Returning to Libya: a diary of my first steps in Benghazi

The World Food Programme (WFP)’s Libya Country Director Samer AbdelJaber documents the first mission to the port city of Benghazi in eastern Libya, following several years of remote operations due to severe insecurity in the country.

Samer AbdelJaber
Jul 31, 2018 · 7 min read
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OCHA, my team and I meeting with authorities at Benghazi Port. Photo: WFP/Wajdi Mougou

I’d been nervous to go to Benghazi, as I know a number of WFP legends were there years ago. But excitement prevailed, and we took the flight from Tunis, transited in Tripoli to get our passports stamped, and then continued on to Benghazi.

We ended up in the wrong terminal, and there were no ground services to offload our bags from the plane. So Wajdi, our Operations Officer, climbed up and got our bags out by hand. Then we took an old bus to the terminal and after an hour of getting the bureaucracy worked out, we got into the armoured vehicles we are required to travel in and went to the hotel.

The old city

First up was a tour of the older part of the city. What a beautiful place, full of history and great architecture, but the destruction was devastating — I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking that families used to live here, shops were once present, the city was once alive and bustling. As soon as we got out of the old city, though, just in front of the Benghazi tower, I found hope again. I could see that life is coming back, hope is there, children were playing just across from the ghost city that had burned down. The seaside was also full of life again.

I could see that life is coming back, hope is there, children were playing just across from the ghost city that had burned down. The seaside was full of life again.

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Benghazi. Photo captured using my mobile phone.

The second day we went to meet with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who were visiting a university in Benghazi. I was happy to see young girls and boys living a “normal” university life - having coffee from the canteen and those everyday activities we miss the most when we are denied them. That’s when we hit the road to meet the Mayor. I felt proud to talk about WFP and what we are here to do, building on the legacy that Benghazi set when it was a main corridor for the emergencies in Sudan and Chad a few years back, with thousands of trucks full of food heading from the port of Benghazi to Kofra in the South. From there, another journey would take food to people in need across the borders.

Memories, and the way forward

I called an old friend, Sherif, who was in Benghazi back in 2012 and asked him if he remembered where the old WFP office was. He got excited and found the GPS coordinates, which we plugged into Google Maps. I felt my heart stop every time I heard the GPS giving directions, moving us closer and closer. Once we got there, I was disappointed. The area that had hosted WFP’s office has been ravaged; it is full of garbage now. There was no sign of life there either. We called Marlene, our Business Support Associate, as she had been working with WFP back then too, to check if we were in the right place and again, you could feel her excitement as she described where the office had stood. We were indeed in the right place.

I could picture the fantastic WFP colleagues that have been here before me: Muhannad, Tahir, Sherif, Abeer, Marianne, Zlatan, Matthew, Ekram, Dane, Vitaliy, Alan, Kir, Amir, Vitaliy, and many more. I know these names may not necessarily strike a chord with readers who don’t work for WFP, but they are people who took steps here and saved lives in Libya.

I’ve heard so many stories about this place, like how colleagues used to get so excited when Marianne would come here on mission, because she was cooking for everyone and making amazing pasta. And I have my own memories about this place, distant but also connected somehow. While I was in North Darfur, it was always exciting when the WFP flight carrying food was coming from Libya. The Logistics Officer, Ibrahim, would have to wake up early to make sure the porters and trucks were at the airport. Sherif from the Humanitarian Air Service used to wake up early when Salah, who was Aviation in Kufra, would call him from there asking about the weather in El Fasher so that he could send the plane. To this day, we wonder why he used to call and not check the weather forecast!

Standing in the rubble, I felt proud that after all of these years…we are back. We spent some time assessing a potential future office, and on the way back to the hotel we spotted the lively Venezia road, filled with shops and new restaurants. My spirits were lifted immediately.

The meeting at the port

I got a call at midnight confirming the appointment to meet the port authorities the next day, and then I couldn’t sleep. It wasn’t just my excitement but also because there was a military emergency to find a fugitive. The close protection (required here) approached me and whispered, “If you hear gunshots nearby, just hide next to the fridge. The walls are prefabricated, a bullet will go straight through them.” That’s when I had major déjà vu from my Darfur days!

“If you hear gunshots nearby, just hide next to the fridge. The walls are prefabricated, a bullet will go straight through them.”

Morning came and at 9 AM we went to the port. On the way we saw more security checkpoints, but also volunteers who were working to clean the road and the sidewalks. It was so good to see young people investing in their city.

We got to the port, and again had that overwhelming feeling of excitement. The port authorities recounted the days when the port was busy offloading ships with WFP commodities. They shared great stories about how many jobs that operation generated and supported, the warehouses, the number of transporters, the massive ships. Then they showed me the bays where the WFP ships used to dock - destroyed bays now. They told me they need WFP support to rehabilitate the port, as though that port were WFP’s old home and we need it back to help heal the scars.

They told me they need WFP support to rehabilitate the port, as though that port were WFP’s old home and we need it back to help heal the scars.

We were given a tour, and I had the opportunity to take some pictures. I sent them to a few friends who once were here, and I either got immediate calls or messages, everyone saying the same: I remember this! I remember that! On the left we used to do this, on the right we met with that person. Tremendous history and memories are embedded in the minds of everyone I talked to, including WFP staff and also partners who supported the WFP operation here back in the day.

Until next time, Benghazi

We headed to the airport. There was another long delay, but for some reason I didn’t mind— even if they wanted to keep us in Benghazi I would not have minded. I was thinking about how this trip has been a surprise in so many ways (and that here I ate the best chich taouk and had the best mango juice that I’ve had in years).

Two hours later, they finally allowed us to board the plane. In my head and heart, I thought to myself, this is just the start. We’ll be back soon, my team and I.

In my head and heart, I thought to myself, this is just the start. We’ll be back soon, my team and I.

Until next time. Goodbye Benghazi, we will make every effort to re-establish our support to these proud Benghazi people who welcomed us as though we were at home.

As WFP reestablishes its ground presence in Libya, it aims to reach 175,000 people in need of food assistance throughout the country this year. In 2019 and 2020, WFP will launch new initiatives under its Interim Country Strategic Plan, introducing innovative programmes in support of the most vulnerable people in the country as the situation changes and improves for the better.

Click here to learn more about WFP in Libya.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Samer AbdelJaber

Written by

World Food Programme (WFP) Libya Country Director. Passionate about innovation in developing humanitarian responses, so we can best serve those most vulnerable.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

Samer AbdelJaber

Written by

World Food Programme (WFP) Libya Country Director. Passionate about innovation in developing humanitarian responses, so we can best serve those most vulnerable.

World Food Programme Insight

Insight by The World Food Programme

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