As my assignment to Libya has continued, I’ve fallen into the routine of a day in the city followed by a day on the checkpoints with the latter involving a lot of waiting and a lot of guns. When I say a lot, I mean a LOT. I’m continually expecting to see Mel Gibson and Tina Turner wandering through the gatherings as the NTC have converted all of their cars and pick-up trucks into weapons of war. While some are armed with the right gear for the job, others have rocket launchers from the underside of military jets while the most scary of the lot seem to be drainpipes stuffed with high explosive rockets.

The biggest fear out of here is that of friendly fire. While Kadhafi’s dwindling forces are essentially trained mercenaries and soldiers, the NTC is an army of the public with former lawyers fighting side-by-side with heavily armed teenage boys. In the week that I’ve been here, I’ve heard of a guard at our hotel taking most of his hand off through lack of basic safety protocol while an NTC fighter on the frontline managed to lose his front teeth (but thankfully not his head) after using a live bullet as a hammer.

After all that gung-ho stuff, I had a short burst of normality when the political roadshow rolled into town. British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy became the first world leaders to visit Libya since Tripoli’s fall causing much excitement and general security panic. As they were holding the press conference in our hotel (handy, that), we simply had to wait for the show to start. In a bit of a busman’s holiday, I found myself waiting with Pete Nicholls from The Times, Stefan Rousseau from PA and Jamie Wiseman from The Mail for the PM to rock up; basically a regular day in Downing Street! For once, it was nice to actually be able to feel my fingertips though due to the lovely 35 degree heat.

With the day of politics over, it was back to the frontline. With news coming through that the fighting in Sirte had begun, we gathered up our armour and hit the road. To break up the seven hour journey to Kadhafi’s hometown, we stopped off briefly in Misrata, the city that was absolutely destroyed during fighting earlier in the month and the place where Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed. I cannot begin to explain how much damage there was to see. Block after block of homes and businesses were riddled with bullet holes and whole streets had been burned to the ground. Due to it’s strategic importance in connecting roads between Tripoli, Bani Walid, Sirte and other major cities, the Pro-Kadhafi forces had fought tooth and nail to keep it, totally destroying it in the process.

Outside the remains of a shopping street, a temporary exhibition has now been set up to show the range of weapons and firepower that was unleashed on this urban non-military area. Truly horrifying.

So that was the “relaxing break” over with and we got back in the car to complete our journey. As we got further from the capital, the checkpoints became more “Wild West” with massive shipping containers filled with sand blocking the dual carriageway at random points. Heavily armed soldiers guarded each one with some waving you through without a glance while others searched the car, inspected our papers and demanded extra forms and letters to prove that our vehicle was worthy of handling off-road driving. As it was, we were in a Chrysler PT Cruiser; an adults equivalant of one of the 50p-a-go Noddy Cars that kids ride in supermarkets. Miraculously, we were eventually allowed to pass as long as we wore our body armour from that point onwards.

As we passed through the final checkpoint, the guard waved us through with a smile, saying something to us as we passed. On asking for a translation, Mohammed Ali, an Arabic-speaking AFP journalist explained that he’d said “Welcome to Sirte. I hope you don’t die here”.

By now, I’m hoping that I’ve managed to give you even the smallest idea of how I was feeling. This really wasn’t much fun. As we progress down the road, we stopped as we passed every group to see how much further we could go. For some reason, I always thought of a frontline as being something more “solid” than how it actually is. As we got closer, we were told that just 30 minutes before, the area that was now filled with soldiers relaxing and eating had been the frontline and could just as easily be the scene of fighting again in another thirty minutes. After a tentative approach, we finally reached what we knew to be the final “safe point” where fighters and medics were gathering after brief probes into the centre.

Within five minutes, we were united with the other AFP team in the area including AFP’s Lisbon photographer Fransisco Leong. After a brief hello, the fresh arrivals got into their pick-up truck while they stayed behind to wire their work and headed to the front. As soon as we arrived on the main street to the airport, I could see that the far end was just a mass of smoke as both sides fought to take control of the strategic point. Most of the fire was outgoing so after a few minutes, we began to move forward to see what was happening. Suddenly, the tide turned and the NTC were in retreat. We ran to the pickup and dashed back to the safety point.

