The next morning, she moved the pickup truck round and onto the road. She was wearing her hijab, tightly wrapped so only her eyes showed. She waited and saw Jean-Claude and Edge walk out to the pickup. They were both wearing shemaghs and Jean-Claude was wearing a pair of khaki cargo trousers. Edge had elected to wear ancient worn French combat fatigues and discreetly carried an M16 with an underslung grenade launcher. Afarin got in the cab and Jean-Claude got in the driving seat. Edge clambered in the back and put his rifle out of view but to hand. Afarin’s carbine was in the footwell of the passengers’ side.
They drove to Sirte on the same road she had followed the day before. It took around four hours until they entered the suburbs of the coastal city and saw the signs of the rebel forces, their technicals and tanks.
“I had no idea this country was so large,” Jean-Claude observed.
“Tell me about it. On the map it looked no distance from where the boat dropped me off to Abugrein. It was bloody miles. How are we doing for fuel?”
“Half full,” he said.
“I’d fill it up at that petrol station over there.”
While he was filling the pickup and talking to Edge, she went inside and bought three bottles of water from the chiller. She took them back to their wagon and offered one up to Edge.
“Why thank you, Ma’am,” he said as he took it. She could have sworn there was an amused gleam in his eyes, as though… As though he recognised her, despite the hijab.
Jean-Claude moved the vehicle away from the pumps and they sat and drank the water.
“We got our orders this morning. Came in on the Codan Communications 6110-MP, a bloody heavy radio that I lugged in. The SAS guys have another one, so we have redundancy.”
“To whom do you communicate? Surely it doesn’t have the range to reach the UK?”
He took another mouthful of Coke and belched after drinking it, “There’s a SF command cell that’d been set up on HMS Ocean. They can relay everything on to GCHQ.”
“What were your, therefore my orders?” she asked.
“To rendezvous with a rebel group and offer help in both the material and intelligence. They were talking about using British, French and American air power in support of the rebels.”
“That’s a fucking stupid plan and risks destabilising the whole country. This isn’t just about the Europeans saving the Tuaregs from themselves, is it? This is about getting rid of Ghedaffi for providing arms to terrorist groups in the eighties and the Pan Am bomb, although that was almost certainly carried out by Hezbollah.”
“Oil,” John-Claude “It’s about the 48 billion barrels of Libyan oil that is ripe for development.”
“Why the hell do we bother about some tin-pot dictator who likes young girls and farts a lot? Why not Burma, why not the Chinese, Saudi Arabians or North Koreans? I hadn’t realised just how stupid David Cameron was, along with that dreadful French popinjay, granny-worrier and that corrupt bloody Kenyan whose arse is in the White House.”
Jean-Claude squeezed her leg, high up on her thigh, “That’s because you think like a soldier. We have to think like politicians.”
“So, what is your mission, Mr Politician?”
“We need to make ourselves known to a certain Abdelhakim Belhaj who heads up the rebel forces here in Serte. He is a Libyan politician and military leader, the leader of the conservative Islamist al-Watan Party and former head of the Tripoli Military Council. He was the emir of the defunct Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, an anti-Gaddafi guerrilla group. As of June 2017, following the 2017 Qatar diplomatic crisis, Belhadj was placed on a terrorist watchlist on suspicion of terrorism and terrorist related activities with ties to Qatari support for such, by a number of nations, which include, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Libya’s Tobruk government, as some supporting this claim.”
“And those are the kind of people you do business with, Jean-Claude? It will sully you. We should all have a tete-a-tete before we start poking our noses in rebel business. Edge isn’t just a hired gun, he’s a senior soldier who, if necessary, will give up his life for us. He needs to be kept up to date so he can carry out his own risk assessment.”
“You are a wonderful person, Afarin. Caring and thoughtful. Let’s have that tete-a-tete now.”
“Clothes shopping after it and then the rebels.”
He smiled, “Get a slinky little number that sticks to your curves.”
The two of them got out of the cab and Jean-Claude explained their mission to Edge. He could tell by the look of the soldier’s face that he wasn’t enamoured with the plan but kept his powder dry. They drove into central Sirte and Afarin spotted a clothes shop.
“Be as quick as I can.”
