Reports that Libyan militias are threatening the nation’s stability are misleading, according to the heroic pilots who made headlines a year ago when they defected to Malta instead of bombing revolutionaries.
When I chose my country, it was to save as many lives as possible
“The skirmishes you hear about seem to be problems within certain militias, but it’s not large-scale tribal warfare or cities against cities,” Colonel Ali al-Rabti told The Sunday Times.
Colonel Abdullah al-Salheen agrees. “Day by day it’s improving. Our children go to school, most people feel happy and free.”
The men, who became war heroes by refusing to spill blood, returned to Malta yesterday after flight training in France.
They are set to fly the Mirage jets home to Libya on Tuesday, exactly one year on from their feted arrival, which many Libyans acclaim as a decisive moment of the revolution that showed the world Muammar Gaddafi was ordering the slaughter of his own people.
They had been ordered to fly their Mirages to a village called El-Gheryat, 300km south of Tripoli, and fire on “rebels” on the streets.
“We were the first pilots to be asked to undertake such a mission,” Col al-Rabti said.
“As soon as the revolution started we were expecting it and we talked about what we would do.”
They received their orders on the morning of February 21 – the fifth day of the revolution – and they knew they could not carry them out.
Friends for 13 years, Col al-Rabti and Col al-Salheen agreed they would fly to Malta and apply for political asylum. They made hasty preparations to try to protect their families, asking a few trusted friends – including an air force technician – to help them flee to safer areas.
“I felt I had to choose between my country and my family. When I chose my country, it was to save as many lives as possible. Anything could have happened to my family knowing the brutality of the regime... it was without doubt the hardest decision of my life,” Col al-Rabti said, to nods from Col al-Salheen.
Although their defection is hailed as vital in gaining international support for the revolution, both men agreed their primary motivation was that they could not bring themselves to kill innocent people – they were not thinking of the wider international implications.
When they defected – speeding low over the Mediterranean to avoid radar detection – did they ever dream they would one day fly the jets back to a Libya free from the despotic rule of Gaddafi?
“When we made this decision, Gaddafi had a lot of arms, he was very strong and he controlled most of the country. It was not easy to say he would go, but with international support we slowly began to believe it would happen,” Col al-Salheen said.
During their seven months in Malta, they were housed at the Armed Forces of Malta’s Luqa Barracks for their own protection, as there was a genuine fear Libyan agents would attempt to take revenge on them.
In the whole seven months they only left the barracks on four occasions, each time under armed guard.
And although they were able to speak to their families daily, they were naturally worried regime loyalists would find them, especially in the early days when their families were still in areas very much under the control of Gaddafi.
They first returned to Libya to a heroes’ welcome – though they feel awkward when asked if they feel like heroes – on September 18, nearly a month after Tripoli had fallen to the revolutionaries.
Having rejoined the air force, which is now heavily depleted due to the Nato bombing campaign, both colonels are senior instructors and they said they were looking forward to the task of slowly rebuilding the force.
Are they concerned that some militias are still reluctant to join government security forces under a unified command?
“When you think of the upheaval that took place it is evident it will take some time. Most people need to be reassured about what will happen if they join the police force or army. It’s just a question of time,” Col al-Rabti said.
While not attempting to justify confirmed incidences of torture committed by militias on detainees since the downfall of Gaddafi, Col al-Rabti thinks these must be understood in context.
“This is very localised. It is probably a reflection of the things the militia groups have witnessed because maybe their father was killed and their sister was raped. The heads of militia and the government ministries are trying to come to grips with this because it’s a problem,” he concedes.
“Day by day Libya is becoming more united and peaceful,” Col al-Salheen added.
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