|Two photojournalists met their ends in Libya on Wednesday, hit by shrapnel from a rocket-propelled grenade [AFP]|
Benghazi, LIBYA — In Libya, you think about the difference between sand and pavement in a mortal way.
Sand will accept a bomb into its soft embrace, deaden its impact, and save your life. Harsh pavement will throw up a hail of deadly shrapnel, obliterating everything in the vicinity of the blast. When shells start falling, you move into the sand.
On the outskirts of Brega in March, a government jet swooped low over our position and dropped a bomb into the desert nearby. Our team had the good fortune to be watching from around 70 metres away. Rebel forces massed on the road also emerged unscathed.
Other reporters have gotten luckier. Mortars have landed in the sand far closer than 70 metres. A driver for the BBC caught a bullet in the back of his body armour during a short trip into Ajdabiya when the town was contested by both loyalist and pro-democracy troops. Another television crew saw an artillery round skip across the road without exploding just meters in front of their car. Ex-military security advisers with experience in Afghanistan described the moment as the closest they had come to death.
On one side, unprofessional civilian volunteers fire off rockets and AK-47s into the air with abandon, on the other, comparatively under-trained government troops indiscriminately shell civilian positions, and suspected regime infiltrators wait for their chance to sow chaos. Outside hotels and Benghazi’s main squares, there is almost no place in Libya where a journalist feels truly safe.
Unpredictable and dangerous
The eastern front is not like Misurata, the rebel holdout in the west, a scene of constant and intense violence. In the east, it’s the unpredictability that makes life dangerous. Pro-democracy and government troops may remain at a standstill for days, then without warning, an artillery barrage erupts. The firing rarely follows a predictable military pattern of bracketing the target, with rounds falling in front, then behind, then to the sides, inching inwards. They simply come.
To the north and south of the main road that runs along the Mediterranean coast and connects the rebellious eastern cities, there is mostly desert, particularly in the 200-kilometre stretch between Ajdabiya and Ras Lanuf, where most of the fighting has swept back and forth.
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The open ground and frequent sandstorms make journalists nervous that Gaddafi troops can easily encircle vast swaths of territory, bypassing pro-democracy troops’ checkpoints and emerging from the sides, or behind.
Ultimately, the risk springs from a lack of trust in the rebel forces themselves. Early in the conflict, communication among the fighters was so poor that they could not be sure whether approaching trucks were their’s or the enemies’, leading to unexpected ambushes in which journalists sometimes got caught.
Communication may have improved since then, but rebels still rely on runners, moving up and down the line in 4x4s, to communicate. And regime troops – at least those not driving tanks or other armoured vehicles – rely almost exclusively on civilian cars, making it nearly impossible to distinguish between them and rebels. In addition to likely violating the laws of war, the camouflage allows Gaddafi’s troops to evade NATO air strikes and scoop up journalists who can’t tell until it’s too late whether they are approaching an unfriendly checkpoint.
On the front, there is no reliable source of information from the pro-democracy forces. Reporters simply approach the men at the nearest checkpoint and ask for an update on the fighting ahead, be it an artillery barrage or street-to-street combat. Older men with more impressive camouflage or insignia typically attract the most attention and trust, but even that method is unreliable, since rebel fighters grabbed nearly all their uniforms from looted regime military bases.
One day at Ajdabiya’s western gate, we approached an authoritative, mustachioed man in a floppy camouflage hat with binoculars, who told us he was in command of the checkpoint and briefed us on the pro-democracy forces’ operations ahead, and the possibility on an impending NATO air strike. He told us he used to be a major in the Libyan army. There was no reason to trust him, but since the surrounding rebel fighters listened, so did we.
Not all reporters visit the eastern front. Some remain in the relative safety of Benghazi, the opposition capital. Others have taken a step in the other direction – travelling by boat to the besieged city of Misurata. There, the careless brutality of Libya’s war is on display for all to see. Rockets and mortars explode indiscriminately on civilian residences, and it’s likely at least 1,000 people have died since the uprising began.
No matter how good you are, death can come in such a place. Two photojournalists, Briton Tim Hetherington and American Chris Hondros, met their ends there on Wednesday, hit by shrapnel from the blast of a rocket-propelled grenade. Hetherington appeared to have bled to death from a leg injury; Hondros suffered a devastating wound to his head and never came out of a coma.
Around three dozen journalists gathered for their memorial service late on Thursday night at a small, tucked-away lecture room in the Tibesty Hotel in Benghazi, where their bodies were returned on a ship chartered by the International Organisation for Migration.
New York Times reporter CJ Chivers, wearing muddy hiking boots and a plaid shirt, acted as plainspoken MC and promised, as an Irishman, to celebrate the men’s life. The British and American special envoys to the opposition government, in suit and tie, made remarks honouring Hondros and Hetherington’s work.
Two cameras, like riderless horses, sat back-to-back on the table at the front. A large chalkboard served as backdrop. The hotel’s general manager and his ever-present son watched from the side. New York Times photographer Brian Denton read from Plato, and US envoy Christoper Stevens was handed a reading from the Book of Isaiah. Dusty, dirty photographers and reporters just off the same boat that carried the men’s bodies sat holding lighted candles. Even then, some continued to do their job, snapping images of the ceremony.
A reporter from the AFP news agency stepped forward to read from Gustave Mahler’s 9th Symphony, a selection for Hondros, who was known for his love of classical music.
“Often I think they’ve gone outside / Soon they will get back home again!/ The day is lovely. Don’t be anxious, / They’re only taking a long walk / …. They’ve only gone out before us, / And will not long to come home again. / We’ll catch up with them on yonder heights / In the sunshine / The day is fine on yonder heights.”
Follow Evan Hill on Twitter: @evanchill