Remembering Anton Hammerl

Posted: May 20, 2011 in Uncategorized

South African photographer Anton Hammerl at work east of Brega, March 31

This article also appears on The Atlantic’s website.

South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl is believed to have died on April 5 when he and three other journalists were attacked by loyalist forces on the outskirts of Brega. But news of Anton’s likely death only came to light today, when American journalists Clare Gillis and James Foley explained in an interview with the Global Post that Anton had been shot and probably killed. Anton’s family has said they believe he is dead.

Activists around the world were working to get Anton home. The Libyan government appears to have told the South African government that Anton was still alive.

Gillis, Foley, and Spanish photographer Manu Brabo were with Anton that day, and were subsequently held for six weeks by the Libyan government. They have just been released. During their captivity, South African officials — based on communications with Tripoli — appear to have believed that Anton was still alive. Anton’s family, and the rest of the world, were given this impression as well. So when Gillis, Foley, and Brabo were released this week without Anton Hammerl, it was a shock.

Anton was a father and an incredibly talented photographer. (Check out his portfolio — have you ever seen cleverer pictures of Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, and the Dalai Lama?) From the short time we spent together, I got to know him as a warm and thoughtful man as well. I spent a day driving to the front with Anton and three other journalists on March 31, six days before his disappearance. This is a story about that day.

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On the long highway between Benghazi and points west, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly where exactly the “front line” is. In our big red Ford Flex SUV, we’d drive along that highway — a lone road through the desert — to the top of one hill, where a lot of guys were standing around holding Kalashnikovs and other weapons. We’d stop, roll down the window, and ask what was going on. If things looked interesting, we’d get out, talk to people, and take photos.

And then we’d see other guys on top of the next hill a kilometer or two down the road, maybe with a Grad rocket launcher on it or some pickup trucks with anti-aircraft guns, so we’d drive on to that hill, after convincing our driver it was a good idea. And so on. We were about 15-20 km east of Brega and about 55 km west of Ajdabiyah.

15-20 km east of Brega, March 31: Opposition fighters retreating. A shell had just landed on the hill ahead.

After a while, a shell landed on the hill ahead of us, and opposition fighters started jumping in their cars and trucks and streaming backward. That was our cue too, so after a final few minutes of interviewing and shooting photos, we got in our car and did the same. We retreated a bit with the rebels, and then stopped for more photos and interviews. We spent an hour or so at the front that day doing this kind of thing.

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On the way back to Benghazi, we stopped at Ajdabiyah Hospital, where casualties from the fighting are often brought. Those seriously wounded are stabilized before being sent by ambulance to Benghazi for care. Ajdabiyah itself was shelled by Gaddafi’s forces, has changed hands several times, and remains mostly deserted except for opposition forces.

Each of us went off on his own, walking through the hospital. The hospital was quiet that day. It wasn’t like the hospitals in Benghazi or San Francisco or Tokyo, well-lit and gleaming and buzzing with doctors and nurses. Its narrow, gray-green corridors were quiet — and mostly empty, like the rest of Ajdabiyah.

After walking around for a few minutes, I turned a corner and ran into Anton. He was trying to communicate with two hospital staff from Bangladesh. They were janitors who had stayed despite the war and were working to keep the hospital clean.

15-20 km east of Brega, March 31: Libyan opposition fighters with an anti-aircraft gun. Just to the right of the windshield is Anton holding his camera.

Anton had tried some English with the two janitors, and I tried some Arabic, but neither of us got far with them in either language. And Anton didn’t speak Bengali. Neither do I. It was handshakes, smiles, and shrugs all around.

Here, in their green janitorial uniforms, were two men thousands of miles from their homes who were staying in a war zone to work. Many Bangladeshi expatriates in Libya have evacuated, but many have stayed on the job. They have people to support back home.

