BANGOR, Maine — After five months working in Tripoli, Libya, as an English professor, a Bangor native had her time there abruptly cut short when she joined scores of other Americans who were forced to evacuate the strife-torn Arab country on a chartered ferry.
April Perkins, 29, who grew up in Bangor and graduated from the University of Maine, returned home to Eddington around midnight Monday. Perkins, who for a short time found herself amid the tumult of clashes between Libya’s opposition movement and pro-Gadhafi supporters, said the turmoil caused by the uprisings came as a complete surprise.
“When Tunisia’s government first fell, and protesters took to the streets in Egypt, I asked some of my friends [Libyan nationals] if they felt something like this could ever happen,” Perkins said in a telephone interview Friday. “They felt at the time it was impossible. But I think once protesters in those countries began seeing results, the people in Libya felt as though they could effect change. I still think it was a surprise for everyone there.”
Perkins was working in Libya as part of a program that aims to improve the quality of English teaching throughout the country. She was working as a professor in applied linguistics at a university in the capital of Tripoli. Her apartment was just minutes from Green Square, which served as the epicenter of the Libyan opposition movement’s initial protests.
Perkins said she had not witnessed the violence firsthand, but described a growing sense of dread as tension mounted in the days leading up to her evacuation.
“As soon as the violence broke out, I was told not to leave my apartment,” she said in an e-mail. “For several nights I laid awake listening to endless gunfire, anti-regime chants and [hordes] of people shouting on the street below my fourth-floor apartment window.”
Perkins said she refused to look out her window after having heard reports of a woman who was shot during the uprisings in Egypt after she was spotted looking out a window viewing brutal assaults on protesters.
“Because I couldn’t risk looking out the window, I don’t know whether the gunfire I heard was directed at people, for the purpose of scattering protesters, or just a display of force,” Perkins said. “It’s almost worse than witnessing it because the mind creates all sorts of terrible images.”
The situation continues to escalate in Libya. Reports of airstrikes and repeated attacks against the opposition by a force still loyal to the the Gadhafi regime have left parts of the country in pandemonium. On Friday, President Barack Obama renewed his call for the country’s leader to step down, and U.S. officials are considering a wide range of options to curtail the violence there, in addition to sanctions imposed on the country last week.
On Friday of last week, the U.S. Embassy in Libya was shuttered. Perkins was among throngs of American citizens and other foreigners who had been urged to leave the country earlier in the week. At the time, the airport in Tripoli was reported to be overwhelmed with people trying to leave the country.
As a result, the U.S. State Department chartered a ferry, the Maria Dolores, that was to leave the port of Tripoli on Tuesday, Feb. 22. Perkins found herself among a group of 338 passengers on the boat who were told they would be leaving on schedule to make an eight-hour crossing to nearby Malta.
Instead, Perkins said, because of high winds and rough waters, the catamaran ferry sat in the harbor for two tense days before it finally departed.
Perkins lauded U.S. Embassy officials, who passed out food and made travel arrangements for the 183 Americans aboard the Maria Dolores. The Bangor native was forced to stay in Malta for three nights until she was able to get a flight that took her to Istanbul, Turkey, and on to Chicago and Detroit before she touched down in Bangor late Monday night.
Perkins said she is eager to go back to Libya. She said she will know within the next 30 days when her program — which she declined to name over concerns for some of her colleagues still left in the country — decides whether it is safe for her and other teachers to return.
When asked whether she had spoken with any supporters of the Gadhafi regime, Perkins questioned the authenticity of the loyalist movement, saying that after three nights of gunfire pro-Gadhafi supporters “miraculously” appeared in Green Square.
Perkins said she viewed the uprisings in Libya as belonging entirely to a people fed up with corruption and a misappropriation of the “abundant wealth” generated by the country’s natural resources, including oil.
“I just hope so much that readers will take the time to look beyond the headlines and realize that these people, the protesters, who seem so violent and dangerous are normal people,” she said. “For Libyans who have been pushed to their limits for 40 years, this break is their first bold attempt to regain the rights and opportunities that all humans are entitled to.”