Lobdell: Newport resident recounts tale of Libya's unrest

Just 10 days ago, I received an upbeat e-mail from Libya. Dave Peterson, a married Newport Beach father of three and casual acquaintance of mine, thought I might be interested in what he was witnessing in Tripoli.

Dave, 51, who works as the project director for a $200-million hotel project there, said that despite the unrest in eastern Libya, Tripoli, the Libyan capital, at the time appeared safe.

"The demonstrations in Tripoli have been all pro-government," he wrote. "The people in Tripoli seem to support Kadafi. This is truly a socialist state. The people get a monthly stipend, goods and services are subsidized (it costs $8 to fill the Hyundai Tucson I drive here), and government workers get interest-free, 100-year loans. At passport control in the Tripoli Airport is a large sign that reads 'Partners not Wage Earners.'"

Dave's apartment is about 150 yards from Green Square, where he said pro-government crowds of 3,000 had been gathered each day.

"If you think the Fourth of July display over the Back Bay is impressive, well, you've not seen the Green Square in February!" he wrote. "I went out a couple nights with a co-worker who is an ex-professional rugby player from the U.K. to check things out. We were the only two obvious foreigners and attracted a little attention, but we didn't feel threatened. I want to emphasize that at no time since the demonstrations started in Tripoli have I felt particularly unsafe."

The next day, it all changed.

His wife of 27 years, Anne, e-mailed him from Newport Beach and gave him the latest news of the growing rebellion. With only state television newscasts to watch, Dave couldn't get a good sense of what was really happening — or if he was in danger and needed to flee the country.

Through a series of e-mail exchanges with his wife, some delayed because of spotty Internet service, Dave developed a contingency plan. He would contact the U.S. Embassy and move at daybreak to a friend's apartment three miles from Green Square.

Soon enough, Dave saw first-hand that the violence had reached Tripoli.

"Wow, the [stuff] hit the fan in a hurry there," Dave wrote in a later e-mail to me. "I was awakened by chaos and machine-gun fire."

Embassy officials told him, in so many words, that he was on his own.

Dave e-mailed back, "Thanks for nothing," though later he told me, "I don't think that anyone is to blame at the Embassy, they were probably doing the best they could and in the end, they arranged the ferry that got me to Malta. I told Anne that the situation is similar to hikers that get lost and expect the Forest Service to rescue them. I put myself into that situation, and I am thankful that they were there to help me out."

His company chartered a 737 airliner to fly out employees, but it wasn't allowed to land at the Tripoli airport. Then Dave heard the U.S. government had chartered a ferry to get the Americans out of the country.

During the week, Anne and her three daughters (21, 18 and 15) monitored news reports on CNN and the BBC and tried not to panic when they didn't hear from Dave for 48 hours because of Internet and cell phone interruptions.

"I was glued to the TV, but I wasn't given any answers to my questions," said Anne, adding that the BBC had the best and most accurate coverage.

Still, she always had the sense that her husband would escape safely. She just didn't know when.

"In my heart, I knew Dave was going to get out," said Anne, who talked with family and friends, took walks and attended yoga classes to reduce the stress caused by worry and little sleep. "He's smart and well-traveled. Still, it's really unnerving."

At last, Anne and her daughters got news that Dave was on the ferry, but even then, Anne's mind kept wandering to scary places — like was Khadafi crazy enough to order an air attack on the ferry?

"We went to the ferry Wednesday … we then sat in the harbor for two days waiting for the weather to clear," Dave wrote. "We had a lot of security outside the ferry. We left under very heavy seas, about a third of the passengers were sick — some very sick (and loud about it). We had an eight-hour voyage and arrived in Malta to press and aid workers."

Dave is scheduled to be back at his Baycrest home in Newport Beach on Thursday, but he wants to return to Libya. (Dave landed a job in the Middle East several years ago when the commercial real estate industry in Southern California dried up.)

"When the shooting stops and it is safe, I have already told my company I will go back," Dave wrote. "I believe when Kadafi is gone, Libya will be a much better place. To tell the truth, I had never felt unsafe until Sunday night. We stayed in apartments, stayed away from windows and tried to figure out how we were getting out."

Dave finished by turning his attention to the Libyans left behind.

"This isn't just about me getting out safe," Dave wrote. "The Libyan people are getting massacred for asking for a better way of life. There is no education, little opportunity for the Libyans.

"I think they were spurred on by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. I had some Libyans who worked for me and others that I got to know at restaurants and the gym I went to, and I can't imagine what they are going through right now."

WILLIAM LOBDELL — a former editor of the Daily Pilot and Los Angeles Times journalist — is a Costa Mesa resident who runs a boutique public relations firm. His column runs Tuesday and Friday. His e-mail is williamlobdell@gmail.com.

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