I was recently asked what my ideal situation would be, regarding how I’d like to work and after some thought I settled on having the freedom to spend longer on jobs that have a deeper back story without the need to feel that I was there at the start. Speaking to Tom Stoddart recently, he stated that he really enjoyed covering the story after the “breaking news” teams had moved on to the next story and I agree that having the luxury to cover a story at my own pace sounds very tempting.
When I was offered the chance to head to Libya to work on the unfolding story of a country finding it’s feet after over forty years under tight and often brutal rule, I couldn’t really say no.
Despite the idea of having freedom to look for my own features in this massive story, the nerves built as the day of travel got closer. Coming as it did so soon after my last blog post on the fundraiser for a photographer who was killed covering the story, I didn’t want to find myself the subject of similar charitable endeavours.
The trip into Libya proved to be the expected welcome to North African life with an attempted bribe situation at the Tunisian border (Euros? Yes, I have plenty thanks. Euros? Why do you ask? Euros? No.) and my taxi driver who turned out just to be some random bloke with a car trying (and failing) to charge me the equivalent of £280 for my journey.
The hotel that I was assigned was reportedly strongly pro-Kadhafi ahead of his political demise and appeared to be making up for their loss by tearing the world’s media’s daily food allowances to shreds. A few days before I arrived, there had been no running water for the guests and, rather dubiously, the day they drained the swimming pool, the kitchen started serving pasta (or “elastopasta”, as I decided to brand it, due to the strong possibility of finding a verruca plaster in your carbonara). All this for a mere £145 a night and £35 per dodgy buffet. War is hell. The only sign that I was in a war-zone on that first night was the guy sat on a table nearby with twin 7.62 calibre bullet belts across his shoulders as he tucked into the trifle.
By way of getting to know the location/see the sights, I headed into town with AFP video journalist Paul Barber and discovered our first features including young Libyan art students painting anti-Kadhafi murals on city centre walls and the obligatory tour of Tripoli’s new theme park (AKA the Colonel’s massive compound Bab al-Azizia), complete with a web of underground tunnels and bunkers.
Arriving as we did a few weeks after the initial rush, souvenirs were scarce on the ground but a chandelier had been helpfully smashed to smithereens, carpeting the floor with fake diamond crystals. It beats a postcard, I guess. The sprawling compound has now become a hub of social activity with some coming to celebrate the political change while others just enjoy the green open spaces. Walking among the rubble and debris, a Libyan man walked over to me and, in the broadest Yorkshire accent you can imagine, told me he was “dead chuffed to be here”. My heart sang. The other odd discovery was a copy of the free catalogue from the British cosmetics store “Lush Times“. Already known by men around the world as “that place that smells a bit like chemical warfare in the local shopping centre”, I personally think they should bring out a bath-bomb in his honour but I’m not sure how tasteful that would be…
Communications in Libya have proved massively problematic with British phone carriers unable to roam on local networks and most stores in the city closed. Aside from using sat-phones such as the Thuraya, the only other way is to buy on the black market which, at best, gets you a £2.50 sim card for £60 and at worst gets you a sim card taken from someone who is missing or dead. Journalists I spoke to talked of receiving calls at all times of the day and night from relatives, asking in Arabic for news on the phone’s original owner. A lovely touch to the working day.
Travelling around in Libya is done with the help of local drivers and fixers who use their abundant local knowledge to get you to the places and people you need to see. Having a good fixer can really make or break your day as became clear as I worked my way through the regular guys we were using. While one man was straight on the phone after every request, sorting and arranging before rushing me to exactly the right spot, another guy took sanctuary under the nearest tree until it was time to go home. The roads in Libya can prove quite an electrifying experience too with most feeling like that patch of “no man’s land” after a toll booth where there are no road markings and everyone just floors it in all directions, the difference being this is all of the time, on all of the roads.
To break the boredom for those journalists who have been in Libya for months, the jobs are divided up on a rotational basis. This means that for me for every day that I get to spend in the capital chasing feature ideas, I have to balance that with a day on the front line.
120km due South of Tripoli is one of the few remaining strongholds of the pro-Kadhafi loyalists, Bani Walid. Made up of 52 villages combined into one town, the place itself is stuck right in the middle of the desert. Reachable only by a handful of roads, the area is filled with heavily armed soldiers and snipers so is a decidedly dangerous place to be. On the first day that I arrived, I bumped into a colleague from the London bureau who had just returned from here after a group of media trucks came under fire from soldiers on the hillside. While it’s now thought that they were firing at the NTC positions over the heads of the journalists, it still made for a hell of a scary experience for them.
Thankfully for me, the situation has improved due to increased security around the town and the checkpoint that media are allowed to get to being moved further away from town. While it’s safer, it also means that there is a distinct possibility of death through boredom. Located in the bottom of a valley, the checkpoint becomes a little media village as each day wears on with the bigger crews having vans and tents while the rest of us search desperately for shade from the midday sun. All that’s left for the media to do is photograph the soldiers on guard and the families fleeing the threat of attack.
Having got the guns and bullets out of my system within a few hours, the first day there provided a little bonus when journalist Dominique and myself (AKA The Kickass Katiba) were invited to sit with a group of fighters as they ate.
After shooting a few portraits of them, a senior figure in the NTC army arrived with a briefcase full of money and started to pay the troops right in front of us, underneath a bridge on a dried-up riverbed. With the fighting dragging on longer than hoped, the fighters are struggling to survive with families at home in need of income so supporters have raised money by selling their possessions and sending the funds to the front-line.
While the money was a welcome sight, it was heartening to see that a good percentage of those that were paid simply gave the home addresses of their families and parents, asking for the money to go straight to them. One guy said he’d only need a tiny part of the cash as the NTC were providing everything he needed; “food, a bed and cigarettes”.
On returning to the hotel in Tripoli, we were alerted to shouting in the lobby and fearing the worst, dashed down to find what passes for normality in the midst of this fractured society; a literal shotgun wedding (or an AK-47 one if you want to be picky.) Here’s to the next eleven days!