Jean-Claude parked up and got out to speak with Edge.
“Where’s she going?” Edge asked.
“To buy some clothes.”
“Oh God, you can’t be serious!”
Edge nodded and smoked a cigarette thoughtfully. Finally, it was as though he had come to a decision.
“Mr Mortimer, your interpreter. I think I know her.”
“Oh, really? Please feel free to call me Jean-Claude.”
“Yes, err Jean-Claude. I can’t remember her name, but I’m pretty sure she was one of the watchers in Basra. She found the RAF loadmaster in the jumble of streets and slums, and we went in and rescued him. She was if I recall, an extremely beautiful girl.”
“And now she’s an extremely beautiful woman,” Jean-Claude said, slightly wistfully.
Edge smiled and looked out along the road, “You’re an item, aren’t you?”
“What do you mean, Edge?”
“I mean you disappearing last night. I’m only surprised your organisation allowed it, you and her on the same op.”
“They didn’t know and the first I know she was here was when she phoned me on the sat phone, already here. She was dropped off by navy boat. But yes, I look after her and love her, even though she is a wayward, cantankerous, irritating bloody woman.”
“Will you do me a favour please, Jean-Claude?”
“I’d rather Mr Jarvis didn’t know. He and she were in the same patrol vehicle in Afghanistan, and he developed rather a “thing” for her.”
“We will be discretion itself.”
After about thirty minutes, they saw a woman come out of the shop, shrouded from head to foot in white silk. She was wearing sandals and carried a basket on her head. They watched approvingly as the woman shimmied across the road and walked past the pickup.
“Going my way, boys?”
“My God. What are you wearing?” Jean-Claude asked her.
“The Farrashia. It is traditional attire that Libyan women used to wear outside the house. It is a one-piece costume mostly made of silk and comes in different colours most popular is the white colour, which is for casual wear, besides the yellowish silky one which is worn by brides or for special occasions.”
“It looks nice, very demure. What are you wearing underneath it?”
“Absolutely nothing apart from my Glock. It’s silk and feels wonderful against my skin.”
“What’s in the basket?”
“Two Jards or “Holy.” They are traditional Libyan costume for men, the simplest item of clothing possible. It’s a single length of fabric, about 4-6 × 1.5 m in length, it spans all Libyan society, from middle-class citizens to billionaires, including the rulers.
“In the old days, the Jard was used for clothing, bedding, and as a tent when travelling. It was even very handy in getting water from the well, whereas these days it is mostly present in festivals and special occasions, including weddings. When the bride leaves her parents’ home, it is customary to hold up her father’s Holy as a passage to pass under it, along with other customs that some still maintain to this day. There’s one for you and another for Julian.
“For you Hereford boys, there are two Keffiyeh. Your issue ones are a bit military and an agal is often used to keep it in place. Try yours on, Edge.”
He did and held it in place with the agal.
“I look like Lawrence of Arabia.”
She showed Jean-Claude how to put on and wear the Jard.
“It’s much more comfortable in the heat of the desert, rather than Western clothes.”
“Tell me again what you’ve got on under that farrashia.”
“I’ll show you tonight if you’re good, then you can be bad.”
“How do you propose we get to speak to Mr Abdelhakim Belhaj?” he asked.
“I get out of the pickup, walk to one of the vehicles check points and ask where he is and if we can see him. Let’s keep it simple.”
And so, they did. They followed a hunch and drove towards the airport and sure enough there were two tanks and several rebels guarding the road. They stopped about fifty metres away and with Afarin just behind, Jean-Claude walked to the checkpoint.
Afarin put her hand on her heart and looked down politely, “Please sir, my master wishes to speak with Mr Abdelhakim Belhaj, peace and blessings be upon him.”
“And who are you?”
“My master represents the British government and has urgent communication to be passed from Britain to Abdelhakim Belhaj. I am merely an interpreter and of no consequence.”
“And the man in the rear of the vehicle?”
“He is our bodyguard. He is armed but will not accompany us if Mr Belhaj agrees to see us.”
The uniformed rebel went into a building to use either a phone or radio. When he came out, he spoke to Afarin.
“You may go. Follow that pickup.”
