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Why we fled Libya

By Yusra Tekbali, Special to CNN
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American evacuee is happy but feels torn
  • Yusra Tekbali: We've spent three days aboard U.S. evacuation ferry
  • She says her family decided to leave after hearing Gadhafi's threats
  • Passengers describe clashes between protesters and Libyan security forces

Editor's note: Yusra Tekbali, a freelance journalist, filed this piece before a U.S.-chartered ferry evacuating people from Libya left Friday for Malta. Born in Woodland, California, to Libyan parents, she graduated from The University of Arizona with degrees in journalism and Near Eastern studies.

Aboard the U.S. evacuation ship (CNN) -- I've been in Tripoli for nearly three months; the past three days have felt about that long. We have been stuck on a boat bound for Malta that couldn't leave port because of heavy winds and waves as high as 9 meters.

As the boat sat in Tripoli Harbor, not far from the Green Square, which just a few days ago was packed with pro-Moammar Gadhafi protesters attempting to drown out the escalating opposition to the regime, images from movies continuously crossed my mind: That scene in "Titanic" where everyone scrambles to get off the boat, "Speed 2" and an imagined James Bond flick to be set in Libya.

That third movie is not even in pre-production, though I call dibs to star as the Bond girl. As for Bond, well, he must be tripping on Gadhafi's speech, because he has yet to show up. I have a feeling Libya's revolution will go on without him, though I didn't hear it from Jamahiriya TV.

Aboard this ship, many of us continued to follow the People's Movement, huddling around one computer we took turns sharing, as someone read Twitter feeds and news headlines aloud rather quickly before the internet cut off again.

Libyan-Americans are the most concerned. We keep asking each other if we've heard any news from friends or family around Tripoli, and where the latest violence took place.

My family -- including my mom, two of my sisters and my brother -- are on this ferry with 300 other people. Before boarding we were cooped up in our house, glued to several news stations (except Al-Jazeera Arabic which we couldn't get) and wondering if the gunshots we heard overhead would hit us.

Even then we had no intention of leaving Tripoli. We wanted to witness history, and it felt wrong -- especially for my mom -- to leave the rest of our family and other Libyans behind. We changed our mind after Gadhafi addressed the country and alarmed the world in his speech on Monday.

We felt his threats in our bones, and it hit us: This man will massacre and burn the entire city.
--Yusra Tekbali

We felt his threats in our bones, and it hit us: This man will massacre and burn the entire city. On Tuesday at 5 a.m. my brother was watching CNN, which reported a U.S. Embassy boat would be in Tripoli in a few hours to evacuate American citizens. We barely had enough time to pack and make it over to the harbor, only to wait around until 6 p.m. to actually board the boat.

That's when we were told it wouldn't leave because of severe winds. Three days on a small boat in the heart of town during a war is not an ideal place to be.

"We feel like sitting ducks," one passenger said, yet we also feel safer knowing we are protected by U.S. personnel.

We've been living off of cold sandwiches, chocolate and potato chips, (the food available on deck) and trying to think of options other than just sitting there to pass the time. Most people sleep very little, scrunched up in their chairs or lying on the floor, covering themselves with sweaters or sharing blankets.

We've all gotten to know each other. Libyan-Americans are especially eager to exchange stories about what they've seen and heard. Tareq, from Houston, says he joined the protesters in Gergarish on Sunday and Monday night, the first and second day of the uprising. He saw young men burn Gadhafi's picture and throw rocks and shoes at billboards displaying the number 41, the number of years he has been in power.

"They were throwing rocks at it so hard it sounded like guns," he said. "When the police showed up, they fired at us. I'd never heard an automatic rifle up close before. It's really intimidating."

Some of Gadhafi's thugs posed as anti-government protesters and told men on the street to join them, he said. A protester I interviewed earlier confirmed that, saying they were spreading rumors that Gadhafi had left the country.

A Libyan man from Dubai said he couldn't reach his hotel that same night because it was blockaded by military closing in on around 100 anti-regime protesters who set trash cans and photos of Gadhafi on fire. He heard machine-gun fire and saw three government land cruisers drive by. Two of the three cars were filled with African mercenaries, and the third seemed to be Eastern Europeans, he said. All the men carried AK-47s, he said.

Saleh, a Libyan-American working in Tripoli, took part in the protests at the Green Square. He was attacked by Gadhafi's militia and fled the scene.

"I ended up having to hide out in an alleyway all night because I could hear them searching for us," he said. On the first night the protesters in the Green Square thought they were victorious because they had driven out some of Gadhafi's thugs. Then the military showed up and started attacking protesters, who fled to different areas.

Saleh and Tareq both confirm reports that help from Benghazi is on the way. "We are united. There is a plan, and the people of Libya are not giving up."

An American from Wisconsin overhears our conversation and expresses his support for the protesters, saying Gadhafi's end is "imminent."

"Pardon the metaphor," he says, "but Gadhafi is gonna go down like a sinking ship."

Let's just hope that's the only "ship" that sinks.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Yusra Tekbali.

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