SA pair tell of airport hell

2011-02-26 00:00

WITH bodies lying next to the highway, thousands of anxious people trampling each other outside the airport and guards shooting into the air, two South Africans were relieved to make it home from Libya yesterday.

“All we heard all the time was shots,” Francois Potgieter and Lucas Müller said yesterday at O.R. Tambo Airport in Johannesburg, as they were embraced by emotional family members.

Potgieter (46) and Müller (50), who have been doing contract work for KV3 Engineers for the last three years, managed to catch a flight from Tripoli on Thursday morning after spending almost a day at the airport.

They said the violence has reached a new peak in the last few days, with numbers of soldiers defecting to the opposition.

“If you walk in the streets, snipers on the roofs of tall building shoot if you look as if you are going to take a photograph or cause any trouble,” said Potgieter.

He said they got out after their company told them on Wednesday a flight had been arranged to London.

They left for the airport in a convoy of vehicles on Wednesday. “People were leaving their cars on the freeway and walking to the airport, afraid the army would try to stop them. We also had to walk about a kilometre with our luggage,” Müller said. “It was terrible. You mustn’t ask me about bodies. There were a lot,” Potgieter said.

When they arrived at the airport, thousands of people were crowding around with their possessions outside. “People were standing on each other and climbing over each other to try to get inside. We were pushing in bucketing rain. I think we walked over a few bodies. If you fell there, you were dead,” said Potgieter, showing how he protected his head with his arms while pushing through the crowd.

All the while, soldiers were shocking people with cattle prods and beating them with belts.

“Every once in a while, you heard a burst of AK47 fire as they fired into the air. It took us four hours just to get into the building,” said Müller.

They spent a further 12 hours inside, with no food, water or air-conditioning. Eventually, at 6 am on Thursday the plane took off. Of the 180 people who were supposed to fly out, only 29, including 11 South Africans, were on board.

“The soldiers chased the others away outside the airport.”

Müller’s wife Tanja and five-year-old son Nicolas managed, with the help of a member of the Czech consulate, to catch a flight on Tuesday and are currently in Austria. “If it wasn’t for him, they’d probably still be there,” he said. They said there is now “full-scale war” in Libya.

“Please, get the rest of the people out,” they pleaded.

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