“To win this war we need Allah to be on our side, and for Allah to support us we need be behave as he wishes. Thinking about women is a sin, but with you here, the boys think about women,” said Sheikh Abu Ali. “I am sorry, but you have to leave.”
As a 24-year-old reporter, it was not the first time I had heard this in the ten months I had spent covering first the Egyptian revolution and then the Libyan civil war for The Scotsman.
In the west Libyan town of Misrata, a British reporter and friend of mine was told her presence at the front line was distracting the fighters so much they could not concentrate on the battle. A battalion leader complained to another female journalist inside the city that his men were shirking off duties to the front line to visit her.
With no hotels open outside the besieged loyalist stronghold of Sirte during the battle marking the last stand of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s regime, I had embedded with one of the dozens of rebel brigades. For nearly two weeks, until the moment when Sheikh Ali decided that enough was enough, I stayed with the Victory Brigade.
This group of youths from Misrata had transformed the abandoned family home of a banker from Sirte into their quarters. Mattresses lay splayed across the living room, Kalashnikovs, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars filled the pantry, and a PlayStation was plugged into the television.
All between 16 and 25, the boys sometimes resembled a naughty Boy Scout troop. Often they would sit on the veranda of the grandiose home, chatting, swapping jokes and bashing bullets into their magazines.
One day, two of the boys returned triumphant with prize booty taken from one of Sirte’s many abandoned homes: a pool table and full DJ sound system. Later they adopted a stray dog, taking him for walks around the area. Sheikh Abu Ali, the elderly leader of the brigade, would occasionally check in, bringing food, boxes of new tennis shoes and other supplies, and lecturing the boys, firmly but fondly, to behave themselves.
One morning we rose before dawn. Silently the boys gathered their weapons. We jumped into the pick-ups, all with mounted machine guns, and joined the dozens of rebel brigades. The lines of vehicles parked in formation stretched along the road into the distance, the whine of artillery shells flew overhead.
Today was to be the day of the big attack, the final assault on Col Gaddafi’s pet project – his home town of Sirte. As we waited, the Victory Brigade demanded photos with their live-in journalist.
Donned in full protection gear and helmet I posed for group pictures, our fingers forming the “V for victory”. Then for individual pictures with the captain nicknamed “Blue”, a handsome, kind, student of law, who had decided we were to be married. A photo shoot in the middle of a battle was something I never thought I would do in life.
Later, as broken pipes forced us to wade through the dirt-brown waterlogged city streets, I came across my brigade in full battle with loyalist troops. His face serious and tense, Blue shouted instructions on the handheld radio to his men. Further ahead, comrades hid low behind a wall, guns pointed in the direction of loyalist sniper fire, another made ready an anti-aircraft gun and pointed at the building.
“Ciao ciao Gaddafi!” shouted the fighter, unleashing a magazine of huge bullets from the gun.
Incoming fire hissed overhead, mortars landed close by, shredding the road, and sending shrapnel flying. A rebel to my left died from the explosion, his body contorted, torn and bleeding. That night back at the base, it became known that the youngest member of the brigade, a 17-year-old we called “Green Eyes” for his beautiful piercing gaze, had died from two bullet wounds to the stomach.
FEAR AND FRUSTRATION
Having raided Gaddafi’s extensive military bases, the rebels were quickly stocked with all forms of military hardware – and no idea how to use it. A colleague from a television news crew recounted doing a piece to camera that told the world how much the rebels’ technical skill had improved. Cue, and all on camera, the rebel behind him fired his rocket propelled grenade backwards, setting the truck alight.
Fear and frustration at the lack of military gains also led people to look for answers in places that you or I might find bizarre. The rumour mill in Benghazi and on the on the front lines was rife.
“We cannot advance because Gaddafi has put blonde Russian sniper women on the rooftops,” said one fighter as he explained why the rebels had not yet taken the dusty village of Bin Jawwad, a small cluster of houses in the middle of the Libyan desert. “He hired them from a Russian sniper website.”
One element of war is often lost in news coverage. Battles rage, but it is the structures of pre-war life, both physical and in people’s beliefs that are the tools used by those caught up in conflict, to adapt.
In June, The Scotsman covered the story of pizza chef Emad Daiki, 32, who had returned from Sweden to Libya run a front-line pizza delivery service. Bringing industrial ovens and giant cauldrons from Misrata’s hotels to a building beside the front line field hospital, he and an army of volunteers produced up to 8,000 piping hot pizzas a day.
Battered, bullet pockmarked pick-up trucks would deliver the delicious pizzas to the fighters at the front – performing a service to morale that was unmatchable.
Journalism is not a glamorous job. In Tripoli, in the throes of the uprising in the capital, water supplies were cut off, and after a week of no water, the upmarket Corinthea hotel, one of the central press living quarters, smelled ripe.
In the other haunt, the Radisson Blu, desperate journalists took to washing themselves in the swimming pool. Within days the pool became a murky green-brown pit of soap slime.
News is about covering an unfolding event, but often it is the journey to your destination that makes for some of the best stories.
In early April, Libyan government forces were holding a tight siege on Misrata. All land routes were blocked and only the port was loosely under rebel control. I managed to get on board a small boat taking fighters from Benghazi going to help in the battle against the regime. The seas were rough, and our little wooden boat rocked violently – the nights were filled with the heaving and retching of seasick passengers.
Under the red glow of the boat light, captain Mohammed Hassan – an eccentric man in full navy uniform, with a revolutionary scarf banded around his head – recounted the source of the Libyan people’s hatred for Gaddafi. “He uses us like a pack of cards, and then, when he is finished, he throws us away,” he said, listing atrocities that had befallen the Libyan people under the dictator.
As the Benghazi coastline faded from view, the fighters wrapped away their machine guns and concealed the ammunition in boxes of tomatoes – if the boat was to pass Nato offshore patrols, she had to look like an aid ship. For two days, the weathered vessel battled the sea, heading westward at six knots – almost 7mph. Her steering was broken and she veered wildly, zig-zagging across the Mediterranean. Finally, late one afternoon, we spotted Misrata coastline on the horizon.
Just as we thought we had reached the end of our journey, above us appeared a Canadian Nato helicopter. The Sea King swooped and circled our boat, positioning itself in our path. The wind from the blades hollowed the sea below it and blustered the boat left and right.
From the open, darkened door the menacing shape of the helicopter’s gun was discernible, pointing directly at the boat. Our radio broken, the Libyan fighters frantically tore cardboard boxes into signs, scribbling “Misrata logistics” in barely discernible green ink and shouting “Allahu Akhbar” [God is great]. Others shook onions and tomatoes at the chopper – an attempt to show them there were no weapons on board.
Finally we discovered the radio worked on outgoing signals. I jumped on the mike with my best blonde perky voice: “Hello Canada! Good to see you in the sky today. We have been on this boat for three days, and these boys just want to reach their home. Please may we pass?”
Eventually, when it was clear we were more incompetent, and possibly mad, than dangerous, the gun was retracted from the helicopter door and the Sea King swooped away.