TRIPOLI, Libya, March 2, 2011— -- When we arrived at the Tripoli airport this morning, my colleagues and I were horrified at the sea of human misery that greeted us.
For at least a week, thousands of foreign contract workers have been stranded here, trying desperately to get out of Libya.
The airport grounds outside the terminal have become a filthy, impromptu refugee camp. Those that are lucky have some blankets and are huddling together in the bitter night cold.
There are no facilities, no bathrooms, and for more than a week now, these people have had no airline tickets and no idea how they're going to get out. Egypt and other nations seem to be sending in some flights to get them, but nowhere near enough to manage all of them.
We practically tripped over people sleeping in the dark, and the piles of trash are everywhere. Shoes, clothes and garbage are strewn everywhere.
Inside, it's not much better, if a little warmer. Hundreds of people, including women and children, are huddled next to whatever they have.
The smell is rancid, and airport workers are wearing surgical masks. But it seems no one is bothering to clean up. Mysteriously, every single clock in the airport is stopped at half past twelve.
The situation here is dire. But at the Libyan border with Tunisia, it has reached a crisis point. Hundreds of thousands have tried to cross, at a rate of 2,000 per hour. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is there, trying to coordinate assistance. And it is publicly calling for help before this turns into a full-blown catastrophe.
The people crossing are mostly Egyptians, in a state of panic, suffering from dehydration and, above all, a fear of the unknown and a lack of information.
British Prime Minister David Cameron has just announced that the U.K. will help organize an airlift of Egyptians back to their country, having already announced that it was sending food and blankets.
Gadhafi Sticks to His Story
The big unknown: Exactly why they are fleeing. Is it based on panic or media reports? Fear of the unknown? It's confusing because having just left Tripoli, we know it is calm inside the city.
While Tripoli remains under Col. Moammar Gadhafi's control, there are new reports that his forces have retaken Brega in the east.
But clearly feeling the international heat, Gadhafi has again taken to the airwaves. In a news conference broadcast on Libyan state television, he spoke for at least two hours.
According to our colleague, BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen, who attended the news conference, it was another eccentric performance by the Libyan leader.
He arrived at the head of a motorcade, driving himself in a golf cart. And he basked in the attention of the adulating crowd, who cheered and chanted for him.
Today is the anniversary of the day in 1977 when he "handed over power to the people and returned to his tent" after gaining power in a military coup in 1969.
In Gadhafi's folklore, this is significant because he keeps insisting that he can't step down because he's not a president or monarch, but merely a symbolic figurehead.
It was a similar line of argument that he espoused during our exclusive interview Monday, when we met with him at a fish restaurant on the coast of the Mediterranean in Tripoli.
Wearing his trademark long flowing robes and gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses, he laughed at the suggestion that he had fortunes stashed overseas, saying he possessed nothing but his famous Bedouin tent. "If they can find it," he said of the purported foreign assets, "they take half and I will keep the other half."
He condemned the countries that had frozen Libyan assets, saying: "The assets are the assets of the Libyan nation.... I am the asset of Libya not the American dollar."
Divided Opinion on Gadhafi
He also insisted that he never ordered aerial assaults on Libyan protestors, but only authorized bombing of ammunitions dumps to avoid weapons falling into the hands of "terrorists," as he refers to the forces that have taken over Benghazi and other cities in the east of Libya.
Indeed, just Monday, two fighter jets attempted to bomb a large ammunition depot in Ajdabiya, a city in the east.
At today's news conference, he again insisted that he will not launch a scorched-earth campaign by torching his own oil installations. He told us he would never attack the oil fields but warned that "the terrorists might try to."
He did speak of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, the first time he has acknowledged any of the protesters' demands, even obliquely.
But he continues to blame the violence in his country on al Qaeda, as he told us as well. "I'm surprised," he said Monday, "that we have an alliance with the west to fight al Qaeda and now that we are fighting terrorists, they have abandoned us."
As I landed in London this morning, I found two very different versions of the Libyan experience as I spoke to my fellow travelers in line at the airport. While I spoke to one of the men standing next to me, who was sent by the Gadhafi regime to study in London, it was as if we were still in Tripoli. "He's good," he told me of Gadhafi. "We just want peace."
But another man I spoke with, who had long ago immigrated to England, said that Gadhafi had done nothing for the country: that education was failing, there was no infrastructure or jobs for young people; nothing worthy of the billions of dollars Libya earns in oil revenues.
He said he hoped Gadhafi would be gone soon but felt that Gadhafi would never "surrender."