Stranded DCU professor arrives back in Dublin


A DCU professor who was caught up in the unrest in Libya arrived safely in Dublin airport yesterday.

Exhausted and relieved, Prof Helena Sheehan said she had never been so terrified in her life.

Hugging her partner, Sam Nolan, and family friend Kevin O’Higgins SJ, she said she was afraid she would never see them again.

Prof Sheehan travelled to Libya last Friday to deliver a lecture on the philosophy of history at the Tripoli-based Jamahiri Thought Academy, an institution dedicated to the study of the ideology underpinning the regime of Muammar Gadafy.

As trouble developed, her lecture was postponed and then cancelled and her hosts abandoned her, she said. The hotel in which she was staying was evacuated and she was moved to a hotel close to Green Square, where many of the demonstrations happened.

“I could hear a lot of gunshots, I could see a lot of black smoke and buildings on fire, military aircraft. I was absolutely alone.”

There were “African militia” on the streets. “They weren’t even hunting down protesters – they were just shooting at random,” she said.

A woman on the street told her she’d heard there was bread in a shop and that her teenage son went out to buy it and narrowly missed being hit by a bullet.

On the night of the rumours that Col Gadafy had gone to Venezuela, people went out into Green Square to celebrate and 19 were shot dead, she said.

The night before she left, Tuesday night, was when she was at her most terrified. “I couldn’t see a way out . . . I thought I was going to die there,” she said.

Then she got a call from the Department of Foreign Affairs telling her to get to the airport early next morning. They were going to send an aircraft.

She took a taxi to the airport on Wednesday morning, all the time afraid the taxi driver might rob her and not take her there at all. There were burnt-out police and petrol stations on the way. Then as she approached the airport she saw the thousands of people all moving towards it too.

She made her way into the terminal building, squeezing through the crush, searching for someone who spoke English. She had been told to look out for the Irish contact who would be very tall and dressed in Irish colours. But she couldn’t see him. Then a woman from Thailand spoke to her and brought her to a group of English speakers, among them teachers from Ireland who were trying to get home.

She spent 12 hours at the airport with the group. Then they were told by representatives from the British foreign office that the Irish aircraft had landed. They were led through the crowds and brought on to a bus on the tarmac.

“We drove round and round in the dark for 45 minutes trying to find the plane, and not being able to,” she said.

When they gave up and returned to the airport, they heard the Irish aircraft had left, but were offered seats on a flight organised by BP to get its workers out.

“The people from the British foreign office were so competent and fantastic. They took anyone who showed up. I feel I owe my life to them,” Prof Sheehan said.

Karen Willoughby from Galway and her husband, Stephen, and seven-month-old son got out of Libya on the same BP flight. The family spent almost two days at the airport in Tripoli.

John McDevitt from Co Wicklow also got out on the BP flight. He told reporters he believed the airport would be closed.

“The regime is now in desperate straits and I think it could become very, very dangerous,” he said.

Five young Irish teachers also arrived back in Dublin airport yesterday. They had been teaching English at the International School of the Martyrs in Tripoli and left on Monday after they were offered seats on a flight to Istanbul by a German pilot.