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March 7, 2011
Press Release: Martinsville Bulletin

Monday, March 7, 2011

By GINNY WRAY - Bulletin Staff Writer

Noel Boaz decided it was time to leave Libya on Feb. 20, three days after the "Day of Rage" when anti-government protests erupted.

"On Saturday, I decided I can't work with a government shooting unarmed people from helicopters with high-powered guns," Boaz said Saturday at his Martinsville home.

Boaz, who founded the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, has worked in Libya and other places around the globe for decades. He has been in Libya for most of the past year, and he has a contract for the current year to continue his work.

He is a professor of anatomy and the head of medical education at the Libyan International Medical University (LIMU) in Benghazi, Libya. A paleontologist, he also is the international director of the East Libya Neogene Research Project, an international group of scientists that has searched for fossils in north-central Libya since 1979.

On Thursday, Feb. 17, Boaz attended a routine university council meeting in the morning. He knew it was to be the "Day of Rage," with protests to start in the midafternoon, but he was not worried.

"I heard some noise, a few firecrackers, but nothing terribly exciting. It was a tempest in a teapot," he said Saturday. But "as darkness fell, you could hear the sound of massive crowds."

Boaz did not leave the five-story university residence building near the center of town where he and other foreign faculty members lived. From his window, he could see people running down the streets.

"Then I started hearing firing. First it was small arms; then automatic weapons. We didn't hear helicopters that day," he said.

Things quickly deteriorated, he said.

"The rapidity with which events went from total calm to swirling crowds of protesters being fired upon by automatic weapons Thursday night and into early Friday morning was astounding," Boaz stated in an article on the Internet site Science Insider, which covers science policy.

There were 20-25 fatalities a day until the government forces were expelled from Benghazi, he said, adding that the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli called him every day for an update. Casualties were worse in Tripoli, he said, although the numbers were kept secret.

"My experience is I think Tripoli is anxious to change the government," Boaz said. Libyans generally are pro-American, he said, but the government distances itself from the United States.

"Yes, there is a repressive regime in some ways, but you don't see a lot of that," he said, adding that he was skeptical Libya would have the same upheaval as Egypt and Tunisia experienced.

The politics of Libya are complicated, he said, but the country is "substantially different from Egypt and Tunisia. It's been very instructive for me to live there."

Boaz and the others stayed in the university building for the following days, leaving only briefly in the mornings to get food, Science Insider reported.

On Saturday, the government fired on its own people from helicopters. That, combined with the fact that Internet and phone services were going out and they are critical to his work, caused Boaz to decide to leave the country.

Then he had to figure out how.

But first, knowing he was going to be leaving Libya, Boaz decided to drive one of two special $50,000 vehicles, used for field work, to a safe compound. Ten minutes after he got a ride and arrived safely back at his building, he heard a helicopter and automatic machine gun fire aimed at a nearby funeral procession.

A few days ago, he learned the compound had been overrun that night and the vehicle taken, despite his efforts. His team of scientists, notified via e-mail, was devastated.

On Feb. 22, he 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, Science Insider reported.

They finally found drivers and at 1 p.m., their two vans "blasted out of there. We were going like low-flying aircraft," Boaz told Science Insider.

After an 11-hour drive, they reached Salloum on the Egyptian border. It was chaotic there, but his driver seemed to know the border guards and Boaz's group was waved through without checks of their passports, he told Science Insider.

Eventually, they found a bus to Cairo. There, he bought airline tickets to Athens, Greece, where he stayed with a colleague before flying to Washington, D.C.

"I've been doing this for 35 years, field work, and never lost anybody," he said. "I was glad to be able to get out," and he even beat the U.S. Embassy staff out of the country.

During the trip out of Libya, the retina in one of Boaz's eyes became detached, so when he returned to this country he had to go to North Carolina Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem for eye surgery.

Then his aunt, Mary Newport Taylor of Martinsville, died on March 1. So Boaz has returned to his home here, and plans to stay for the foreseeable future.

Boaz is involved with numerous projects, writings and organizations. Among others, he has moved his nonprofit research institute, the Integrated Centers for Science and Medicine, from Oregon and California, he said.

While not ready to announce all his plans, he said that will have four centers, including one on medical education in general. He probably will focus on that for the next few months, "minimum, before I start thinking about going back to Libya," he said, adding that his work will include developing new types of courses for continuing medical education.

Another of the centers is the International Institute for Human Evolutionary Research, which is the oldest of the four - started in 1991 - and the one through which he does some of his work in Libya, Boaz said.

Boaz also is working on several publications and, as a senior fellow of the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, he can do research there.

Paleontology is concerned with fossils. Boaz said his work is similar to the excavations VMNH curator Nick Frazier did on dinosaurs in Wyoming several years ago, "except in a different time period."

The fossils he excavates in Libya are 7 to 17 million years old, Boaz said, which is "less old" than the dinosaurs.

"I'm particularly interested in the whole story of the origin of human lineage in Africa, the time when we think the ancestors of people started. It's an exciting area," he said.

It is an area that will draw him back to Libya, Boaz said. The paleontology field is competitive, and his team has the difficult-to-obtain permission to investigate two sites, he added.

"We have a tremendous amount of investment - 25 years of work in these areas and we still haven't found everything. It's more than a treasure hunt," it is about understanding the significance of what is found, Boaz said.

At age 59, Boaz said he may do more orchestrating the projects than actually working in the field, but he has no doubt it will continue.

"This is one of the biggest projects in this area of science in Africa. We need to continue with this," he added.

But he also worries that the current strife will result in the loss of scientific treasures in Libya, including the skull of a Stegotetrabelodon syrticus, a massive animal similar to an elephant but with four tusks. It lived about 6 to 8 million years ago in North Africa and Arabia, Science Insider reported.

It was found in 1934 and the entire Libyan Museum of Natural History was built around the specimen before the museum was closed because of World War II, Boaz said.

Now, the skull is stored in a crate specially made by Boaz and his colleagues in the Sarayy al-Hamra fort in Tripoli, next to Green Square. Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi has been filmed and interviewed at the fort, Boaz said. He said if he had three more days or a week there they would have moved the crate to a safe place, but now he worries that something could happen to it.

"It would be a catastrophe" from a scientific standpoint if anything happened to the skull, he said.

Now, Boaz said it is good to be back in the United States.

"You hear a lot about what's wrong with the U.S., but it never fails to feel good to get back," he said. Here, "people get mad but they don't shoot you."

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