Friends help Western Isles teacher to escape Libyan chaos

A RELIEVED but heartbroken Barra teacher returned to the island on Monday after fleeing the violence of Libya.

MaryJo Gillies has been living and working in the country for the last year but took her chance to flee on Saturday after a terrifying week hauled up in her Zawiyah home.

The town, just 30 miles from the capital city of Tripoli, has been taken over by the people but is surrounded by Gaddafi loyalists making it difficult and incredibly dangerous to leave.

MaryJo told the Gazette that her students had risked their lives to help her leave the country: “They took a car to Tripoli and lied about where they were from. To get there they had to go through shotgun fire and tanks, it was just horrific.”

She added: “That is what they are like and what they do. If you say thank you they get embarrassed; they are exceptionally nice people, they don’t think anything of doing things like that.”

The students and MaryJo were stopped numerous times on the way to the airport and questioned at gunpoint before finally making it to the airport where she boarded an Air Bucharest flight to Gatwick.

With mixed feelings, MaryJo returned to the UK but still fears what her friends face back in Libya.

“It was excrutiating to leave friends behind and especially when I only got out because of them.”

She continued: “Where I was living in Libya, it wasn’t with other ex-pats. Where I was, you don’t hear any English spoken, my neighbours and my friends are Libyan.”

Teaching in the country for a year, MaryJo had recently begun training teachers with a new methodology to improve standards of education.

She spoke of Gaddafi’s contradictory language when calling for improvements to education on one hand and preventing it on another.

MaryJo spent the last week closed away in her apartment with only a laptop for company. With just a few bananas to survive on, she is grateful for the support of her Libyan boss who came to check on her.

“I had bananas and that was it, my boss came from his home to check on me. I felt sick most of the time so I couldn’t eat anyway. I was so thankful of my internet connection and I just literally just sat there and wrote. I couldn’t go close to the window incase I got shot and I couldn’t secure my back door.”

She added that being on her own though was easier than you might think.

“I’m looking at women with wee kids and thinking it is easier if you are on your own. My friend who is married to a Libyan has two children under three and she is only 23 herself.”

She said sadly that on last speaking to her friend, she heard the children crying in the background as they were running out of food.

She explained that the reality and danger of the situation became more and more apparent to her during the week as the violence spread and lives were lost close by.Eighteen boys were shot in our square, my boss’ son was there but he wasn’t shot, they are shooting them in the face, in the brain.”

Another person was shot across the yard of MaryJo’s home.

She added that she herself had been in danger when she popped her head out the door and the notorious Gadaffi ‘Toyota people’ who carry out indiscriminate drive-by shootings saw her.

Luckily they seemed in a hurry to move and continued on their way.

For the people of Libya, the prospect of freedom seems within touching distance but MaryJo added that amidst the jubilation of the areas falling from Gadaffi’s power, the atmosphere is very tense.

The fear felt by the Libyan people when even hearing the name Gadaffi is also felt by MaryJo.

“He is terrifying, I can’t even bring myself to write his name in an email, I’m that scared. We just call him ‘G’.”

MaryJo’s family are of course relieved to see her home but she explains that both her mother, sister and daughter have all travelled across the Middle East over the years and that they have a great respect for the Arab people.

Eventually landing back in the UK, Maryjo’s problems were not over as she found herself penniless after the Bureau de Change at Gatwick refused to accept her Libyan dinars and she was forced to borrow money to make it north to Scotland.

Maryjo is quick to point out that the support and effort from island politicians Angus MacNeil and his wife Jane MacNeil and Alasdair Allan MSP was ‘absolutely brilliant’.

Their teams were in constant touch with the Foreign Office and the Embassy for the last three days and are delighted that Maryjo has now reached back home.

Angus MacNeil said this week he was glad to have been able to help.

“It was an alarming situation with Zawiyah where she was a real hotspot. There were shootings going on in the main square and people were being killed. I have to commend Alistair Burn in the Foreign Office for his effort. From then on efforts were made to get her out.”

Back home in Barra, MaryJo is looking forward to a stodgy meal and some well earned rest.

However she is keen to return to Libya and is praying for peace and freedom for the people she left behind.

“When I was leaving, my boss said ‘you have to come back’,” she added, “All your shoes are here!”

“I had to leave behind my shoe collection and he is keeping them safe for me.”