I got acquainted with Libya and its people in an unexpected manner. In 2006, I was in the Advanced Level first year class at Visakha Vidyalaya. I had been playing chess for several years and had represented my school at junior and senior levels. Though most of my contemporaries in the school chess team had given up chess to concentrate on studies I had managed to talk my parents into allowing me to play the game I loved till the end of first year in the A/L class. I was determined to play at least once in a foreign country before giving up serious chess and my parents had promised to support me if I were to get a chance within that year.
I decided to try my luck at the National Youth Chess Championship 2006. I knew that if I finished among the top three in my age group I was sure to get a chance to play in either the Commonwealth Chess Championship or the Asian Junior Chess Championship to be held in India later that year. At the Western Province National Youth Chess qualifying tournament I qualified easily for the finals by placing equal first. At the finals which was held at Royal College I began on a winning note and in the 3rd round, I beat Yasoda Methmali, the Women’s National Chess Champion that year and possibly the best player of our generation. Thereafter I was on a song but lost my final round game and ended up on equal points with Methmali who had won all her games after losing to me. After a complex tie breaking system I was adjudged the runner-up.
As the reigning National Chess Champion, Methmali was to be the official nominee for both tournaments to be held in India. But I, as the runner-up in the National Youth under 18 age group, had the chance to play as an additional player in them. I had already played in the Asian Junior Chess Championship once when it was held in Negambo, Sri Lanka in 2003. Therefore I was inclined to play in the Commonwealth Chess Championship. Looking up for details of the Commonwealth tournament on the Web, I found that several Grand Masters and International Masters were scheduled to play in it. I as an unrated player was not going to stand a chance among such strong players and would end up as an also-ran, if I were to play in that tournament, I thought with disappointment. Just then I stumbled upon the official web site of the World Amateur Chess Championship 2006 to be held in Tripoli, Libya. It was for unrated players or payers with ratings less than 2000. I felt that I would have a good chance in such a tournament and thought of playing in it. But when I contacted the Chess Federation of Sri Lanka to get myself registered for the World Amateur Chess Championship, to my absolute disappointment, I was told that the CFSL had never ever sent players for that tournament and it would not be sending anyone that year too. If I was keen to play in it, I would have to do so on my own, I was told.
But Libya was a country we hardly knew and there was no way we could make the necessary arrangements. My father told me that Colonel Gadafi, the leader of Libya was known to be a chess player. “Perhaps the Colonel might help you if you write to him” my father said. I felt that was not a bad idea. “Why not write to him and see what happens” I thought and decided to write a letter to the Colonel Gadafi seeking his assistance. In my letter I explained that I was a 18 year old Sri Lankan chess player keen to play in the World Amateur Chess Championship to be held in Tripoli and that I would much appreciate it if he could assist me. As I didn’t know his official address, I forwarded the letter to the Libyan Embassy in Sri Lanka to be forwarded to the Libyan leader. After about two weeks with no response to my letter, I felt that it would have ended up on some bureaucrat’s table, as usually happens in Sri Lanka and decided to forget about it.
But a few days later there was a message for me from the Libyan Embassy for me to come there with details of my achievements. I went there with my parents and after my achievements were scrutinized I was invited to play a game of Chess with the Charge de Affaires who was the head of the Embassy. “If you win, we will help you to attend the World Amateur Chess Championship.” I was told. His Excellency Najib Kafou was a very good chess player and after giving him a good fight I lost the game. But I was told that as I had played well, they would forward my application for registration to the organizers of the World Amateur Chess Championship. Soon the organizers contacted me via Email to inform me that I had been registered for the Championship without the registration fee of 100 USD and that I would their guest for the duration of the tournament with free board & lodgings and transport within Libya. They even offered to put up my parents with me at the Olympic Village hostel in Tripoli at a concessionary rate. We were informed that we need not apply for visa. The letter of registration emailed to me would be enough for us to travel to Libya and visa would be issued at Tripoli Airport.
We left Sri Lanka around 6 a.m. on 23rd November 2006 and arrived in Tripoli in the same evening around 3 p.m. Libya time (the time difference was three and half hours), after a journey of nearly of 12 hours having changed planes in Jordan. The officials of the Chess Federation of Libya which was organizing the event on behalf of FIDE-the World Chess Federation, were there to welcome us and take us to the venue which was about 35 km away from the airport.
I knew that Libya was a member of the OPEC and therefore rich. But the Tripoli Airport was not impressive for a country with a per capita GDP of 11000 USD. We didn’t see many high risers either. I had expected Libya to be more developed than Sri Lanka but it didn’t appear to be so except for the roads, from what I saw on the way to the Olympic Village. Later I realized that byroads in Libya were no better than ours. The people were very friendly and very fair in complexion and looked like Europeans. But people in the desert and south of the country were not that fair I found out later. The attire of the people generally was Western and only a few wore traditional Islamic dress. Though many resort to European styles, most women covered their heads in scarves. Urban girls of Libya wore bright colored western costumes while boys wore jeans and shirts. There were billboards every where with the photograph of Colonel Gadaffi and the number 37 possibly to mark the number of years of his rule, which reminded me of the election periods in Sri Lanka.
