Until last night, the Libyan flag was still flying at full mast over Bassingbourn Barracks. Before it was lowered, it was perhaps the most visible sign, at least from the outside, that things have been far from normal at this military establishment for some months.
Inside the 200-acre site near Cambridge, an old aircraft hangar has been converted into a mosque. Signs are displayed in Arabic. The living quarters have been refurbished to reflect Muslim religious and cultural sensitivities (individual shower cubicles replacing open-plan washing facilities because Islam forbids a man from seeing another man naked).
Even a monument erected in honour of U.S. servicemen–who took off for sorties over Nazi-occupied Germany in B-17 bombers from the former RAF base–was fenced off when cadets from post-Gaddafi Libya arrived in Bassingbourn in June.
Why? Because it was thought the statue, featuring the propeller of a B-17, would upset them; U.S.-Libyan relations have been strained since President Ronald Reagan ordered air strikes on Tripoli back in the Eighties.
It has been five months since the tricolour flag of post-Gaddafi Libya was first hoisted alongside the Union Jack at Bassingbourn, to mark the start of a training programme to give leadership skills to a total of 2,000 hand-picked Libyan cadets to help their war-torn country. Until yesterday, there were 236 Libyans at the base. But far from teaching leadership, it seems their sojourn to the UK had the opposite effect.
Drunkenness, theft, violent clashes with British troops and in-fighting between the Libyans themselves had become an almost daily occurrence. More disturbing, allegations of a male rape and sexual attacks on three local woman are now being investigated. Meanwhile, the lanes and cul-de-sacs in the vicinity of the barracks have been teeming with police dispatched in an attempt to allay local fears.
It was easy to forget, as yet another squad car and marked van passed along the quaint High Street this week, that this is Bassingbourn-cum-Kneesworth (pop; 3,500).
This village is often described as one of the most peaceful in the country. It is a place where the theft of a bike, say, or a potted plant, would most likely make headlines in the local newspaper. Could anyone living here ever have imagined a scenario where a sensibly-dressed young woman would be advised to ‘cover-up’ her bare arms when she bumped into a group of Libyans at the bank in the middle of the afternoon? Well, that is exactly what happened a couple of weekends ago.
Perhaps most extraordinarily, the suggestion to cover up was made by a British soldier–a member of the Royal Highland Fusiliers, in charge of the Libyan party.
Could anyone have imagined, either, that a girl living near the barracks would be told, by British military police one morning, to stay at home for her ‘own safety’? Or that police armed with Heckler & Koch submachine guns and Glock pistols would be spotted standing near Hattie’s coffee shop in the early hours of the morning?
One local who saw them as he drove through the village said they were the kind of officers you’d normally expect to see at an airport or the scene of a terrorist alert.
The situation in Bassingbourn made headlines this week when shocking details emerged of the behaviour of the Libyan soldiers.
An angry David Cameron told the House of Commons that the Libyans’ conduct was unacceptable and insisted none of the cadets should be granted asylum here. He then said the Government programme to train Libya’s army would be scrapped and all the trainees deported.
The head of the British Army, General Sir Nicholas Carter, admitted the behaviour of Libyan soldiers who went on the rampage outside their barracks was ‘beyond the pale’. But behind the heightened security, behind Mr Cameron’s stern words, behind the decision to finally send the Libyan troops home in disgrace, is a story of betrayal and broken promises.
Residents say they were given cast-iron assurances by the Ministry of Defence last year that the soldiers would not be allowed off the barracks (there is a shop and other facilities on the huge site) during the rolling programme of 24-week courses in basic infantry and command training for up to 2,000 Libyans.
We now know, though, that the rules were relaxed–without consulting the local community–to allow recruits out on ‘carefully- managed daytime escorted trips’.
This is Whitehall parlance which in practice meant the Libyans being driven in a minibus to Cambridge, or another nearby town or village, and then being told to be back at the bus at a certain time. Residents were also assured the men had been ‘vetted in advance for medical, physical and behavioural suitability’.
We now know, however, from a senior Libyan officer, that some of the young men–who hail from remote areas–had never seen a woman before other than their mothers and sisters and were totally unprepared for life in Britain.
Not all the soldiers were to blame for recent events. But five cadets are in police custody following a series of sex assaults in Cambridge last month. One in ten of the men, by the MoD’s own admission, refused to obey orders.
A culture of what can only be described as near anarchy seems to have prevailed inside the barracks–as evidenced by the compelling testimony of the wife of a British soldier based at the camp.
All cleaning brooms, for example, were removed from the establishment, she told us, because the Libyans began taking the broom heads off and using the handles as makeshift weapons against each other in mass brawls, which frequently broke out inside the base.
In addition, extra personnel had to be brought in at mealtimes to stop the Libyans repeatedly trying to steal knives from the kitchen.