After gathering our thoughts, we headed back in, following a massive convoy of post-Apocalyptic trucks and cars, mounted with every sort of gun. On reaching a major roundabout, they drew to a standstill and seemed to begin classing it as a safepoint. Then the incoming fire began. Coming from the Sirte police headquarters nearby, the roundabout was less than a kilometre away and everyone rushed to turn their vehicles around to return fire. The sound was unbelievable with rocket launchers firing over our heads as anti-aircraft cannons tore through the foliage between where we were and the headquarters. The expected clatter and whoosh of weapons was joined by other screeches and metallic tearing sounds as ultra-high speed cannons began firing.

As we worked our way between the trucks, the pro-Kadhafi started to fire on us from behind and a two seperate sprays of bullets zipped over our aheads and into the vehicles around us. Everyone dived for cover with the advice to take cover behind the bulk of the car’s engine thankfully coming to mind at the right time. Within a few minutes, the sheer amount of firepower unleashed on the police building was enough to silence the return fire and we were able to regroup and head to the safety point on the outskirts.

When I got back to the drop-off area, I downloaded my images and looked through them to find just how lacking they were in telling the story of what I’d just been through. The thing about shooting this kind of thing is that it’s nearly impossible to capture the sights, sounds and chaos of what’s going on with a still image. While I shot frame after frame of people shooting and returning fire, inevitably, they’d be someone in the foreground, walking across the shot, looking as though they were heading to the shops on a Saturday afternoon. When I came out to Libya, I had no intention of covering the bangbang aspect of the story but due to the fluid way things were happening, I found myself putting my life in danger on the frontline. Not good. Speaking to people who actually enjoy shooting this kind of thing afterwards, they all agreed that it mainly lends itself to video and that a strong action picture from a firefight is actually incredibly rare.

With my stress levels just about returning to normality, we jumped in the car to begin the long drive back to Misrata before nightfall due to security concerns on the roads. Halfway along the journey, we were running low on fuel so stopped off at a garage in the middle of the desert to fill up. Since the fighting began, Libya’s largest petrol company has been providing free fuel to the rebel forces as was the case here with journalists also allowed to take advantage. Due to the high demand, rather than fill up the forecourt tanks, a man was standing with a hosepipe, straight out of the back of a fuel tanker. On the end, was an empty water bottle, acting a funnel and when he turned the hose over to go into the vehicle’s tank, fuel was spilling everywhere freely. Basically, it was a direct line to the whole reservoir in the truck. Yikes. I got out of the car on seeing this and casually sauntered away while filling took place. On returning to the car, my initial relief at getting through the re-fuel turned to panic as I noticed that the guy doing the filling was actually smoking a cigarette. My jaw dropped and I didn’t know whether to run away or towards the car. I started waving frantically at him, gesturing for him to stop. His response? He smiled at me, took his cigarette from his mouth…

…and tapped the burning ash into the end of the main fuelpipe.

When they say that cats have nine lives, I hope humans have many more as I just managed to use up at least four in a single day.

*****

I have no idea why but, for some reason, this post went out without the part that I added onto the end before hitting “publish” so here it is as an update. On returning to Tripoli, I decided that I wasn’t prepared to risk it again and so informed AFP that I’d be unable to cover the frontline stuff any more. A beautiful girlfriend and the magnificent Max are two very good reasons as to why I’m not prepared to risk my life for a picture. I’m based in the capital for the rest of the assignment. Relax, Mum! :)

*****

Part one of this assignment can be found here.

 

35 Responses to “Fear and reloading in Libya”

  1. Wow. Not sure what else to say.

    Posted by Kirsten
  2. Sounds hectic. Be careful.

    Posted by Michel
  3. Incredible stuff. Great shots and utter muppetry all in one post :)
    Stay safe and keep them coming.

    Posted by Garry
  4. Outstanding imagery, my liege!

    Posted by akin
  5. Hard to think what to say…at some points shocking, others you just have to laugh out of sheer amazement. Thanks for a great insight once again.

    Stay safe

    Posted by Jonty
  6. Exciting to read and some great shots Leon but take care man, sounds like you’ve been at the pointy end.

    Posted by Miles
  7. Jeez mate, good job you had prior training with the London riots before you left for Libya. Think I’ll stick to the normality of grip n grins and pressers thank you. Great images Leon.

    Posted by Will
  8. Lord almighty, I’m sort of with Kirsten. Pretty gobsmacked.

    Posted by Juliet McKee
  9. …dude. respect. full stop.

