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.