We lost a friend in Libya yesterday, in a car accident in Benghazi early morning Monday. He had just returned from Switzerland where he’d undergone months of surgery to repair his hand, which had been mangled in a grenade explosion.
I met Haitham when he was volunteering for the Benghazi media center during the revolution in 2011. He was assigned to be our guide and protector and became a friend. On the night the no-fly zone was declared I was feeling particularly stymied and nervous in the hot-house environment of the hotel Uzo. Haitham saw my face and said to jump in his beat-up old car. It was after midnight but the city was gripped by insomnia, preparing for the invasion forces which vowed to fulfill the mad dictator’s “zenga zenga” rant: to clear the revolutionary vermin of Benghazi house by house. Haitham was not nervous. We passed through neighborhood checkpoints where keyed-up young men nodded: they all knew him. And he knew that by showing me that everyone was in it together that I’d feel better.
With the warm night breeze on our faces we talked about our lives, about faith. Haitham gave me the sense that the revolution had granted him renewed purpose after a long period of searching. He had drifted in his early twenties, haunted by self-doubt and the feeling that he was not fulfilling his family’s expectations. In a stagnant country under the oppressive mismanagement of that Qadaffi clique of criminals and fools, opportunity was limited and life was dreary, which served only to enhance his personal alienation. He escaped on road trips across the desert into the hinterlands, speaking with a sly smile of great, secret places—like a certain small village lost in the Sahara, where he discovered “the real Libya.” For even in that airless pre-revolutionary time, he had an abiding love of his country and a respect for the goodness of its ordinary people.
The revolution was the event that liberated his ambitions and self-respect. For many young Libyans it was just such a catalyst. But while the complicated and in many ways disappointing aftermath has led to much cynicism, Haitham was never party to that attitude. In place of complaints he had steely resolution. He was not romantic about his goals, but narrow-eyed and hardheaded. He knew there was work to be done and he intended to give his all to do it—to build his business, to mentor his brothers, and to contribute whatever he could to keeping the ongoing recovery of Libya on the right track.
On the day when we fled from Benghazi, Haitham stayed with us until we were safely on the road east. It really was unclear what was happening that morning, and how badly things could go; we could only assume the worst. Most of the local volunteers and fixers had already fled home to protect their families. We urged Haitham to do the same but he refused. As he saw it he had made a commitment to ensure our safety and that superseded even his own family; besides, he would return to them immediately after he got us on the road. That display of friendship and loyalty was extremely moving and comforting, and it solidified my admiration for this man.
Each time we spoke after that he was further developing his business savvy and deepening plans for the future. He seemed set on not only finding a comfortable situation for himself and his family, but achieving great things. He was a good man and will be dearly, dearly missed.
الله يرحمه ويسامحه عزانا واحد
Today via the always informative @texasinafrica, news of the latest accrochage in eastern Congo; an incident of infighting in Rutshuru, north of Goma, held for some time by the rebel M23 movement. Far down in the Bloomberg dispatch:
On the day the accord was signed, fighting broke out between M23 factions, according to the UN and Congolese government. Four rebels and four civilians were killed when Ntaganda’s supporters clashed with allies of another M23 commander, General Sultani Makenga, Araujo told reporters in Kinshasa today. Mende said more than 17 people died in the fighting around the town of Rutshuru, including a local journalist.
More than 17 killed, and notably a journalist; rarely do we learn the profession of the dead in a report from this dateline. The nameless civilian dead: we imagine villagers, naïve pastoralists, something from Rousseau in their patterned wax-cloth kikwembes, cut down while carrying firewood and water. But here is the small detail; one of these dead was a local journalist. Do we have an image in mind for a local journalist from the volcanic highlands of the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo? Do we get a picture?
It happens that I have one, and maybe it can help give a clearer picture of the story. It’s from Rutshuru in 2005. With a colleague I had driven up from Goma on a MONUC convoy to the UN base in Rutshuru in order to attend a disarmament ceremony, the kind of thing the UN has been doing in east Congo for a decade now, at a cost of many billions of dollars and with mixed results. The local journalist pictured here joined up with us to form a tiny press pool.
His Rastafarian One Love beanie stood out in that crowd, which was made up of agitated townspeople held back behind a cordon of Indian and Nepalese peacekeepers, a parade ground of teenage militamen in formation to surrender their weapons, and a clutch of mzungu dignitaries who would witness and record the ceremony.
He was kind, solicitous, wanted to know how we were making out and whether we needed his help. He was a fixer, desperate for cash, and knew the locations of freshly uncovered mass graves. The real stories needed to get out. No one was covering anything real. These ceremonies were PR garbage. He could show us what was really happening. He had video archives. He was from the area and he knew people. He was a true believer in his profession, and though I never saw his work, I admired him immediately, for his obvious dedication, determination in the face of little revenue and long odds, and lack of fear or affect on that buzzing parade ground of powerful players and spying eyes.
