Fleeing Libya, losing means

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Saturday, August 23, 2014


THE night stretched out to the horizons in July. Everybody on board the vehicle prayed to all the saints and gods above to dodge the omen. It was a bumpy ride. They feared the car might stop – it did, quite a few times. Horrid flashlights beamed at them, and they went pale.

The driver pleaded to the men for passage. Inside the vehicle, they were quiet, and sweaty awaiting for the verdict of the long-nosed, veil-covered men. The driver uttered the word, “Filipini” and one man nodded to the other.

It was only then they were allowed to pass through the border between Libya and Tunisia.

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Gonmaris Ponaquin said that people who want to flee from Libya go through this scene. It was not new to the locals, but it was new for her.

“I have never been into a war-torn country. I have never felt weary from nervousness in my entire life. It was different than home.”

A caterer staff in Tripoli, Libya, Gonmaris enjoyed her work – more than housekeeping and being a domestic helper in Kuwait and Dubai few years back, in those early days of her being an overseas Filipino worker.

In Libya, she was paid and treated well.

She proudly said she loved serving food to guests in meetings, conventions and the like. “It was like no other.”

Her happiness was cut short when Tripoli International Airport was bombed in June. She was at home with other co-workers at that time. They were all about to sleep. Minutes later, they heard consecutive bombings in the nearby terrain.

Horrific

“The first thing I thought, ‘even if the government will forcibly evacuate us, I am not going home.’”

Libyans became violent in the morning. When she and the company driver were to buy groceries in a nearby store, she saw armed civilians who shot a van full of people.

“It was a horrific scene. There were people inside and the armed civilians continuously shot the van with their long firearms. You could see blood dripping to the floor from the van. The driver immediately pulled me back to our gates. From then on, I have had not a good sleep for a long time.”

War about to break

Armando Labalan Jr. was a pipefitter in Sirti, a six to eight-hour ride to Tripoli. He was far from the chaos, but he knew what was happening and about to happen in their city a few days from then on.

“There were no bombings in our area, we were at peace. But we were also praying that nothing like Tripoli and Benghazi will happen to us.”

Sirti is a small city with large plantations occupying in it. They were not allowed to go out in the morning or even at night. If they were to buy food and things urgently needed, their employers ordered them to go out in groups, around 10 up.

“Civilians were mean, even the teenagers. If they wish to kill you, they would. Everybody in Libya has high-powered weapons. I do not go out very often unless there is a need for me to do so. But I always stay at home and listen to the news. I made sure I was updated.”

He knew war was about to break in Sirti too because his employer was asked to flee from the area.

Alert Level 4

On July 21, 2014, the Department of Foreign Affairs announced alert level 4 throughout Libya. Gonmaris belonged to the second batch of the OFWs who fled from the war-torn country.

From Tripoli, they traveled hours to reach the border between Libya and Tripoli. Airports in Libya, especially in Tripoli and Benghazi were all shut down because of rebels shooting missiles to airplanes flying.

“I was scared that I might not see my country, my children, my mother again. When our plane stopped in Dubai, it was only then I breathed out relief and broke down to tears,” Gonmaris told Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro.

Armando, on the other hand, was one of those who did not make pit-stop at the Philippine Embassy in Libya. “There was no time and embassies were near chaos. Exchange of fires was in heat there,” he said.

From Sirti, Armando and 13 other Filipinos traveled to Benghazi to take Libyan Airlines. “It was quite safe to travel at night. It was like they were in ceasefire at that time. But we were still scared. Usually, militants aimlessly fire at anyone or anything they see. Sometimes, they abduct too.”

From Benghazi, they made pit-stop in Turkey, then in Hongkong and finally, arrived in the country.

Relief assistance

A relief assistance has been ordered for distribution to all OFWs from Libya. Each would receive P10,000 from Overseas Workers Welfare Administration (OWWA). Only those who traveled from July 20 and beyond are qualified to get the assistance.

Armando and Gonmaris both received the money, but swore they would use it to go back to Libya, if things will go well there or in other countries where there could be work for them.

Currently, Armando drives a family-owned taxi where he gets money for his family’s daily needs and Gonmaris, a single-mother who lives in Kitaotao town in Bukidnon pours her time attending to her three children.

Armando is applying for jobs online and Gonmaris is scheduled to go back to Manila and start from scratch though she waits for a call from her agency to send her off to Cyprus as a housekeeper.

Best jobs

Both still think that they had the best jobs in the world amid the war.

In May of this year, Libya was rocked by loyalists of ousted leader Moammar Gadhafi who have recently invaded main cities like Tripoli and Benghazi. Recently, Libyan Airlines is no longer accommodating international flights.

Behind every relief assistance distributed by Owwa is a story of every OFW who still wish to go back to Libya.

They all share a common regret since the Philippines which is not at war can never compensate them well despite where they work region war looms.

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on August 24, 2014.

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