One Scientist's Dramatic Exodus From Libya

Ann is a contributing correspondent for Science

Noel Boaz had just finished writing a grant proposal to reform the medical school curriculum at the Libyan International Medical University (LIMU) where he teaches when all hell broke loose outside his apartment in Benghazi, Libya. It was the so-called "Day of Rage" against Colonel Muammar Qaddafi, when protests against the repressive regime turned into bloody battles. "The rapidity with which events went from total calm to swirling crowds of protestors being fired upon by automatic weapons Thursday night and into early Friday morning was astounding," says Boaz, one of tens of thousands of people who have fled the country in recent days.

Speaking yesterday from his home in Martinsville, Virginia, the paleoanthropologist talked to ScienceInsider about his harrowing escape last week—and how Qaddafi may be holed up with the country's most famous fossil.

On Wednesday, 16 February, Boaz attended a routine faculty meeting at LIMU and everything seemed normal. But the next afternoon, Boaz and other foreign faculty members living in a five-story university residence building near the center of town noticed a lot of people gathering on a main street nearby. Boaz says he knew something "serious was happening," given that Libyan law doesn't allow more than four people to gather together in public. At first, they heard firecrackers, then gunshots and, later, rounds from automatic weapons.

Fearing for their safety if they went outside, Boaz and the other five foreign professors hunkered down in the university building for the next 4 days, venturing out only briefly in the mornings to get food.

On Monday, 21 February, Boaz drove one of his anthropological team's cars to what he thought was a secure compound owned by Condrill AB, a Swedish water drilling company that Boaz had hired to drill boreholes for geological samples at fossil sites in Libya. (In addition to being an anatomy professor and head of medical education at LIMU, Boaz is international director of the East Libya Neogene Research Project (ELNRP), an international group of scientists that has searched for fossils at the site of As-Sahabi in north-central Libya since 1979.) He learned this week that the entire compound had been "overrun, looted, and burned" that night and that the cars had been destroyed.

On Tuesday, 22 February, Boaz and academics from Egypt and India prepared to flee the country. But none of the university's drivers wanted to take them to the border because a group of Egyptian professionals had been robbed and shot the day before. They finally found drivers willing to take them, and he says at 1 p.m. the two vans "blasted out of there. We were going like low-flying aircraft."

Eleven hours later, they reached the coastal town of Salloum along the Egyptian border, where chaos reigned. Boaz said his driver seemed to know the border guards, rebels without uniforms who had presumably replaced the regular employees who had abandoned their posts. "Everyone was very happy. No passports were checked, and we were waved right through," says Boaz.

The researchers eventually found a bus to Cairo, and the 11-hour ride was uneventful. Once in Cairo, Boaz used his American Express Card ("never leave home without it") to buy airplane tickets to Athens, Greece, for himself and an Indian colleague who had been unable to tap his bank account because the Libyan banks were closed. He stayed with a colleague in Athens before flying to Washington, D.C. Somewhere during the trip from Libya, however, his retina became detached, so his first order of business on returning home to southern Virginia was to have eye surgery.

Out of harm's way, Boaz plans to resume work immediately as director of the International Institute for Human Evolutionary Research in Martinsville, near the Virginia-North Carolina border. He and other members of ELNRP, which includes Libyan co-directors in Benghazi and a Libyan graduate student in New Mexico, have plenty of work to catch up on publishing papers about fossils they have gathered from Sahabi and from another site in Libya, Jabal Zaltan. But they are worried about the safety of fossils obtained from decades of work at Sahabi being stored in the Sarayy al-Hamra fort in Tripoli, home of the former Libyan Museum of Natural History.

The collection includes the fragile skull of a Stegotetrabelodon syrticus, an elephantlike animal that lived approximately 6 million to 8 million years ago in North Africa and Arabia. It's considered a "national fossil" and has been featured on two Libyan postage stamps.

The fossils were put in the fort in 1939 for safekeeping. But Boaz and his colleagues never imagined that the fossils would one day share their quarters with Qaddafi, who has apparently taken refuge there. Boaz says he only hopes that the ancient fossils, after enduring for more than 6 million years, won't be the latest bystanders to be caught in the crossfire in Libya.