Gun running with the Libyan rebels

Al Jazeera's Sue Turton recounts her 20-hour voyage into Misrata on board a floating rebel ammunition dump.


    As the daughter of a ship’s captain, I’ve been on some strange voyages in my time. But our passage to Misrata in late June had to be the craziest.

    Cameraman Nick and I had boarded the 60-foot tug boat Ezzarouk with camera kit, flak jackets and plenty of fruit. We were heading to Misrata, where fruit was in short supply, and you’ve got to get your five-a-day. But fruit was the least of our worries as we rounded the port buildings in Benghazi.

    There was the ship’s crew, loading boxes and boxes of ammunition and weapons, including very dodgy looking homemade RPG launchers. The Ezzarouk was fit to bursting point – a veritable floating munitions dump. 

    Our security consultant took one look at the boat and said with a wry smile, “Do you want me to do a risk assessment of that lot?”

    This was not a voyage to contemplate what could go wrong. 

    They passed us the crew list to add our names. Nick was number 13. I could see my superstitious father shaking his head in despair. He was once given the number 13 as he waited to sail through the Suez Canal. He insisted they change it to 12b, but the die was cast. He picked up a local pilot who was a little inebriated to navigate them through the Canal, and the ship ran aground. The damage forced them to return to port and head to dry dock for repairs. My father was convinced it was down to the number 13. 

    We cast off and headed west across Sirte Bay. The captain suggested we get comfortable on the deck next to the bridge for the next 20 hours. At least we couldn’t see the cargo from that vantage point. 

    Our course took us north of a coastline still in the throes of conflict. Brega, Ras Lanuf and Gaddafi’s hometown of Sirte were well over the horizon, but not far from our thoughts. 

    The English-speaking skipper said he had done this voyage more than ten times before. He talked of how Gaddafi’s troops had shelled them on an earlier trip, missing the tug by about 10 metres. 

    On another passage, he said, a crew from a NATO warship had boarded them and found their cargo. NATO had tried to turn them back to Benghazi, but after frantic calls to NATO HQ they eventually relented. The Ezzarouk hasn’t been stopped since that day.

    At one point, we hear NATO ships on the radio asking Libyan boats to identify themselves. There may be an international arms embargo, but NATO appears to be giving the rebel gun-running boats safe passage from Benghazi to Misrata. 

    We couldn’t have asked for a friendlier crew. We were served pasta for dinner, fresh espresso coffee, fruit juice and biscuits. As darkness fell, I curled up in a sleeping bag on some space at the back of the bridge for a couple of hours, my sleep broken only by sporadic cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’ from the crew changing watches. I woke to find some kind crewman had placed a blanket over me as I slept. 

    Nick had kipped out on deck – tucked into a blanket with a beanie pulled down low over his head. He’d slept under the stars. It sounds idyllic, but his mattress soaked up plenty of sea-water, so his slumber was a bit damp.

    The NATO radio traffic got busier as we made out Misrata on the horizon. But the harbour was quiet. Earlier boats had dodged a barrage of Gaddafi artillery, but we were lucky. We eased into the port to the sight of wrecked ships still moored along the quayside and warehouses damaged beyond repair. 

    The captain said goodbye and wished us much luck in his home town. He was heading off to see his family before returning to Benghazi for another shipment – vital supplies if Misrata is to keep pushing Gaddafi’s forces away from their city.



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