Barcelona- I finally was able to upload this Libya mash-up video I had been working on in NYC from here in Catalunya. For technical reasons beyond my knowledge or control, I was having a devil of a time getting the thing onto Youtube before. I had wanted to get this online before the Friends of Anton benefit event at Christies in Manhattan on May 15. Not that I had anything to do with the event of course, but I was one human degree of separation from Anton Hammerl and I simply thought it would be something nice to do. I’m off to the next conflagration in the shattered Republic of Mali and wanted to get this up beforehand.
This project is obviously not a documentary or scripted television package. These are memories from Libya in total upheaval in 2011. This is my Libya mash-up, dedicated to those photographers that arrived in Libya to tell its story and never made it out. I want to reiterate how grateful I am to the people of both eastern and western Libya. Without their immense hospitality this project would never have been possible. War throws people together in such an odd way who would otherwise likely never have met.
• Three Top Shia Militia Leaders/Political Operatives in Southern Iraq by Rafid Fadhil Ali
• The New-From Way Back-Military Commander of Libya’s Rebels, Khalifa Haftar by myself.
In other TWD news, I rode the train from Alexandria to Cairo today with a photojournalist from the EU that I’d met in Libya a few weeks back who has spent loads of time in Georgia and the rest of the Caucasus since the 1990s. I asked him what on earth ever happened to the Renny Harlin film I saw being shot in Gori in October 2009 (“Hollywood Comes to Gori”) while we were trading stories about Saakashvilli-stan. He told me that film, initially titled simply Georgia was now completed and was going to come out as Five Days of August. He described how he ended up playing himself in the film and gave me the lowdown on getting an Abkhaz ‘visa‘ and informed me that it’s possible to cross from Zugdidi to Sukhumi, something I was unaware of following the 2008 war-I thought it was probably now only possible from Sochi. He gave me some insight into director Renny Harlin’s motivation to make the film which sounded like it had something to do with growing up in Finland as a Cold War frontline state and the bitter legacy of the 1939-1940 ‘Winter War‘ between the Soviet Union and Finland. Good times. Here is the trailer:
In other utterly random Hollywood TWD crossover news, a cool Dutchman who I was hanging out with at the weird al-Wahat journo hotel in Benghazi named Harald Doorbos had a movie made about his adventures in the Balkans back in the day chasing the ghost of Radovan Karadzic called The Hunting Party that starred Richard Gere and Terrence Howard. Here is the trailer for that:
Alexandria- Well, where to begin. In the big picture, the Western powers and Amr Moussa’s Arab League are finally getting things into gear and the Qaddaf’s keep playing the international community like a fiddle with ploys like this ceasefire announcement in reaction to the vote ratifying UN resolution 1973. Obama has reacted very late in the game by saying that “the entire region could be destabilised.” Sorry for the news flash Mr. President, but this region has already been entirely unstable for weeks now. In fact much of, if we’re to talk about Libya’s southern neighbours, was never stable to begin with, Niger, Chad etc. It’s all one long clever bid to keep NATO and the EU divided and off balance to perpetuate the survival of a doomed, maniacal regime that is using all of this as cover to simply kill more Libyans.
A colleague in Marsa Matrouh, about 4 hours west of here, told me there was one hell of a scene at the Al Nouran hotel the other night with journos voting with their feet, clamoring to get out of there, no doubt after more fear about the fate of the NYTimes crew swirled about. As I figured, they were apparently captured by the Qaddaf’s in or near Ajdabiya and according to Seif are going to be released any moment now. But at least they are accounted for and I assume in good health. I was sitting across from Anthony Shadid and was talking to a young NYT wunderkind photographer next to me that I felt it was really time to leave. Things along the front were shifting faster than we journos could really keep up with.
Here in Alexandria, it’s still revolutionary fever running up and down the corniche. There’s an explosion of patriotism here and a genuinely palpable sense of people desiring to create a new Egypt. The old Egypt, however, will not go away so easily. I’ve been hanging out at an ancient dive here called the Spitfire Bar and was talking politics with locals the last couple of nights. We discussed the dismantlement of the dreaded State Security Investigations Service but as I told them an anecdote from crossing the border the other week into Libya were a plainclothes’d agent, when I asked him to show me some identification as he asked to inspect my passport, said: “You see this gun? This is all the identification I need.” Old habits will die hard for many here I’m afraid.
Alexandria- Relaxing away a few days here in this crusty, dusty Mediterranean port city. The curfew here imposed by the Egyptian army from midnight till 6am has everyone a little on edge. Needless to say this is a hard place to get a beer on St. Patrick’s Day but I’m going to put out some Irish effort anyhow. There’s an old British WWII flick were a group of stranded soldiers make their way from Tobruk to Alexandria and dream of a cold beer along the way for inspiration during their arduous desert ordeal encountering Rommel’s Afrika Korps. It’s tougher to get an Ice Cold [beer] in Alex these days… but worth a shot. Egypt go bragh!
Cyrene- Took a long, spectacular trip in the opposite direction of the fighting today to “the Athens of Africa,” an ancient Greek-and later Roman-city called Cyrene in the verdant Jebel al-Akhdar region about midway in between Benghazi and Tobruk. The site was spellbinding and was also an interesting excuse to assess the rebels’ defenses in central Cyrenaica but I’ll be saving that and some other more juicy details for an article. I think I can say virtually all of the journalists have come to Libya for a myopic, ‘soda straw’ view of the country purely through the lens of war. If one looks at Libya’s vastness on a map, the areas where the fighting is concentrated probably make up less than 1/10th of 1% of the country’s land area.
