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Remembering Benghazi, March 19, 2011

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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.

Refugee tuna and camembert with pocketknife.

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.

Moon over Al Bayda.

Written by louis

March 19th, 2012 at 7:51 pm

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The Last Time I Saw Clare Gillis

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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.

Written by louis

May 5th, 2011 at 11:23 pm

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Photos from Benghazi II

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Interviewing a man injured in crossfire in Ajdabiya.

A former chemical weapons storage site... under a hospital.

Staff of a brand new student newspaper (activity formerly punishable by incarceration).

Anti-aircraft, truck mounted.

A common sentiment, around courthouse square.

Scouts keeping the streets clean, with pride.

Yes, berets a plenty.

The revolution youth media center, which welcomes all journalists.

Another Qadaffi plane goes down in Benghazi.

Written by louis

March 17th, 2011 at 5:34 pm

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A Few Photos from Libya

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Written by louis

March 14th, 2011 at 6:50 pm

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SWN Training in Erbil, Iraq

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A photo set from a Small World News training trip to Erbil, Iraq this month.

Written by louis

July 31st, 2010 at 7:59 pm

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[An album of all my photos from this trip]

Faces make a strong impression but in memory fade the fastest. A few portraits from Kabul:

Grandfather and grandson. Near Yellow Mosque.

Opium addicts, Kabul

Grandson and grandfather, near the yellow mosque

Grandson and grandfather, near the yellow mosque

A boy tending a birdseed stand, near yellow mosque

A boy tending a birdseed stand, near yellow mosque


Written by louis

September 1st, 2008 at 8:27 am

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For the fashionistas

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Kabul home of fashion…

Written by louis

August 27th, 2008 at 11:32 pm

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I will admit to feeling depressed at how much better I am at tourism and picnics than journalism, aka telling stories with verifiable facts. Or filmmaking, aka mastering the technical bedevilments of cameras under the pressure of dust storms and chaotic environments to capture good footage with a steady hand. Or photography. Or writing. Maybe I’m trying to do too much at once, when really I just like to chill in the Afghan style and watch the stand up comedy competition on Tolo TV.

Yet there is too much that is too serious here for me to be entirely comfortable being my flaneur self. So I go try to visit hospitals and refugee camps and “get a story” but I’m not really too solid on all the details, so things slip and I return to being a tourist, except I’m a disaster tourist.

Prosthetics at an Orthopedic center

Prosthetics at an Orthopedic center

Children from Helmand, refugees in Kabul

Children from Helmand, refugees in Kabul

I’m sure I’ll get it down at some point.

Written by louis

August 26th, 2008 at 7:19 pm

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The Salang Pass and other Picnics

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All I ever wanted to do in life was to come to Afghanistan and go on many picnics, and now I am living my dream. Here are the dudes on the Salang river after an awesome picnic yesterday. Parwan province and various patches north of Kabul have a good security situation for now, perfect for picnics.

Jamsheed and Hafizullah

Jamsheed and Hafizullah

I ended up drinking a lot of water from the Salang river which I’m assured is direct from the Himalayas and fresher than any bottled water. So far so good. We ate the best kabobs procurable by the river. There was a lot of good food to pick up on the road home, too: crazy ice cream, gooey fried bread with green onions called “buloni”, and a sour milk/cucumber drink to refresh and revive.

The day before that I was allowed a rare hike to the top of the Bala Hissar fort with the aforementioned British altruists. It was a strange place; its strategic value was obvious, as the view encompassed the city all around. In fact the Afghan army intelligence school is located up there, and I met some retired military good ol’ boys who are contractors now and who teach there. There are supposedly still mines and other hazards off the beaten path, but everyone was careful. UXO (unexploded ordinance) and blown-out tanks from the last battle (the taking of Kabul in 2001) littered the grounds.

We then descended the hill and took photos of the fort from below, where a graveyard strewn with the green flags of the martyrs creeps up the embankment towards the fort’s walls.

Later that evening, a garden party and a speech from the British ambassador. It was completely surreal.

Written by louis

August 26th, 2008 at 4:23 pm

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Too much gun talk

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Here, photos from the Rutshuru mission when the kids turned in their guns:

The Mayi-mayi who’d holed up in Virunga Park, Commander Jackson’s “men.” You don’t see the girls in this photo, but you can see the age range (young).
Here’s the haul… I wrote down the number of guns somewhere, in the hundreds… from China via a dozen other countries.
Bonus pic. Find the following elements: a goat, a rocket launcher, a peacekeeper about to shoot his foot off.

Written by louis

November 30th, 2005 at 6:55 am

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