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

Posted in Blog,Photos

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