As of today, this place has chewed up a spit out a lot of journos with van loads of them making a break for Egypt after burning themselves out with non-stop frontline coverage. This country, any country for that matter, is so much more than its wars. Taking a journey into the temples and ampitheatres of classical Libya today really gave me a bit of perspective and calm that is sorely lacking in the grind of Benghazi. Paranoia is starting to creep through the city now a bit since people have realized that Qaddafi has people in place here as the apparent assassination of the Al Jazeera camerman today shows. Spending a day in Libya’s green uplands was well worth it. I wish everyone could see the country the way I saw it today. A Libya at peace.
Benghazi- Things are looking a bit bleak from here today. The Qaddaf’s are now making a serious push east while Seif is blabbing about never surrendering and never giving up the country. The rebels are backpedaling in high gear out of the Ras Lanuf area and will have to seriously reassess their logistics and casualties in Brega. Without Western intervention, it’s beginning to look like the rebels will be toast on the highway if they don’t get their act together or get some serious, committed external support. I was wondering if Idriss Déby’s Chad, Qaddafi’s long-time regional nemesis, might help them out but I haven’t heard anything. Obama and NATO/EU are still talking while people here are ready to lay their lives on the line.
As the really nice guy who gave me a ride home last night said: “We have gone half way. We cannot turn back now. We will never go back to Qaddafi.” He then gave me a beautiful woven scarf that he said was from one of his traditional Libyan clothing shops that are closed since the start of the war. Of his workers: “Those from Egypt have gone back there. Those from here are fighting down in Ras Lanuf.” Though many here in the east continue to scoff at the Guide’s and Seif ridiculous bravado, I’m seriously starting to wonder if the party in Benghazi is over. When I first arrived, there was a huge banner on the corniche that read: “No Intervention. We Can Do It [overthrow Q] On Our Own.” The other day I saw that banner laying in a crumpled pile.
Though each night in front of the courthouse, there continues to be a carnival atmosphere that often balloons into the thousands, if Q’s crew can keep pushing along the Gulf of Sirte, can the rebels adequately defend their de facto capital? Rather than the old fashioned multi-front war that’s going on now, this could really turn into an asymmetric insurgency fairly quickly. If the guys hadn’t been wasting so much ammo in needless displays of machismo the last few weeks, I might not be so worried. The funny thing is I’m now quite sure that it is because of the very presence of so many journalists here coupled with the lack of free expression that has existed for decades, that has caused the rebels to blow so much smoke into the sky. I often wonder if not a single camera was there, would they be wasting all of this gunpowder? It’s sort of a silly tree-falls-in-the-forest question I suppose.
Yesterday I went for lunch at my driver Faisal’s house and he pulled out a beat up old Kalashnikov he has stowed behind the couch for when the bad days come. Or for when the street crime becomes too much to bear. He told me that a friend of his gave it to him after the army barracks were trashed at the beginning of the revolt but that if one were to try and buy an AK now, the street price is nearly 3000 dinars (approx. $2000 USD if you go to the right money changer in the souq). I picked up a few Sanussi flags as souvenirs and wandered around meeting people and trying to make a few observations. Interestingly, as so many of the estimated 1.5 million Egyptians have fled the country, which make up much of its proletarian workforce, there are still loads of black Africans from the Sahel countries here. Frail looking women from Niger and Chad line the souq’s walkways vending tchotchkes and sit looking glum with blue tattooed tribal markings on their faces. I can only infer how pathetic the Sahelian economies must be to sit in a war-torn Arab city rather than even attempt to return home. That, or perhaps they simply can’t go home if their families are depending on remissions of Libyan cash or there is the social stigma of failure if one returns to the village prematurely as can be the case in South Asia.
Benghazi- Well the Sarkozy government is the first to recognize the rebels and the Q man is none to happy about it. Britain is waffling and Hil is going to meet them either in France or one of the neighboring post-revolutionary countries. While rebel leadership council is trying to coalesce their is still a total dearth of law and order here in Benghazi and, I hear Tobruk, at least as far as the safety of foreign journos is concerned. I’m sure it’s much worse for the loc’s. Journos are either getting robbed left, right, and center or the same six or seven robbery stories keep going around, Last night we actually had a few rebel soldiers guarding the front of the hotel. I managed to actually get a sound sleep and feel sane today. Q’s crew are not messing about in Ras Lanuf. The rebels managed to get a Grad truck down there but I’m wondering if that’s what actually hit the oil depot. No one seems to know but the guy’s photos next to me look like 1991 Kuwait. This revolution quickly turned into a nasty little war while the West keeps spinning its wheels. Maybe back there it seems like the bureaucracy is kicking into full gear but from the Libyan standpoint it’s slow as molasses.
Brega- Did a ridiculously exhausting trip to the town of Brega today, criss crossing the Sahara en route. It was a hot, loud, dangerous day. Don’t know how much longer I can go on pure adrenalin. This situation is being decided by Soviet weapons. The rebels have yet to conceive an ideology that I could suss out, maybe intellectuals in Benghazi are putting something together. Best quote of the day: “If NATO troops come in here, we will crush them after we crush Qaddafi.” Clearly they were on a bit of a high after routing the Q man’s forces. The situation here is one of hyper volatility and one of the more dangerous ones I have ever seen. Q man had jets flying over a hospital in Brega and I joked to a fellow journo, “I wonder if Q is respecting the Geneva Conventions?” It’s hard to conceive how Libya can be put back together again after this and it’s hard to discern what these men are fighting for other than the immediate overthrow of Q.