[Viewpoint] Sohail’s prayer for a free nation

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[Viewpoint] Sohail’s prayer for a free nation

“Can we pretend that airplanes in the night sky are like shooting stars. I could really use a wish right now.”

“Airplane” by American singer and rapper Bobby Ray was a big hit in Europe last year. As the car was dashing across the Libyan desert, the stereo was blasting the song. College student Sohail, 23, was shaking his head to the beat of the music as he drove.

It was March 10 and we were on the way to Ras Lanuf, the front line where the pro-Qaddafi forces and the anti-Qaddafi forces were clashing. We were entering the region where fighter jets were flying across the sky to carry out airstrikes and pop music was roaring from the car stereo. It was ironic, and even surreal, to be listening to Bobby Ray’s “Airplane” under the bombers flying overhead.

I first met Sohail in Benghazi, a stronghold of the anti-government forces in Libya. He was busy going around meeting foreign journalists and showing them the videos he had taken with his cellular phone. He had captured the moment when Qaddafi’s troops opened fire indiscriminately on civilians in downtown Benghazi on the night of Feb. 19.

In the video, the sound of gunfire continued endlessly. Sohail said one of his friends was killed on the spot. He attempted to upload the video on YouTube to let the world know of the situation in Libya but the government had cut off the Internet connection, so he was showing the video in person to as many journalists as possible.

I asked him to find a car and a driver to take me to Ras Lanuf. I had contacted a number of taxi drivers but they all refused, saying a trip to Ras Lanuf means risking their lives. Sohail said he would take me there personally, adding, “I want to go to the action front myself.”

The next morning, he showed up driving an Audi. The German car was rather old but could reach up to 200 kilometers per hour (124 mph) without trouble. He said the car was his own.

During the 900-kilometer trip from Benghazi to Ras Lanuf and then back to Benghazi, we spent about nine hours in the car together. We talked much about our personal lives.

With dark eyebrows and a well-defined nose, Sohail was a good-looking young man. He was a senior at the engineering school at the University of Garyounis in Benghazi, the biggest university in Libya. Both of his parents are doctors and he has traveled to Italy, Turkey and Egypt. He also spoke very good English.

At first, I wondered why such a privileged young man would want to go to a place where bullets were flying but as we talked I found the answer.

He asked me many questions about Korea. “Is the president of Korea elected by the people?” “Are young Koreans allowed to be in love freely and get married at will?” “Are there clubs where people can listen to music and dance?” Ever since Sohail was born Muammar el-Qaddafi has been the head of state. But as he traveled abroad he realized that a country where young women are not allowed to walk freely on the street and where there are no places to listen to music and dance, was not normal. What he desperately needed was “liberty.”

In Egypt, right next to Libya, I met a number of young men who shared the same thoughts as Sohail. Many of the student protesters are from middle-class families and go to top universities. Well-educated young men and women who have had exposure to the outside world from overseas travel and the Internet are coming out to the square, and now, it won’t be easy to hinder them.

I haven’t been able to talk to Sohail on the phone for a few days now. The Qaddafi government may have severed the international phone connection or maybe his phone has a problem. There is no way of knowing what has happened to him.

Just as in the lyrics of “Airplane,” the missiles of the coalition forces and the air defense artilleries of the Qaddafi’s forces are falling like shooting stars over Libya. I hope that Sohail is well and alive, praying for a free nation as he looks up to the night sky.

*The writer is the Paris correspondent of the JoongAng Ilbo.

By Lee Sang-eon
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