We were allocated a large room with attached toilet in the Olympic Village hostel on our arrival and a loaded phone card with international calling facility was given to us. A liaison officer who was able to communicate fairly well in English was assigned to look into all our needs. We were to have our meals in the cafeteria and the chef reserved a table for us for the duration of our stay. The tournament was to be held in a building close to the hostel where our room was. The weather in Tripoli at that time of the year was similar to that of Nuwara Eliya.
In the evening around 5 p.m. there was a technical meeting and I was warmly welcomed by the local officials and players alike. They already seemed to know a little about me. The tournament got started the next day with players from 17 countries taking part. It was held in open format and though all my opponents were males after the first round, I was leading among female players from second round onwards. I became very popular, with everybody young and old wanting to shake hand and take photographs with me. Some could not speak English, but language was no barrier for them to show their fondness for me. The local kids who had come with their playing brothers and sisters or parents began to dote on me. There was a general feeling that I was going to be the Women’s Champion and the Libyan Radio and TV interviewed me even before I became the Champion. I have never been treated like that before and I felt like I was on cloud nine. In the end I did become the World Amateur Women’s Chess Champion 2006 and for that I owe a big thank you to Colonel Gadafi and the kind people of Libya.
When I became the Champion, everybody was eager to congratulate me, despite the fact that it was Rahal Mawada, the Libyan Women’s Champion that I had beaten into second place. Some officials wanted me to come to stay in Libya and play chess. Others wanted me to emulate Judit Polgar, the strongest female chess player ever.
The Chief Guest at the prize giving was Dr. Maumer Maumer al Gadafi, the eldest son of the Libyan Leader and the Chairman of the Libyan Olympic Committee as well as the Chairman of the Libya Telecom. He came to the Prize giving ceremony with his two kids. There was not much security accompanying him. He was a soft spoken and pleasant person with no airs and seemed popular. His kids too were like normal kids, running all over the place with other kids while the ceremony was going on. I got my World Amateur Champion certificate, the trophy and the prize from him.
During the tournament, on some days with no games in the morning, we walked out of the Olympic Village to the near by town to drink Nescafe and surf the web. There were numerous internet cafes out there, certainly more than in Sri Lanka. And there was even a road called Pepsi Cola road. Several times we traveled to down town Tripoli by cab to buy souvenirs and for shopping and on our way we passed the Bab al Azizia compound where the Libyan leader was residing on several occasions. But what we saw was only the high guard wall and the watch towers. No buildings could be seen. The first time when the driver of the vehicle pointed it out to us, my father aimed his camera to take a photograph. “Don’t, the guards will shoot us”, the driver prevented my father with fear in his eyes. That day we were going shopping, my mother wanted to buy a hand bag, and the driver had promised to take us to a particular shop but when we got there it was still closed and there was about an hour to its opening, so he offered to take us around Tripoli. He took us to the famous Roman Arch, showed us the Mediterranean Sea, the Tripoli harbour, the Red fort, the now famous Green Square, the El Emad Towers etc and dropped us back at the opened shop. When my father offered him 20 dinars for the trip considering the distance and the time we traveled, he took only the initially agreed fare of 5 dinars to Tripoli.
On another occasion we asked from a shop keeper whether there was a money changer around. He said there was one in the neighborhood and began to tell us where it was with his little knowledge of English and changed his mind. “Come” he said walking out and we followed him. He continued to walk ahead leaving his shop opened. We tried to stop him saying we would find it somehow but he continued. We felt that there was no threat of theft. After walking about 200 meters he pointed out a jewelry shop on the other side of the road and asked us to go there. There is no possibility of a shop keeper in Sri Lanka doing such a thing. The Libyan people were so courteous and affable.
After the tournament ended on 02nd December 2006 we had to wait till 05th to catch the plane for the return journey. The tournament organizers arranged for us a trip to Sabratha, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and 70 Km to the West of Tripoli on the 04th. I had learned about Sabratha as one of the oldest organized cities in the world at school under Social Studies and it gave immense pleasure to see it with my own eyes. Its famous open air theater with a seating capacity of 5000, built in 2nd -3rd century A.D. still stands in a fairly good condition. We left Tripoli in the evening of 5th December 2006 for Jordan.
Since February this year after the uprising against the rule of Colonel Gadafi began, my memory kept going back to the two weeks I had spent in Libya and the people I met there. It was sad to see people both pro and anti Gadafi getting killed in thousands. I prayed in my heart for a quick and peaceful ending to the death and destruction going on. Sadly it was not to be. But even amidst such chaos the Libyans on both sides never lost their fondness for chess. Once I saw on TV the rebel youths on their way to Misrata from Bengazi on a ship, playing chess in all seriousness. And so did the Colonel even in June this year with the visiting head of the World Chess Federation.
I still cannot understand why Colonel Gadafi, being a chess player, didn’t have a better strategy to deal with the situation. At least when Tripoli fell why didn’t he give up the fight and look for a safe haven like Dr. Maumer and his other family members? Well, he certainly was a complex man and I sincerely wish that he had a more dignified end. And all I can say now is, Farewell, Sir!
The Libyan people too deserved better. My heart goes out to thousands, mostly youths who gave their lives in the uprising. If only the change they wanted could have been achieved at a lesser price! Anyway I am glad that the carnage is over now and I wish the Libyan people a peaceful and prosperous future!