Female British soldiers boarding at the barracks had to be accompanied at all times by male colleagues. ‘The women soldiers on site couldn’t be left alone,’ said the woman, who asked to remain anonymous. ‘It was not considered a safe place to be.’
The decision to allow the Libyan contingent to leave the compound unsupervised seems particularly scandalous.
Nor, insists the soldier’s wife, was it just women who were potentially at risk at Bassingbourn Barracks.
One young, slightly-built British soldier serving in the canteen attracted the attention of a group of his Libyan counterparts. They approached their translator with a question: Could they ‘buy him?’
‘They wanted him for sex,’ said the soldier’s wife. ‘They kept asking the translator how much “he” would cost so they could have him and rape him. I don’t know whether that is something that happens in their culture or not, but there just weren’t enough British soldiers at the base to cope with or control all of the Libyans.’
An extraordinary claim. And in the febrile atmosphere of Bassingbourn Barracks it is very possible that exaggerated or even baseless rumours have gained currency. However, the very fact they are believed reveals how serious the situation at Bassingbourn has become. Remember, too, that allegations of a male rape are among those known to be under investigation involving the recruits.
Only last Sunday, Libyan troops are alleged to have started a blaze in the supermarket inside the base. Firemen spent an hour at the scene.
The central question, however, remains what happened outside the camp. Why were these men who came from a country that resembles the set of a Mad Max film allowed to come and go almost as they pleased?
Until recent days, security was so lax, even those who did not obtain permission to leave the camp found no difficulty in ‘escaping’. Resident Carol Saunders, 50, told how she saw cadets jumping into taxis from the front of the barracks. On another occasion, she had seen them stocking up on bottles of high-strength vodka in a nearby store.
Down the road in Royston, more than £1,000 was reportedly spent on alcohol on a single visit to Tesco.
‘I know people who work in that branch and they told me Libyan soldiers sometimes take alcohol without paying for it,’ said one young woman. ‘They put the drinks under their arms and walk out.’
A few streets away, we met the young girl who had that encounter with a group of Libyans outside Lloyds bank last month.
The petite brunette, 24, who works in a cafe, was wearing the same work clothes as she was then: baggy pantaloons, crew neck top and short-sleeved cardigan. ‘One of the two British soldiers who was with the Libyans came up to me and said, ‘You might want to cover up because the Libyans are coming out,”’ she said.
‘Moments later, they did come out and they began looking me up and down as if they had never seen a girl before. They were ogling me, one also staring at me angrily.
‘So I don’t know if it was sexual thing or if he thought I should be wearing a burka or something.
‘It wasn’t even as if I was wearing anything provocative. Only my arms were exposed and some of my neckline. But I found the experience very intimidating.’
The incident occurred just days before another group of Libyans left the barracks and went to Cambridge, where they are alleged to have raped a man and sexually assaulted a string of women.
Two have already pleaded guilty to the assaults on the women. The men are said to have behaved ‘as a pack’ as they hunted down their victims, before groping them and attempting to put their hands up their skirts, magistrates heard last week.
News of what happened soon spread through Bassingbourn. On Facebook, a message from one resident read: ‘There has been an escape. Lock your doors and windows.’
Shortly afterwards, the barracks was put into lockdown. Units of the 2 Scots, the Royal Highland Fusiliers, were sent to restore discipline at Bassingbourn and the perimeter fence was lined with prison-style razor wire.
Yet, until recently, Bassingbourn Barracks was at the heart of the community. Thousands of people a year used the facilities on the 200-acre site, including a fishing lake, golf course, hockey pitch, badminton court and a winter sports centre.
Peter Robinson, head of Bassingbourn Parish Council, says: ‘The Ministry of Defence closed all facilities on site to local people on security grounds in March 2013, long before the arrival of the Libyans.’ Yet recent events, he says, have proved ‘their own security was leaky as a sieve’.
‘I think the MoD have handled the whole thing appallingly. They’ve lied right from the start. They always knew, presumably, that they would let these trainees out on their own, but we were told from the very beginning that they would never be let out unaccompanied.’
The MoD declined to address the specific allegations in this article, but said ‘appropriate measures’ have been taken to tackle the disciplinary issues.
Three coaches with the remaining recruits left the barracks in the early hours of yesterday. As the convoy disappeared, the Libyan flag was lowered for the final time.
At least four of the Libyans have claimed asylum, but the Prime Minister has indicated that this would not be granted. But, while their application is being processed, they will remain here.
Among the departing Libyans was Omar Al-Mukhtar, who was not one of the accused soldiers. This week he gave an interview to the BBC portraying the men arrested in connection with the sex assaults in Cambridge as the real victims. ‘They (the Government) didn’t tell us about British law and what’s the difference between right and wrong,’ he said.
Which makes the decision to let him and his compatriots loose on this corner of rural England all the more shocking.