In the town of Lajelat, west of Tripoli, Libya’s capital, three young men busied themselves painting over graffiti that denounced the country’s 41-year ruler, Colonel Muammer Gaddafi,
There was plenty of political beautification for them still to do on Thursday: “free Libya” was daubed in large green letters on one nearby wall, while two buildings down the road had been burnt out.
Yehya Ahmed, a translator working on this Libyan government-organised trip for journalists, claimed one of the structures had been set alight by escaped prisoners, though he was not able to give details. “We don’t know how,” he shrugged.
It was one of many stories not fully told on a tour set up to show the authority Col Gaddafi still claims to enjoy despite an uprising that has occupied much of the country.
While the visit proved the government still commands a corridor of territory running from Tripoli to the Tunisian border, the army presence on the roads, the detours and the snatched conversations with ordinary Libyans all spoke of a fragile control.
The road west from Tripoli flanked by dandelion-covered grass verges and small flocks of sheep, could have been rural France had it not been for the frequent military checkpoints, some guarded by tanks and pickup trucks with machineguns in the back.
The tour, in which dozens of journalists were taken in a coach and a convoy of minibuses, went round the town of Zawiya – but not into the centre, which has been in opposition control since earlier this week.
At Zawiya’s oil refinery, its building and two gas flares perched by the blue waters of the Mediterranean, workers spoke of the severe effect of the crisis that has followed the regime’s violent response to the uprising.
One staff member, who gave his name as Khaled, said more than half of the operation’s employees were no longer clocking in.
He said: “There are some injured or killed – or staying at home because the security isn’t enough.”
Inside, at a chaotic press conference, company officials insisted the refinery was still working at its 120,000 barrel a day capacity, adding that the staff absentee rate was much less than 50 per cent.
Asked about the conflict in Zawiya, Nasser Sharif, chairman of the refinery board, said he did not know anything about it. He said: “We didn’t even hear. We have no problem so far.”
After the conference, another staff member took the Financial Times aside and said he wanted to speak because he was “concerned for the whole country”.
As other workers listened with apparent approval, the man said of Col Gaddafi: “We don’t like him – he’s finished. We are working here to protect petrol for the people, not for him.”
Continuing west, in the town of Zuwara, a soldier at a checkpoint gave a “V” for victory sign while another sat on guard next to a banner saying “God, Muammer and Libya only” – a popular catchphrase with regime supporters.
At Ras Ajdir, on the Tunisian border, departing immigrants from countries ranging from Sudan to Thailand struggled with their belongings and the wind blowing through this sandy outpost.
All said they were too worried about the situation to stay. Two Bangladeshi construction workers said they had been robbed of their money and mobile phones during the journey out, in one case by soldiers.
As one of the Bangladeshis spoke, a Libyan man in plainclothes, who had been listening in without identifying himself, asked why the emigrant was badmouthing the country.
The tales suggested the Gaddafi loyalists busy obscuring graffiti in Lajelat ill have to do much more to polish the image of the regime that – whether it holds on to power or not – has seen its image of unassailability shattered.
Despite a supposedly spontaneous pro-Gaddafi demonstration on the road back to Tripoli, the journey west turned out to be as revealing for the signs of anger and ebbing confidence it exposed as for the evidence of limited government control it offered.
As Bashar, a fleeing Bangladeshi electrician put it: “Now Libya too much problem. The situation is not good. We need to save our lives.”