With my survival system in full effect, I was assigned to covering the events and features of Tripoli and after weeks of extensive coverage by my colleagues, it was getting harder to find new angles to cover. Still, while ever I wasn’t being shot at, I could always look on the positive side!
One of the things that’s interested me since my arrival here is the youth culture in Libya. Coming from the UK where bars, pubs and nightclubs can be found everywhere, it’s surprisingly shocking to spend time in a culture that has nothing along these lines for the young people. While the lack of drinking venues is due to the ban on alcohol, my interest was in the lack of social opportunities for people. Aside from privately organised parties, the young people simply cruise the streets of gather outside coffee shops. Having spent the majority of my teens in practise rooms and venues, I wanted to look into music and thanks to some assistance from a local fixer, found Ausman.
When the revolution started, Ausman spent time fighting with the anti-Kadhafi forces before returning to Tripoli. During the last weeks of Kadhafi’s control, he spent his evenings writing and recording anti-regime music in his bedroom with his friend Aimen. An added complication came from the Government offices directly opposite his house. With the building in such close proximity, the songs had to be rehearsed and recorded in hushed tones before being released anonymously on YouTube. With the NTC now in power, they can finally share their music openly. The fact that he had a huge collection of Iron Maiden served only to make him even cooler in my opinion.
The next day was another feel-good story as the fighter pilots that had defected to Malta after refusing to fire on unarmed protestors received the heroes welcome that they deserved. As was the way with nearly every official event that I covered in Libya, no-one really knew what was going on and after monstering the people getting off a completely unrelated jet, the media found the right target. With soldiers and police holding everyone back, I managed to slip the cordon and get a few personal moments before the rest of the crowds broke through.
Having opted to keep away from the front lines, the evening provided a little reminder of where I was as I made a phone call on the hotel balcony. Halfway through my conversation, I heard the now-familiar “zyip” of a bullet passing close by. Cue comical slow sinking from view and sharp exit from the balcony. Speaking to an NTC fighter later on, I was told of the continuing problem of snipers within the capital. While most of the day to day life seems to be a million miles away from the fighting, the continued presence of NTC roadblocks and threat of random sniper fire shows the work remaining for the new Government.
Continuing with the feature ideas, I visited a former Kadhafi weapons store underneath a building site in central Tripoli. Now burnt-out, it was clear from the hundreds of AK-47 clips and remains of packing crates that it had previously held some SERIOUS firepower. With a bullets now cheaper than cartons of milk at 1 Libyan Dinar each, it can only lead to further trouble in years to come.
Next on the list of possible stories was a visit to the notorious Abu Salim prison. Human Rights Watch believe that over 1200 prisoners were killed in 1996 and many political prisoners were held there for lengthy terms under the previous government. Now, like the former stronghold Bab Al-Azizir, the prison has become a tourist attraction but, more than that, a chance for those who were previously held here to show others what they endured. I bumped into one such man during my visit who was visiting the site with his son. Thanks to hearing his story, I could begin to appreciate what the previous inmates went through. Cells that I’d initially thought cramped for one were actually for three and hearing of the forty+ rats that they caught one day in the communal area was quite an eye-opener. Throughout the brutal conditions, the inside of the some of the cell doors had been decorated with pictures torn from magazines of tropical islands and even commercial passenger planes in flight. The prisoner that I talked to told me that he would never have believed that he would be visiting as a free man today.
That night, I received bad news. Following my previous comments on the dangers of Libyan roads and a very near-miss that we encountered on the roads to the East of Tripoli, I received a call that our Sirte team had been involved in a serious car crash while driving from Sirte back to Misrata. With the roads changing from smooth new tarmac to foot-deep holes and ruuble with no warning, I feared that this would have been the cause but instead it was simply stupidity on another driver’s part. While they were overtaking at speed, the other car decided to turn in front of them. With injuries including a fractured pelvis, dislocated shoulder and deep cuts, it truly is a miracle that they survived. Having been rescued from the wreckage, they were transported back to the medical centre that they’d only just evacuated due to increasing amounts of incoming shell-fire. As one of those involved told me afterwards, luck was on their side in so many ways that day. My thoughts and wishes for a speedy recovery to all of those involved.
While normality slowly returned to life in some areas of the city, the examples of wartime chaos continued to stand out with children playing on the beach next to a sandcastle sculpture built around an explosive missile and empty shell cases littering the floor wherever you walk.
Every day, those who are cover the frontline fighting are returning with shocking stories that would sound comical if they weren’t so tragic. While one guy accidentally set his AK-47 to automatic, spraying bullets everywhere at a checkpoint without knowing how to stop it (but thankfully killing no-one), others weren’t so lucky. A photographer witnessed a truck carrying three fighters explode into pieces after one fighter accidentally fired his RPG into his own vehicle, immediately killing two of his comrades. Combining the total lack of weapons training on some in the NTC side with the highly-skilled techniques of those former soldiers and mercenaries fighting on the pro-Kadhafi side results in the frontline being a very dangerous place to work.
After covering the re-opening of the US Embassy in central Tripoli (complete with a live performance of the American National anthem that had that subtle dischordant touch, worthy of a Terry Gilliam film), I headed to Zawiya to shoot a feature on the re-opening of the oil and gas production facilities. With oil production making up 96% of the country’s income (and most of the final 4% coming from gas), getting the output up to speed again was of huge importance. While even last week, I’d have been able to drive straight into the facility, the red tape monster has begun to weave it’s official nastiness through society again so I had a long wait as we worked our way through office after office of people claiming to be in charge but invariably unable to permit entry. By now, I’d got a handful of shots but was too deep to escape so when the permission was granted, my driver and I had to endure a thorough and totally unecessary tour of the site, complete with “v for victory” gestures and uncomfortable poses from everyone we passed. Sheesh…
Saturday arrived and it was time to fly home to Blighty. After already covering the story of the re-introduction of flights to Turkey from Tripoli, I booked tickets on Turkish Airlines to fly me back to London via Istanbul. I should have known really. A few days before, I’d gone down to Matiga then Tripoli International airports to record the first planes arriving only to find that they were cancelled. Despite enjoying the last moments of bureaucratic freedom that saw us given permission to wander around freely on an active international runway, there was no sign of any commercial flights. Heavy with hope and assurances from Turkish Airlines that they were now flying, I headed to Matiga to begin the long trip home. Nope. They were still selling tickets and confident assurances to those wanting to fly out of Tripoli, despite them still not having flown or landed a single international flight in Tripoli since their grand announcement. What a complete waste of time and money.
So that looks like that’s it. I write this from the hotel with one extra day to cover before beginning the very long journey home via Tunisia. It’s certainly been a hell of an experience of both the good and bad flavour. If Libya plays it’s card right, the future could be very bright indeed. Aside from it’s huge oil reserves, cashing in on the tourist dollar is a real possibility. While to some in the West, Libya has previously been seen as a secretive country filled with people running around in bomb vests, it’s been a real pleasure to to see this proved so wrong and to witness the early days of a whole new country. With this much optimism in the air, my fingers are well and truly crossed for you all.
Parts one and two of the assignment can be found here;