He was barely making a living. And so I found out there is a world of struggling creative people— natural allies, friends first whenever you meet them, activists and potential nodes for a million projects. What possibilities if we could only network together and offer a sustainable lifestyle with our global resources, in exchange for their knowledge.
I don’t know if this was the man who was killed today. There were other journalists in Rutshuru, not too many, radio reporters and photographers. There are many journalists, trained and formed in the places they are reporting from, yet we seem to rely on members of our own tribe to venture out and tell us what’s happening in the world. Our people maybe pay the locals a little something to find out what’s happening, acting as middlemen and applying a markup.
There’s less and less of a reason for this. Technology has given motivated, creative people everywhere the capacity to produce stories accessible instantly to people anywhere else. At least, technology has made this a real possibility, given training and infrastructure. What’s missing in this formula is demand. There has to be an audience who wants to know, who wants to know from the mouth of the first-hand observer instead of the remote outsider, and who can tell the difference.
So, while recognizing the sacrifice of an unnamed Rutshuru reporter, a plea. Let’s hear more of the news told by the local man in the One Love beanie. He knows where the bodies are buried.
One year ago, March 19, 2011. It was the high water mark for the Qadaffi regime’s war to take back Libya. It was the closest Benghazi came to the brink– the threat of invasion which had spurred much of the U.S. and NATO justification for intervention in the first place. As President Obama said on March 28, 2011, “We knew that if we waited one more day, Benghazi — a city nearly the size of Charlotte (N.C.) — could suffer a massacre that would have reverberated across the region and stained the conscience of the world.” It was a day shot through with adrenaline (i.e. I was terrified as it was my first time near anything like combat). To reflect on all that, here’s what I remember. Though it seems quite overblown in retrospect, and whether or not the justifications were true, the emotions were real.
My first thought upon waking was a single, dreadful phrase— “They’re here.” It was 5am when Brian woke me. Our nights since arriving 10 days before had been punctuated by constant explosions, but starting around dawn on March 19th their timbre changed. We were familiar the staccato of anti-aircraft batteries fired for practice, or the thuds of TNT fishing bombs set off for fun. But now we heard deep, resounding booms that shook the windowpanes: tanks and artillery. We’d been debating whether to leave or not for days, but that morning the debate was over.
It seemed that several fighter jets attempted bombing runs at first light, following the pattern established for other rebel towns that Qadaffi had fought to take back the previous week, as the front crept closer: air attacks, then artillery, then the moving up of armored vehicles. A plane was shot down; later it was established to be one of the MIGs on the rebel side, brought down by friendly fire.
“The Fog of War.” A hoary saying. Yet, there it was. You could feel it roll in. The closer the front, the more frayed the nerves, the fuzzier the information. I was in awe of reporters like Dan Murphy of the CSM who ventured out to find the line, and in Dan’s case, incoming bullets. The monsters were real and on their way. We didn’t know about Mo Nabbous going up to the fighting at the time, but he must have already been in place, reporting for Libya Al-Hurra that the government ceasefire was a ceasefire in name only.
In the lobby of the Uzo hotel, Iman Bughagis, a spokeswoman of the Provisional Transitional National Council, received a call on her cell at 9am and announced to the assembled journalists that Qaddafi’s tanks were rolling down the highway over the Tripoli bridge, perhaps only kilometers away now, and that we had to find a safer location immediately. Taking a peek outside, I could see oily black plumes of smoke rising from the west. Shells were reportedly passing over us to impact (without casualties) near another hotel.
Rumors that Benghazi could be overrun had been collective currency among the press corps for the past 48 hours, and many had already pulled back, disgusted especially by obvious untruths propounded during the TNC’s press conferences. No one knew whether the resistance going to be able to make any kind of stand. And now, for those who had stayed, it was time to “bug out.”
We scurried to our rooms to grab baggage. The minutely planned escape protocols of well-established international news organizations evaporated. Hired drivers had disappeared. Boats on standby that would chug us to Malta were in fact fictions. For a few moments there was something like panic.
It was very much impressed upon me that nothing in the world moves more slowly than an elevator steadily dinging its way to the top floor of a Libyan hotel while a hostile armored column is supposedly making its way towards your position.
On the roadway outside, France 24 flagged down a passing flatbed truck, and a dozen journalists in flack jackets scurried up the grassy embankment with their pelican cases and cameras and hopped in. Brian and I had a good Benghazi friend who refused to go home to his family that day until we were in the clear, so we had a ride.
At our planned rally point on the eastern end of town, we gathered by the side of the road, “exposed.” Someone suggested that Qadaffi loyalists in private cars could appear at any moment to rake the obviously foreign crowd with machine guns. More than a dozen strong and sprawled over baggage, refugees now, journalists piled back into the flatbed truck, and Brian and I squeezed in. As we drove people pointed and laughed, maybe jeered, maybe implored us to stay.
Gas lines were forming. While we stopped to refuel, two toughs hissed at us with real menace to stop taking pictures; one had a long, cinema-ready scar from eyebrow to chin. This kind of treatment was unheard of in Benghazi. Paranoia: could it be that pro-Qadaffi elements hidden among the population were daring to show their hand?
