Explosive legacy

Murals in Tripoli

Murals in Tripoli, © dpa / picture alliance

23.05.2013 - Article

On a diplomatic mission” in Tripoli, our colleague sees at first hand how Libya is forging its path to the future and dealing with the explosive legacy of the Gaddafi era.

Paris, London, New York – it is often these world cities that spring to mind when people think about the Foreign Service. But for diplomats it is pretty likely that they will at some stage also be posted to places which at first might not seem especially attractive. Some posts can of course also be dangerous. Or perhaps it is unclear after a period of tumultuous change how things will develop. Our colleague Benjamin Hanna has been on a posting in Tripoli for almost a year now. He tells us about his work in a country which is dealing with the legacy of the Gaddafi regime in many different fields and trying to overcome it with Germany’s help.

3, 2, 1...” – A gigantic fireball surges up a kilometre away. After two seconds, the wave of the blast hits our faces, our guide yells “down!”, we crouch on the floor of our shelter and wait until the air has cleared. What may sound like a scene from a Hollywood movie is actually part of Germany’s efforts to help Libya get rid of the weapon and ammunition stockpiles scattered across the country by its former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

As desk officer in the German Embassy, one of my remits is security policy. As well as reporting on central security questions in Libya, part of my job is to monitor Germany’s support programmes for the Libyan security sector. This also means I regularly get to see first hand the progress made on projects and assess what further support is needed.

Numerous mines and unexploded ordnance across the country

Grenades ready for the blast
Grenades ready for the blast© AA / M. Tödt

What Germany does is commission non governmental organizations to instruct and train Libyan partners in mine clearance and explosive ordnance disposal. Even after the end of the civil war in 2011, Libya is still littered with countless mines and unexploded ordnance which pose a major threat to civilians and regional security. In and around Tripoli airport alone, almost 10,000 anti personnel mines were cleared on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office. The Gaddafi regime had positioned these mines to defend itself against revolutionaries.

After the NATO operation began, Gaddafi’s soldiers cleared weapon depots and hid the weapons in non military areas. These areas are often guarded either badly or not at all meaning the lethal weapons could easily fall into the wrong hands. The imminent threat for civilians is just as serious. A pine forest just outside Tripoli is a popular picnic spot for Libyan families – even though, here too, there are ammunition remnants, grenades and bombs dotted around. The Federal Foreign Office has commissioned a German non governmental organization to work on gradually finding and defusing these and making preparations for their destruction.

The slightest mistake could be fatal

Blasting ammunition stockpiles
Blasting ammunition stockpiles© AA / M. Tödt

Back to the blasting site, a picturesque area of several hectares by the sea which Gaddafi’s troops used as a firing range. While the demolition experts get the next blast ready, the Libyans working on mine clearance tell me just how difficult their job really is. They need to search the ground centimetre by centimetre, the slightest mistake could be fatal. One of them tells me that several friends and members of his family lost their lives during the revolution. With his work, he wanted to do his bit for a free and safe Libya for future generations.

Libya has a long way to go before Gaddafi’s military legacy no longer poses a threat. But one thing for sure, at least no one will be hurt or harmed by the almost 1000 pieces of munition, missiles and grenades of various calibres – a net total of 340 kilos of explosive matter – destroyed today with Germany’s help.

Click here for more reports from our “On a diplomatic mission” series

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