MOUNT VERNON — The violence in Libya continues as the people struggle to overthrow dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The uprising began in Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, and it remains a stronghold for anti-Gadhafi forces.
For Mount Vernon resident Kai Schoenhals, the news from Libya brings back interesting memories — he visited Benghazi in 1983, and actually met Gadhafi.
The man we see on the news today is not the man Schoenhals met, he told the News.
“I recently listened to Gadhafi’s speech at the U.N., which was totally incomprehensible. I think he has Alzheimer’s, really. I think his mind is totally gone, which was not the case back in ’83,” Schoenhals said. “He wasn’t insane in the beginning. In my book, at the time he was one of the better Arabic rulers. When he first took power, [in 1969] he used the oil money to help the people. Anyone who wanted to was sent all the way for free through the university. And Gadhafi would even pay Libyans to study abroad. Plus, he felt nobody should worry about housing, so he gave every Libyan citizen who was in need a house or an apartment for free. Those are things that are never mentioned. ... I feel that if he had not done some positive things for Libya in the beginning, he would never have lasted 43 years.”
Now, Schoenhals said, Gadhafi has become a totally corrupt, miserable head of state and should be overthrown as soon as possible.
Schoenhals said Gadhafi was always sort of “eccentric” and historically did not get along well with other world leaders.
“When he first took over, one of the first things he did was to close down the biggest American Air Force base in the world,” he explained. “That didn’t endear him to the U.S. government at all, of course. Plus the fact that he was supporting revolutionary organizations all over the world, like the Irish Republican Army. He gave the Sandinista deputy defense minister [whom Schoenhals also met] $5 million to go to Guatemala and start a revolution, but the guy took the $5 million and retired.”
A great admirer of former Egyptian president Gamal Nassar, Gadhafi wanted to unite the whole Arabic world.
“When nobody would listen to him,” Schoenhals said, “he told the Libyans to march into Egypt and take it over. Then-president Anwar Sadat sent soldiers to the frontier to stop the hundreds of thousands of people who were moving across the border. Then he tried the same thing in Tunisia, and the Tunisians sent soldiers to the border.”
Schoenhals said his journey to Libya began when he was on Grenada in April 1983, and he became acquainted with the head of the Libyan People’s Bureau, or embassy, Abdul Attir.
Attir told Schoenhals, a professor of Middle East history at Kenyon College as well as Carribean history, “Wherever we have a People’s Bureau in the world, we’re supposed to send one individual to a conference which Gadhafi is holding at Benghazi on his green book and his thoughts. I can’t find anybody on Grenada who knows anything about Islam or Libya. How would you like to go?”
“I’ll go if you pay my way,” Schoenhals replied.
He reached Benghazi by way of Barbados, London, Frankfurt and Tripoli, and, because all the hotels were full, was housed with other Caribbean representatives on an Italian cruise ship hired by Gadhafi.
“It was a very interesting opportunity to meet all these Caribbean revolutionaries who were being financed by Gadhafi,” Schoenhals remarked. “Not everyone there was a revolutionary, though.”
Every day of the two-week conference heads of state or foreign ministers from various countries sat in the front row. Then, escorted by three female bodyguards, Gadhafi would slip into the back of the room. Schoenhals said he would be dressed in beautiful blue robes, not at all in the uniform we usually see him pictured in.
So, how did Schoenhals meet Gadhafi?
One day a group of Libyan children came to the conference, screaming “Down, down U.S.A!” Upset by that, Schoenhals asked for a microphone.
“Look, if you attack certain aspects of [Ronald] Reagan’s foreign policy,” he told the assembly, “I might join you, but sitting here as an American citizen I find the wholesale denunciation of my country very offensive. If this doesn’t stop I will leave the conference.”
Gadhafi wasn’t there that day but was watching the conference on television. Through an aide, he invited Schoenhals for dinner in his tent.
Schoenhals said they talked through translators about politics and world events: “The first thing he said was, ‘I hate communism and so does Reagan. I don’t understand why Reagan doesn’t like me.’ I asked him ‘What about Israel?’ And he said that Israel has to be liquidated. I said, ‘As long as you feel that, you’re not getting along with any American president.’”
Before Schoenhals left, Gadhafi gave him a T-shirt with his picture on the front and a picture of the Arab world on the back. “He also gave me a green briefcase with his picture on it,” Schoenhals said. “It was a very beautiful briefcase. Can you image walking through American customs with a case like that? I left it in the Caribbean.”
After the conference in Benghazi, Schoenhals spent about five days on the Egyptian-Libyan border. He was also interviewed by an Arabic newspaper.
Now retired, the 77-year-old Schoenhals still conducts one seminar on Caribbean history each fall.