workers, with no business to transact anymore.

"I will wait," he said, adding that he planned to head to Tunis. "If he falls, I will go back. If not . . ."

He shrugged. "I don't know. I'll be a refugee."

Sockol is a special correspondent.

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