In 2011, the whistleblower website WikiLeaks released a cache of secret US diplomatic cables – a quarter million in total. One, authored by American ambassador to Libya Gene A Cretz, described former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as “mercurial and eccentric”.
Cretz dispatched the wire days after Gaddafi’s 2009 visit to New York City (NYC) to address a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). His speech, which could only be described as erratic, was marked by a tearing of the UN charter. He also wondered aloud whether swine flu was manufactured as a weapon, said that the Security Council should be renamed the “terror council” and demanded investigations into the assassinations of John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
The episode raised Gaddafi’s profile in Western media and left many people wanting to know more about who he was and why he behaved so strangely. Cretz’s cable, combined with a few facts and anecdotes from Gaddafi’s life, shed light on Libya’s self-proclaimed “Brother Leader”.
Obsessed with image
According to Cretz’s wire, Gaddafi initially refused to have his picture taken for a US visa application. An aide, presumably at his request, suggested that the US consulate instead photograph one of the hundreds of billboards in Libya that featured his image and shrink it to fit its criteria. After the consulate refused, Cretz said that the aide “reluctantly conceded” to have the leader pose for a photo.
It is not clear why Gaddafi was so averse to having his picture taken – as he was well known for his carefully constructed photo ops and media events. His image was plastered on billboards and banners throughout Libya, often portraying him as a hero of the people. His face was also featured on commemorative stamps and state currency.
As gifts, he had reportedly given associates gold watches with a picture of himself dressed in military uniform saluting on the dial. He even once presented Condoleezza Rice, the former US secretary of state, with a locket that had his image engraved on the inside.
Gaddafi is believed to have been obsessed with maintaining an image of being young and strong. He often wore bright colors, preferring safari suits and sunglasses over traditional diplomatic attire, and changed his outfits frequently throughout the day. It is rumoured that he underwent cosmetic surgery on his face and had hair plug implants.
A fear of heights
Gaddafi had a fear of heights, and could not fly for more than eight hours or over water. Cretz said that this created “logistical headaches for his staff”. When tending to his travel arrangements, they had to plan alternative routes and frequent stops to accommodate his phobia. On his flight from Libya to NYC, Gaddafi stopped in Portugal – most probably to calm his nerves.
Interestingly, Gaddafi had a penchant for giving speeches from high places. In fact, one of his last, and most famous, speeches as Libya’s leader was from atop the ramparts of Tripoli’s old city – where he stood before a large crowd of supporters and accused anti-government protestoes of taking hallucinogenic pills.
Gaddafi’s image was also ironically featured on billboards advertising Libyan Airlines.
Gaddafi’s phobia was so severe that it affected his choice of accommodations. According to Cretz, Gaddafi’s staff said “the Leader must stay on the first floor of any facility that was rented for him” and “could not climb more than 35 steps”. Fortunately, Gaddafi owned a mansion in Englewood, New Jersey – just 30 minutes from his UN meeting in NYC.
The estate, however, was three-stories high – a strange purchase for man who could not live anywhere but on the first floor. It also bore the unusual name of “Thunder Rock”.
Neighbours protested over his intended visit because he had recently given a hero’s welcome to the Lockerbie bomber – who had killed 270 people in 1988, including 38 New Jersey residents. His request to erect a large air-conditioned tent also caused controversy, and was ultimately denied. His follow-up request to pitch one in NYC’s Central Park was rejected as well.
Cretz observed that Gaddafi seemed “obsessively dependent” on a core of trusted staff – including his “voluptuous blonde” Ukrainian nurse Galyna Kolotnytska. In fact, they were so close that some embassy personnel believed that the two shared a “romantic relationship”.
Gaddafi, in fact, also surrounded himself with a team of four beautiful Ukrainian nurses – often referred to in Western media as his harem. In an April 2011 Newsweek article, one of the nurses – 24-year-old Oksana Balinskaya – denied that Gaddafi had a sexual relationship with any of the girls, but admitted that they called him “papika” (Russian for little father). She also said that he reminded her of a 1980s rock star and most likely hired the girls for their looks.
The Revolutionary Nuns
Noticeably missing from Gaddafi’s UNGA entourage was his “legendary” female guard force, wrote Cretz. “Only one female guard was included among the approximately 350-person strong Libyan delegation to New York.” Cretz surmised that the lone guard played a “formal security role”.
The all-female guard force has been a staple of Gaddafi’s since the 1980s. While Western journalists have referred to them as his “Amazonian Guard”, in Libya they are called “The Revolutionary Nuns” or “The Green Nuns”. Facts surrounding the force are murky. However, it is widely believed that the women are highly specialised in the use of firearms and martial arts. It is also said that they have taken vows to protect Gaddafi with their lives and remain chaste.
Supposedly, Gaddafi picks the women himself and permits them to wear western clothing, make-up and high heals while on duty.
A skillful balance
Gaddafi’s was an enigmatic figure, whose wild remarks, colourful attire and alleged ties to terrorism made him the subject of great fascination. However, it would be wrong to “dismiss his many eccentricities as signs of instability”, wrote Cretz. Gaddafi “is a complicated individual who has managed to stay in power for 40 years through skillful balancing of interests and realpolitik methods.”
The fact that he ruled with an iron fist helped as well.