It was disconcerting to have a technical’s heavy machine gun pointed at them, but it was a short ride to the airport buildings. Jean-Claude took off his Glock and holster and Afarin her knife, but she made no attempt to remove her Glock, the holster under breasts. They got out leaving Edge to his lonely vigil.
“Good luck,” he said, and they went inside the terminal building.
They were told to wait in a small, claustrophobic room with harsh lights, but no windows and ventilation. They sat on the hard chairs and waited… And waited. Eventually an officer and two armed rebels appeared and indicated that they should follow him. Outside a room on the top floor they were searched, in Afarin’s case only desultorily, so they never found the Glock. They were shown into a large room overlooking the airfield. A man wearing an army uniform looked at them. He was flanked by two more officers and soldiers guarded the doors.
He was of middle age, short hair and a well sculpted beard, totally looking the part in his officer’s uniform. He looked at them with a mixture of curiosity and contempt. Afarin was positioned slightly behind Jean-Claude, and she bowed respectfully.
“Assalamu alaikum,” she said, and he nodded to her
“Good afternoon, sir. My name is Mortimer and perhaps it would help if I explained to you why we are here.”
“I’m all ears,” he said once Afarin had translated.
“I represent Her Majesty’s government and we are here to offer you assistance in the removal of Muammar Gaddafi.”
“Indeed? And what’s in it for us?”
“Initially, we can offer military assistance with a generous trade deal after hostilities.”
“Military assistance? What constitutes “military assistance” my English friend?”
“We have a ship ready in Italy with uniforms, body armour and communications devices.”
Belhaj laughed, “We have all the uniforms we need, provided by our Qatari brothers. They also provide us with weapons and all you can offer is some uniforms and radios. Do you know anything about me, Mr Mortimer?”
“I know you were arrested in 2004…”
“No, Mr Mortimer! I was illegally detained in Bangkok and returned to Libya with my wife by extraordinary rendition. Despite Fatima being five months pregnant, we were both tortured, while Americans and British intelligence agents in hoods told them what questions to ask. And now you come grovelling to me with an offer of a trade deal and a few uniforms. I should shoot both of you here and now!”
Afarin was translating frantically, working out how she could get to her Glock.
“Can the Qataris offer air power? Our fighter bombers are based in Italy and can strike anywhere in the country.”
“Prove it. There is a Libyan navy corvette in Sirte docks, and it is causing problems to our troops and ships. Sink it and then we’ll discuss it. Now if you would be so good as to leave me.”
When they got out into the afternoon sunlight, Afarin realised that under her farrashia, she was lathered in sweat. When they got to their pickup, a rebel technical was waiting to escort them off the airport.
“Dear God, that was intense.” Jean-Claude said.
“I was getting worried. Their soldiers kept prowling around the pickup.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Afarin said in a small voice.
They drove back into Sirte to look at the docks and the Libyan corvette. She asked Jean-Claude to stop opposite a narrow alley.
“Because I’m desperate for a piss and I’ll never make the desert. I kept it in during the meeting, but I can’t hold out any longer.”
When she got back in, she was noticably shaking, “I.. I thought they were going to kill us.”
Jean-Claude took her hand in both of his, until she had calmed down, “Afarin, why do you put yourself through this?”
“Because I have nothing else and I was selected. Just you. Please look after me.”
“I will, I swear to you.”
They recced the corvette and headed back to their base. That night, Jean-Claude was on the Codan Communications 6110-MP, giving coordinates and a description of the target, then he went to see Afarin. He got undressed and slid into her sleeping bag.
“What a bloody day!” she said and kissed him.
“I can’t stay long in case something comes in on the radio.”
She reached down and felt him, “What a shame to waste that. No keeping the British end up tonight.”
“I’m sorry. Tomorrow we will all go, and Julian can meet Abdel Hakim Belhadj. And when we get back, I’ll leave you smoking in bed. You can have a cigarette as well if you like.”
As he put his boots back on, he winced.
“I’ve got an infected toenail. It’s bloody painful.”
“You must ask Edge to look at it. Promise?”
That night they were woken by jet engines, anti-aircraft fire and a deep boom from the direction of Sirte. It was the start of the air campaign.
© Blown Periphery 2022