Crowds of male citizens, rifles available to only one in ten, were out in the intersections poised as defenders. They greeted our convoy with v’s-for-victory and chants of anti-Qadaffi defiance.
Traffic cleared a bit and we finally got underway. Springtime sunshine, flowers, and green fields streamed past. Tension dissipated and nerves settled. With all the humility and gratitude available in my soul, I ate a can of what we had dubbed “refugee tuna,” tossed into the truck in a gift bag.
In the first major town outside Benghazi, Al Marj, the journalist cattle car broke up and went its separate ways. Fueled by some money and a lot of patriotism, local guys drove us on to Al Bayda. Along the way, men armed with WWII-era machine guns formed checkpoints. Throngs of defiant locals formed a gauntlet around the road to cheer and chant anti-Qadaffi slogans. The men chucked bags of food and bottles of water into our car; they held out the keys to their homes along with offers of free rooms for the night. By the end of the day we were buried in packets of crackers.
We got situated in a pleasant hotel and called our loved ones on the sat phones. I took a long walk to a shop that sold Cleopatra cigarettes, had another brief bout of paranoia that some local guys were going to kidnap me (far from the case), took an iPhone photo of the full moon, and went to bed.
For more on Clare Gillis’ harrowing experience as a captive of the Qadaffi regime, read her account in the Atlantic: “What I Lost in Libya.” I understand she is back on the job.
Today, it has been one month since Clare Morgana Gillis was taken by government troops in Libya, where she is still detained, as was pointed out on Twitter today by @Max_Fisher, her editor at The Atlantic.
This is a photo from the last time I saw Clare in Benghazi on March 19th. I was sitting in the back of a Chinese off-brand pickup truck (Toyato? Toyoma?) along with much of the western press corps in Benghazi at the time. We were fleeing the city because an advance armor column from Qadaffi’s forces had made contact with the rebels on the western approach. There was shelling and a firefight ongoing out by the University.
Clare ambled up on the sidewalk in front of the Al Noran hotel, which had just declared that foreign journalists were no longer welcome to stay. “We’re leaving!” I shouted at her. I was sure we needed to get out, and fast. Others felt the same– like I’ve said before, it was a rout.
“Hey, do what you gotta do,” she said. “You’re gonna miss the party, though.” I swear she said something like that. What a lady. As it turned out Benghazi remained free that day. NATO joined the fight, bombed the tanks, and indeed there was a big victory party that night. I was already headed to Egypt by then.
Clare was taken by Qadaffi forces along with fellow journalists James Foley, Anton Hammerl, and Manu Brabo on the front line outside Brega a month ago. She’s now being held in a women’s prison in Tripoli.
I know she’s been in contact with her folks and that it seems as if she’s in good health. But I sure hope she is released soon. Please check out the Friends for the Release of Clare Gillis page on Facebook to know more.
P.S. That gentleman with Clare is a Ukranian freelance journalist; I apologize that I failed to record his name, though he is a fascinating guy and a quite a character.
Video from our ignominious retreat. Narrative to come.
As the first of Qadaffi’s forces reached Benghazi on March 19th, Small World News was pressed to evacuate the city and head east. A grim day was lightened by the actions of people along the road, who offered water, snacks, and the very keys to their homes to the columns of fleeing cars. Anti-Qadaffi demonstrations took place in every town we passed, a continuation of the non-violent resistance that has been the foundation of the movement since February 17th.
Today we received the news that Mohammed Nabbous, a citizen media activist and one of the great figures of the February 17th youth revolutionary movement, was killed by a Qadaffi sniper while covering the first hours of fighting in Benghazi. His death represents a terrible loss for the movement and for the future of Libya.
We met Nabbous briefly, soon after arriving in Benghazi. As a leader and a member of the Transitional National Council, he gathered a progressive group of activists around him and organized the institution known as the February 17th Revolution Youth Media Center. In that grimy warren of hallways and former interrogation cells, reclaimed from the regime and plastered floor to ceiling with graffiti slogans and cartoons, his name was intoned gravely, even reverently.
In the early days of the rebellion, when regime reprisals were still a possibility for dissenters and fear was widespread, Nabbous single-handedly built a megaphone to the outside world— part television studio, internet relay, and command and control center, streaming images from Benghazi’s Tahrir Square 24 hours a day.
His bravery inspired others to work to give the revolution a voice, and they turned to him constantly for direction; his cell phone rang perpetually. One look could tell you he got very little sleep, if any, in the constant manic flurry of activity required to carry the revolution’s message forward. Despite this he found the time to address our needs, and thank us with deep sincerity for coming to Libya.
He cut a striking figure, tall and suave with a British accent acquired at Oxford, where he studied engineering, and spoke with quickfire brilliance. His was a singular dedication to the revolution and a better future for his country, for which he gave his life, and we mourn him.
Here’s a video I shot last night that should firmly answer the question, “Do Libyans support foreign intervention in the form of the no-fly zone?”