    Posted by Jim
  10. Balls of steel Sir, balls of steel…

    Posted by Tim Allen
  11. Oh Leon. Please be ok. xXx

    Posted by Beth
  12. Similar comment to your last post from me im afraid, Your work is such an inspiration to people trying to make their break in the industry and I wish and pray for your safe return to the UK.
    Keep up the mind blowing work.
    Mark

    Posted by Mark McLoughlin
  13. Another stunning set but crikey you have ramped up the scary dial somewhat. Maybe you should camouflage the noddy car? I like the testicles fashioned out of yellow ear muffs in the shot ‘pimped ride’ :)

    Posted by Carl Osbourn
  14. Stay safe buddy!

    Posted by Tom
  15. as a regular reader – great stuff – keep safe

    Posted by Andy
  16. Keep your head down and the camera up old boy. Watch your arse.

    Posted by Ian Forsyth
  17. @Kirsten I know. I wasn’t feeling too chatty after all that either.
    @Michel I’m doing my best!
    @Garry I always like to combine near-death with total stupidity. It seems to go together so well. :)
    @Akin Thanks, as ever bud!
    @Jonty Tell me about it. That refueling incident was just hysteria-inducing after the day we’d had.
    @Miles Only for the briefest of moments, thankfully. I’m certainly no combat photographer!
    @Will Yeah, but unfortunately no hostile environment training yet! Cheers bud.
    @Juliet haha! I waited until I was out of the action before giving her the full details. I was a bit naughty as I hadn’t told her this stuff until she read it as the satphones prove so expensive and flaky.
    @Jim Thanks but it doesn’t take much effort to save your own ass when things start going bang. Hurray for survival instincts and sheer luck!
    @Tim Certainly not. Ironically, the hardest part of all of this has been to refuse to cover it again. The guilt of not being prepared to stick with the team has proved nearly as hard to deal with than just strapping on the vest again and agreeing to go back out.
    @Beth I will petal. Don’t worry. x
    @Mark Cheers Mark. Exceptionally kind words. The light out here is beautiful at certain times of the day so the features aspect of the assignment have been a pleasure to shoot.
    @Carl Thankfully, the lack of a bloody great Howitzer welded onto the back is the only camoflage you need around those parts! Anything else isn’t worth looking at.
    @Tom Will do! Cheers.
    @Andy You deserve more praise than me for being a regular reader. ;) Cheers bud!
    @Ian Watching my arse is the job of the female population. (Sorry, Kirsten…) ;)

    Posted by tabascokid
  18. Reading this post made me really anxious for you and yours. Highly compelling story and evocative images. Praying that you return home safe.

    Posted by Funmi Omotade-Tan
  19. Good work. Particularly like the the picture of Hunter ‘Said’ Thompson !

    Posted by Justin Sutcliffe
  20. Good work Leon, keep safe. Hard decision to make, but Max will be very proud of his Daddy!

    Posted by Paul rogers
  21. Leon, having just read you update. I second what Paul said. It’s a hard decision to make, frontline is not for everyone and you are an extremely gifted photographer. You do not need to prove yourself to any of your peers. You’ve looked the tiger in the eye and come back in one same sized piece. Good job.

    There is a ridiculous amount of machismo surrounding war photography. Nearly always from those who have never done it. Kirsten and Max are the very best reasons to live for and frontline work, especially in areas where the friendly troops are disorganised, carries all sorts of extra dangers.

    However, another good reason is that frontline work leads nowhere. The skills you acquire are of very little use in other parts of life, in fact they are quite often a hindrance. war photography is a cul-de-sac, and that is all well and good if it what yo want to do, but there is no viable long-term career.

    I respect the fact that you went out and did it. Relieved that you got back with all your limbs and your kit in tact. But I respect even more the fact that you are honest and mature enough to know what you want in life. J

    Posted by Justin Sutcliffe
  22. @Funmi – Thanks Funmi. My head will be down until I have my first beer on the BA flight home!
    @Justin – Yay! I was particularly proud of that title. :)
    @Paul – Yeah, it really was. The situation has changed again here so my decision not to cover any more frontline has left me feeling bad again but I know that I can’t change my mind on it.
    @Justin – Perfect. Thanks for that. That’s exactly the conclusion that I’d reached but while I’m still here, it’s hard to consistently maintain my stance on it. I don’t think any shot is worth my life or, at best, major injury. It took a lot of thought to raise the point and I was feeling lousy about saying it but I know I’ve made the right call.

