By S. M. Hali
Contemporary media is saturated with news from Libya, where the so called Arab Spring has finally overtaken the Arab world’s longest ruling ruler. However this article is not about current events but my personal experience of 1976 while transiting as a PAF aircrew on C-130 aircraft. PAF flights to Europe and USA found it expedient to stage through Libya since we had a PAF contingent of deputationists who would host us graciously. My previous visits to Okba bin Nafi, the Libyan Air Force base near Tripoli were uneventful. Transit flights through Libya were stopped in 1975, because of reported maltreatment of PAF personnel posted there and instead Malta was selected as a transit overnight stop for PAF aircraft.
On this fateful flight in 1976, enroute from Jeddah to Malta, our aircraft developed a technical problem and we were forced to make an emergency landing at the alternate airfield, Tripoli. We were informed that we were not permitted to land at Okba bin Nafi, but were made to land at Tripoli’s international airport. After landing, we contacted the senior officer of the PAF contingent, deputed to Libya, to make arrangements for our stay. An inspection of the aircraft revealed that a component required change, which would have to be flown in from Pakistan by the next PIA flight, which was three days away. We were informed that due to a trade fair at Tripoli, no hotel accommodation was available and we would have to stay at Okba bin Nafi. Now we had no option but to proceed on the grueling two and half hours’ drive from the airport to the airbase. On reaching the airbase, we put our luggage in the rooms allotted to us in the officers’ mess while the airmen aircrew proceeded to the Sergeants’ Mess.
The contingent commander at Oqaba, a senior PAF Group Captain had asked us to come directly to his house for dinner, which his wife had graciously prepared for us. We were still in our flying suits when we reached his residence and as soon as we had commenced dinner, there was a loud banging on the door accompanied by the wailing of police sirens. Our host rushed out and soon returned with a group of Libyan air force police personnel, brandishing Sten guns, shouting “Where are the infiltrators?” Our exasperated host tried to explain that there were no infiltrators but visiting air crew from Pakistan Air Force, who had been permitted to stay at the air base by the Libyan Air Chief, Colonel Farjani. The police guards said that they did not know Farjani; and permission should have been obtained from Lieutenant Tantawi, the base security officer.
We were marched at gunpoint to the guardroom, where we were supposed to be locked up. Our airmen aircrew had also been rounded up and brought to serve the same fate. The officers comprised two Senior Wing Commanders, who had served in Libya on deputation, two Flight Lieutenants and one Flying Officer. The senior PAF officer tried his best to save us from the ignominy of being locked up but the Libyan police was adamant. That’s when I noticed a Libyan officer, who had been my student as a cadet in PAF Academy Risalpur, passing by. I hailed Lieutenant Razzaq, who immediately rushed to me and after embracing me, wanted to know what the matter was? It turned out that he was a member of the powerful Revolutionary Council Committee and ordered the Libyan police to set us free. The compromise was that we would not reenter the base.
Thanking him profoundly, we realized that we had nowhere to go. A PAF officer on deputation to Libya offered us stay at his flat in civilian area in Tripoli, which had been allotted to him but his family had not arrived yet. We reached there hungry and tired and disgusted with the events since the flat had not been used for over a year and was dusty and dirty but it was better than spending time in jail.
Our ordeal lasted another three days and we remained stranded in a friendly country, which had unpredictably decided to turn hostile. Once the requisite C-130 component reached by PIA, our aircraft was repaired, we were able to take off promising to never set foot in Libya again. Only a year after this incident, a Libyan officer misbehaved with a PAF officer, turning into a serious altercation and all PAF deputationists to Libya were withdrawn. So much for our Libyan allies.