Professor Evacuates From Libya

Thousands of foreigners are attempting to flee the violence in Libya. Helena Sheehan, a professor emeritus at Dublin City University, was someone who managed to make it out. Host Michele Norris talks with Sheehan about her journey.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

We just heard briefly about the chaotic and scary scene for people trying to evacuate Libya. We're going to talk now with someone who did manage to leave the country. Helena Sheehan had gone to Tripoli last week to give a lecture. She's 66 years old and professor emeritus at Dublin City University in Ireland. And just this afternoon, she made it back home safely to Dublin.

Professor HELENA SHEEHAN (Dublin City University): I'm delighted to be home. I don't know when I've ever been so delighted to be home.

NORRIS: How long did it actually take you to get home?

Prof. SHEEHAN: Oh, I went to the airport early yesterday morning and got home here this afternoon.

NORRIS: How long had you been in Tripoli before the chaos started?

Prof. SHEEHAN: Six days.

NORRIS: And you were there to deliver a lecture?

Prof. SHEEHAN: I was there to give a lecture and the lecture was postponed and postponed again. And then my hosts abandoned me.

NORRIS: Who were your hosts and why did they abandon you?

Prof. SHEEHAN: Well, it was Sunday night that they abandoned me. Tripoli, it seemed to be totally pro-Gadhafi city and from Sunday night it all shifted. The anti-government people started coming out and the pro-Gadhafi forces fought back and so all night there was gunfire and burning buildings. So that -everything shifted.

And then I got a call from reception saying the hotel was being evacuated. So I said, I have no place to go, I know nobody here. And so she got me a booking at my own expense at another hotel, which was even closer to the action, actually, in the very center of Tripoli near Green Square. So I moved there. Then I found out that my flight home was cancelled. And the situation kept deteriorating.

NORRIS: How did you actually get to the airport?

Prof. SHEEHAN: Oh, to leave, oh - Tuesday night I got a call from the Department of Foreign Affairs here in Ireland saying that they were sending a small jet to Malta that would hopefully get permission to land in Tripoli to evacuate us. So, you know, there was a thread of hope. And they said, go to the airport in the morning. So I did.

NORRIS: So what was the scene like when you actually got to the airport? What happened? How did you actually get on a flight?

Prof. SHEEHAN: Well, that's the story. I mean, the Tripoli airport is real airport hell. First of all, before you get into the airport, I was stunned by, you know - the way into the airport, there were all of these people camped out in the rain, I don't know for how long, hundreds of people camped out in the rain. I think mostly Egyptians and Tunisians.

And then as you came closer to the airport, just these heaving masses of people trying to get in the airport, hundreds of people trying to get in the airport. And then when you get in the airport, there are thousands of thousands of people in the airport. And to get in there and to try to find who you would ask or what you would do or to whom you could speak, I felt absolutely lost.

And then at some stage, a young Italian woman came up to me and said, where are you from? And I told her. And she said, oh, over there there's a - I hadn't even noticed, there's a group of Irish and British people. And some of them were Irish people, teachers that worked in Libya who were being evacuated in the same flight as me.

So we got through the morass of the airport and got onto the tarmac, got onto one of those buses and circled around for three-quarters of an hour and they couldn't find the plane. And then they brought us back to where we had gone out and they said that it's left without you. You know, an evacuation that didn't evacuate.

NORRIS: Oh my goodness. I can't - I just am trying to imagine what that must've been like for you.

Prof. SHEEHAN: However, the British foreign office people said that they would take us onto their evacuation flight, which would be in some hours.

NORRIS: Now, before, I want to take you back. I want you to describe something for me and for all of our listeners, the feeling when you sat back in that plane and put your seatbelt on and you felt the wheels of that jet leave the ground.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHEEHAN: And then it lifted off. It was fantastic. Fantastic.

NORRIS: Helena Sheehan, I have to make an observation. You sound remarkably calm given everything that you've just been through.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. SHEEHAN: I'm not. I'm not. Well, of course, I'm calmer now that I'm out than I was then. But, I mean, I'm very apprehensive about the people of Libya. I think it's horrendous. It's horrendous.

NORRIS: Helena Sheehan just arrived home in Dublin, Ireland, after evacuating from Tripoli, Libya. Helena Sheehan, thank you very much for speaking with us.

Prof. SHEEHAN: You're welcome. Nice to talk to you.

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