    Posted by tabascokid
  23. Great read Leon… You made such a brilliant decision. You have a lovely family and no photo/assignment or job is worth the risk that you could leave your family behind. I have a friend who is a marine in 42 commando, just returned from Afghanistan after his patrol got hit by an IED…. It’s those moments that made you realise what is more important! Keep up the great work.. Stay safe Leon!

    Posted by Michael Treasure
  24. Brilliant blog and fantastic images but that final sentence sums up why I think you are one of the strongest photographers we have. It takes more guts to say “enough!”. Well done mate. Look forward to the banter when you return

    Posted by Richard Pohle
  25. @Michael Cheers bud. Yeah, as the days pass, there are more and more stories coming in that are confirming my decision. There have been too many injuries and targeted attacks on the media.

    @Richard Blimey! Thanks mate! That’s really kind of you. I take back nearly every bad thing I’ve ever said about you. ;) See you on the streets of old London town in a week or so…

    Posted by tabascokid
  26. Fantastic pictures, brilliant blog, and totally the right decision. Sometimes however I do pray for a car bomb or something when I’m struggling at some charity fun day that consists of face painting and a burger van. Wishful thinking.

    Posted by Ben Davis
  27. Glad you’re ok mate – cracking read and some great detail. Maybe you should offer this up P C-J as an ‘official’ AFP blog? Either way, look after yourself, you mad snapper you…

    Posted by Nıck M
  28. Hi Leon,

    fantastic images and thoughtful insight into what is going out there. Personally, for what its worth, think that your decision is the right one…….PS enjoying your old Leica very much!!

    Posted by Ray
  29. ok leon this joke isn’t funny anymore… you can come home now. jeez.

    Posted by paul k
  30. @Ben Haha! I’ve just passed that thought on to a journalist who’s heading to the frontline… :)

    @Nick Yeah, I just have done but I’m not sure AFP’s blog is up to showing pictures off yet. Give it time… ;)

    @Ray Thanks Ray. I’m trying not to think of the Leica though. My baby! At least I know it’s gone to a good home.

    @Paul Yes Sir. I’ve just received my flying orders actually. Homeward bound in a few days.

    Posted by tabascokid
  31. Fantastic Blog as usual. I know you are a wise man when I read your words. Your priorities are spot on. Kirsten and Max are your number 1 priorities. You are no use to them in a body bag. The whole thing sounds like an amazing experience but I don’t think I am brave enough to photograph in such a dangerous place. Some of the EDL demos are scary enough and they don’t have AK47s and RPGs

    Posted by Craig Shepheard
  32. Nice work your lucky to have got out of there alive all the best Ben

    Posted by ben
  33. Yikes.! High octane stuff Leon.

    I quickly read through this a few weeks ago but as I’m going to a talk tonight by the photojournalist Medyan Dairieh who also spent time in Libya I thought I’d better give this a bit more attention.

    It’s hard to relate to what you experienced, all rules go out the window, life becomes very intense and precious.

    I remember a drinking mate who spent nearly 20 years in the para’s saying at the end of every account of his time on a posting “I wanted to be on the bus back home”. You made the right decision. The images are intense and spell binding but the consequences are very real, and indiscriminate and potentially all too final.

    Posted by Tim
  34. @Craig – Yup, I’m still glad I made that call. It so easy to get wrapped up in the moment that it takes real effort to remember that it’s actually happening and you can’t just restart the level if you’re killed.

    @Ben – Yes I am but I certainly didn’t take as many risks as a lot of conflict photographers.

    @Tim – You hit the nail on the head, Tim. While out there, I met a number of photographers that clearly have fallen under the spell of the adrenaline involved. I recently saw Don McCullin’s exhibition and had the pleasure of walking around the show with the man himself. It so clear that working in this environment fundamentally damages a person, either physically or mentally. On the wall of the show, there was a quote from him on how he ended up after years of conflict. Excuse my paraphrasing but it was along the lines of “I ended up where my base level of normality was under fire. In this environment, I was feeling neither fear or excitement. The result was that I could no longer feel any enjoyment in life and when I was out of the combat zone, I hit depression and crushing lows.” I’m sure he said it far more succintly but you get the idea. Not a good thing…

    Posted by tabascokid
  35. You lucky so and so Leon. Don McCullin is an absolute legend. I heard a radio interview he did on the beeb a few months back and he sounds a really interesting chap. I’m sure I had a hard back book with some of his war images in but can’t remember where it is now.

    Posted by Tim

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