Terry Brouse still marvels at the mixture of luck, skill and bravado that delivered him to safety from the Libyan government’s violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests last week.
The Wabigoon Lake resident and aircraft maintenance engineer has worked in the North African nation and throughout the Middle-East for nearly 25 years for an aviation contractor servicing oil companies.
Maps of North Africa spread out on the kitchen table of his lakefront home and a 24-hour cable news channel piping the latest developments from North Africa, Brouse is consumed by the coverage and deeply concerned for friends and co-workers still caught amidst the escalating violence.
Working at a remote oil-pumping station called Sarir, Brouse says early attempts to evacuate were delayed as local military personnel, who were not loyal to dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi, barricaded the airstrip over fears of pro-government mercenaries gaining control of the facility.
By Sunday, Feb. 20, Brouse’s party had convinced the locals to allow their departure in a company Dash-8. The crew flew to the hot-zone — Tripoli, in hopes of arranging a swift departure from the country.
They landed at Matiga, a former U.S. military airstrip where Brouse said he saw evidence of an influx of military might from outside the country.
“It was just choc-a-bloc with Russian-made heavy lifter aircraft that he (Gaddafi) had flown in mercenaries with,” said Brouse. “The mercenaries don’t care, they just shoot. His own people would not do that.”
A tense night in Tripoli followed as Brouse collected his passport from his employers and prepared an exit strategy.
“We met up at the staff house, four or five kilometres away from the fighting,” said Brouse. “We spent the night there listening to gunfire throughout the night. We were anxious the next morning to get moving.”
But getting the hell out of Libya was on the minds of more than just Brouse and his cohorts. With the violence escalating early last week, few European airlines were operating scheduled flights out of Tripoli International. Brouse says the scene at the airport was something he’ll never forget.
“It was chaos for sure,” said Brouse. “When we got within half a kilometre out from the airport we began to see the traffic and the thousands of people walking towards the terminal, their possessions in bundles. If you were outside of the terminal, chances are it would have been extremely difficult to even get inside the building to catch a flight.”
With less than $500 cash between the five of them, Brouse says the most valuable asset in this stressful and chaotic environment were the bars on the shoulder of his colleagues’ pilot uniforms, which gained them front-of-line access to the terminal. Pilots within the group, including Kelowna’s Martin Stewart were able to make several inquiries and eventually helped arrange ‘flight crew’ seats on an Air Afrique flight to Paris.
“We didn’t have any tickets, but as flight crew we were able to get on board — so it didn’t cost us anything to get to Paris,” he said.
Brouse says reports of a Canadian flight that took off empty late in the week doesn’t surprise him.
“It’s just the chaos of the situation,” he said. “If the flight crew doesn’t get off the plane and physically go into the terminal and wave the Canadian flag or something, then how do they round up the Canadians? The communications have been difficult. It’s tough to send people around to different locations when they’re shooting people in the streets.”
An adventurous soul
Political unrest can be found at the very root of Brouse’s long working relationship with Libya.
“When the Yanks shots down the two Libyan planes in the Gulf of Sidar in 1981, that was an opportune time,” said Brouse. “The Yanks were coming out of the country, so there were vacancies. That’s when I went in.”
In 1984, Brouse’s wife Lee-Ette and family joined him in Libya, but opted to leave in 1986 when the U.S. bombed the palace of Muammar Gaddafi. The instability caused the family to pull up stakes and settle in Nepal for a few years.
As Libya stabilized and opened to the world economy in recent years, Brouse was drawn back to a country and a people he says he has a great affection for — splitting his time between Northwestern Ontario and working on planes in the desert of North Africa.
A prayer for Libya
“Working in Libya all these years I’ve seen the ups and downs,” said Brouse. “Gaddafi has been ruthless in his leadership. Any opposition to him would simply disappear. After 40 years, the oil money has not trickled down to his people. The majority of Libyans are poor people trying to raise a family like any place else. They’re easy-going, they like to joke and laugh. They are definitely nervous about the future, but they seem unified as one.”
Brouse believes Gaddafi will definitely fall, though he hopes revolution can be realized without leaving the country’s petroleum infrastructure in shambles, avoiding a scenario like Kuwait in 1991 when Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces set fire to 700 oil wells.
“I’ve been hanging on every news broadcast waiting for Tripoli to fall,” he said. “The way things have been going, it’ll be messy before it’s through. Once Gaddafi and his tribe are dealt with, these people are going to want to get back to a normal life again.”
By Chris Marchand