Saturday, April 01, 2006

Tobruk war cemeteries, Libya

The day began with a flat battery on the truck. We all gathered behind the vehicle and pushed - slightly uphill - to try and give it a push start. As we heaved together, the truck edged forwards then sputtered into life. It didn't seem like a push start... then the drivers faces appeared, beaming and shouting: "April Fools!"

Cheeky so and sos.

In the border town of Salum we bought food and sat down to have a tea in a local cafe. The locals loved having their photos taken, so we were happy to oblige.

We spent a few hours crossing the borders, first to get out of Egypt then to get in to Libya. On the Libyan side, first impressions were very good - immaculately clean loos and friendly, chatty, border guards. Finally, after amusing ourselves watching a large woman trying to smuggle more than half a dozen cartons of cigarettes in her tights and bra, we crossed.

Lunch was taken off the truck. We set the tables up on the first patch of ground we could find that our local guide, Bilal, felt was suitable. It was a wasteground, strewn with rubbish. After lunch, as we drove on, it soon became very apparent that rubbish is everywhere. The first few hundred kilometres we drove today were unremarkable geographically - uniformly flat, rocky and generally featureless - but also uniformly spread with rubbish. Plastic bag trees seem to outnumber most other species.

I guess throw-away consumerism with its plastic containers and single-use cans has spread here faster than centralised services to collect and process the waste. It's a mess, and perhaps I am giving people too much credit by trying to find a process reason for the mess instead of 'dirty' people, but it's important to look deeper than the first impression. In general the Libyans seem at least as friendly and hygienic as the Egyptians, if not more so.

The cemeteries of Tobruk are moving in the way that all such monumental graveyards are. We visited two sites, each of which holds more than 2000 men. Such a waste. Until this visit, though, I must confess that I had only the vaguest concepts of Rommel, Montgomery and the aims and details of the North African battles. It makes a little more sense now - the importance of the Suez Canal and control of the Mediterranean is clear. The loss of life has always been tragic.

The terrain here, near the northern coast also makes sense as a theatre of war. Further south are vast expanses of sand. Near the coast you could be resupplied by sea and El Alamein was a natural pinch point and site for the decisive battle since the rocky plains are bound by the sheer cliffs of the Qattara depression just 50km south of the coast, south of those cliffs is marshy or sandy ground, difficult to traverse.

We finished looking around the second, 'Knightsbridge', cemetery at sunset and the caretaker offered to let us camp just behind the graveyard. Lunch on a wasteground and sleeping next to the dead (with a cold and sandy wind freezing our fingers and scraping at our eyes). A classy start to the Libyan experience.

For more photos of Tobruk, take a look at my flickr set: Tobruk


At 6:38 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, beautiful photography. i'm a professional photographer myself, and loved your work. really wonderfull.
will bookmark your page and read your essays when I have time.
from iran

At 11:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw Tobruk harbour many years, nay eons ago. Above the harbour looking east, there were the badges of all the regiments of the British and Dominion Armies whose men had fought and died defending the town. I' m told that these were blasted off the hills some years ago. Is this true?
C.A.T, Leicestershire.


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