Libya is the latest nation to experience the violent civil unrest that has plagued North Africa since December. But in August 2010 things were much different. In fact, the country was making steps to rectify its long-sullied international image. One of these steps was devising a youth conference to be held in Tripoli. We had wanted to get inside the country for a long time, so when Vice founder Shane Smith learned of the event he submitted his credentials and was invited to take part in the festivities.
It’s notoriously difficult to gain entry into Libya, largely because Moammar Gadhafi has ruled the country with an iron fist since a 1969 coup in which he overtook the former king. Since then Gadhafi has used the nation’s vast oil resources to exert his influence on North Africa and beyond.
What was presented as a nationwide multimedia presentation on Libya’s open-armed embrace of the global youth turned out to be a thinly veiled propaganda symposium where speakers espoused pro-Gadhafi messages and anti-Zionist rhetoric. It was very clear, however, that the event was organized to promote Gadhafi’s goal of creating the United States of Africa—a federation of all or most African countries, which would theoretically operate under a single currency and be chaired by Gadhafi himself.
“We get there and it’s completely disorganized,” Smith said. “They had brought in Libyan citizens who were living in England, America, and Canada to work for the conference. It’s kind of like North Korea in that sense—they have such pull. ‘Oh, you’re Libyan? And you live in London? Well, you have to come back and work.’”
Soon after they arrived, Smith and his crew were assigned minders who watched them closely and dictated their itineraries. After the conference, Smith decided he wanted to take part in some sightseeing in Tripoli and quietly snuck off into the city while the men who were supposed to be watching him were distracted.
When Smith later returned to the hotel his minders were furious. They placed him and his crew under “house arrest” while the conference’s other attendees caught flights back to their respective home countries.
“They were supposed to take the visitors out and do stuff outside of the conference, but they freaked out and wouldn’t let people do almost anything,” Smith said. “So we got our own car and driver, met some media people, and went out to the ruins to shoot. When we arrived they said, ‘How did you get here?’ We just said ‘taxi cab’ and they’re like ‘What!?’”
Days later Smith was still being detained in the luxurious hotel where the conference was held. Security personnel accused him of being a spy and claimed that he would be blacklisted “or worse.”
Luckily Smith brought along some gifts for Gadhafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who they hoped to speak with during their visit.
“Before the trip when we thought we might be able to meet Saif al-Islam,” Smith said. “They told us to bring him New York Knicks and LA Lakers stuff… and little model New York taxicabs. It was ridiculous.”
In an act of resourceful repurposing Smith stuffed cash inside the gift boxes and generously offered them to his minders who then agreed to let him and his crew leave the hotel for a couple hours to eat dinner at a restaurant in Tripoli. Seizing the opportunity, Smith made a mad dash for the airport and safely left the country.
“It’s sort of an exaggeration to say we just took off because you can’t leave Libya unless you have people escort you out,” Smith said. “But I think at that point they were fed up with us. They just wanted us out because they were worried.”