Gleeful children played on the oily wooden deck as their parents piled bags on pallets and headed up to the passenger area on the ship due to take 250 foreigners away from the fighting to the rebel center of Benghazi to the east.
“I’m happy to go home to the Philippines,” said 9-year-old Arjan, whose mother worked at Tripoli’s main hospital. “I was frightened by all of the bang-bang.”
The boat, which waited offshore for two nights for the security situation to improve as rebels battled Moammar Gadhafi loyalists around the capital, was due to take out Filipinos, Egyptians, Canadians, Algerians and Moroccans.
A handful of Filipinos were the first to board, their names noted and passports checked. Some were happy, some sad, but all were relieved.
Construction foreman Ramil Nyala, 45, complained that he was leaving Libya empty-handed, without the precious remittances that are key to the Filipino economy.
“I was being paid $600-800 a month, it’s high. But they refused to pay me. I haven’t had work for four months, and I have to pay $350 a month in rent, so my savings are all lost,” he said.
“Libyans are the priority. We couldn’t sleep at night because of the shooting everywhere. I’m happy to go and join my family.”
Dr. Yussef Biuk asked those boarding if they had any diseases or special medical needs for the journey, and gave everyone a seasickness pill.
The chartered Turkish ship, a river ferry, was expected to make the journey in 36 hours instead of the usual 20.
The ship only has four cabins, so most people will make the journey sitting down, armed with the food packages they’ve been given.
“We’re two doctors on board, so I might stay behind to treat people at the hospital. I have friends and relatives here,” Biuk said.
Some of those fleeing Libya said they intend to return, while others were leaving their entire lives behind.
“I’m not sad to leave because I’m coming back,” said fire alarm engineer William Doctor. “I’ll be back in November. Now I’m going to have a little holiday,” he smiled.
Julie, whose husband worked as a “senior production coordinator,” said she was sad to leave after living here since 1982, almost half her life, because “we love Libya.”
“Our children were born and studied here, they speak Arabic and they want to come back.”
Martin Jerrett, IOM head of office in Benghazi, from where the ship’s passengers will travel on to Cairo and elsewhere, said the ship aimed to spread the message that foreigners could get out.
“This journey is to establish our presence, there will be bigger boats coming tomorrow and in two days time, each for 1,000 people,”
“We’re concerned about sub-Saharan Africans because of the perception that they’re mercenaries [who are working for Gadhafi]. They’re the most frightened and least likely to move,” Jerrett said.
Egyptian consul Mohammad Zeid said that 150 of his country’s nationals were expected to travel on the first boat out.