Under the circumstances, these two custodial staff presumably didn’t have much communication with anyone else beyond the basics needed to do their jobs. Yet somehow, they came to work and did their jobs, despite the war. But how did they get to the hospital every day? Where did they sleep? How long had they been in Libya? What kinds of families did they have back home? How much were they getting paid? Did they get any days off? Did they follow cricket? We had no way to ask these questions.

And what were they going to do if the front line washed back toward the hospital all of a sudden? In a war zone, people are always chatting about the front line — how far away it is, whether it’s moving toward you or away from you, where the shells are landing, whether there’s been aerial bombardment today, and so on. People trade rumors, reliable information, and everything in between. But if you don’t speak the language well — some language that enough well-informed people around you speak, whether Arabic (locals) or English (press) — then you’re screwed. Was someone looking out for these guys?

March 31, Ajdabiyah Hospital: The two custodial workers from Bangladesh that Anton and I tried to speak with

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Anton and I never got answers to these questions. Nevertheless, that moment made clear that these two men were willing to risk a lot to keep their jobs in Libya.

That moment also said something about Anton. Anton was a professional photojournalist, and a very talented and imaginative one, as his portfolio shows. But he was not trying to speak with these two men so he could photograph them. Moreover, these two men were certainly not “breaking news.” Anton just wanted to hear their story, to understand their world.

From Anton — and from two other photographers I came to know in Libya, Samuel Aranda and João Pina — I learned that photojournalism is not just about taking riveting photos and selling them to whomever will pay. It’s about becoming familiar with the world — paying attention not just to the who-what-when-where of a breaking story framed in the apposite image, but to the why. Photojournalists — at least the best ones, like Anton and Samuel and João — know that to seal the texture and history of a moment in an image, or to capture the struggles of the everyday in a subject’s face, you need to understand the stories and the forces of society behind them.

Perhaps all journalists already know this. I’m sure all photojournalists do. But I didn’t. We sociologists may think we have a monopoly on the practice of sociology. We don’t.

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After our failed attempt to speak with the two Bangladeshi janitors, Anton and I climbed back in the car. On the way back to Benghazi, I got to know him a little. He was square-jawed and handsome, with thin-rimmed glasses, upturned collar, mad-scientist hair dropping down to a widow’s peak, and a soul patch that made him look bohemian and raffishly intellectual — all in all, a little more elegant than the rest of us bumming around Libya, and effortlessly so. It didn’t take more than a minute to tell that Anton was worldly and very sharp, but also kind-hearted and self-effacing. He recounted, in his charming South African accent, his photo projects in various corners of the world. And he spoke warmly of his family back in London — of his wife (who describes him in this interview with the New York Times’ Lens blog) and children, including one who was seven weeks old when he left for Libya.

Anton, here’s to you.


Dr. Shawg Najem volunteers at the Libyan International Medical University, teaching suturing in an emergency first-aid course

A version of this article appears in Foreign Policy.

BENGHAZI, Libya —If you had told Benghazi residents three months ago that they would be throwing Molotov cocktails at Gaddafi loyalist tanks, they would’ve looked at you like you were crazy. Even after the Egyptian revolution began on January 25, Gaddafi’s iron grip on Libyan society seemed too strong to allow an uprising of the sort that occurred in Tunis and Cairo. In early February, Ahmed, a 26-year-old medical student, heard about a joke that was making the rounds in recently liberated Tunisia. “The Tunisians were telling us Libyans to bend over so they could see the real men over in Egypt.”

The problem of social organization during a crisis no one expected

It’s not surprising, then, that when the revolution happened, few people here had much of an idea about what to do next: how to keep a society dominated by the government sector running once that sector was gone. Just as the opposition’s Transitional National Council (TNC) has faced the problem of managing its volunteer-heavy rebel army, people trying to manage quotidian aspects of life during the war faced the problem of what to do with the thousands of volunteers who want to help but don’t have anyone giving orders. This is true in medical care, aid distribution, and other state services: while the TNC has managed to restore many of the functions of government previously handled by the Gaddafi regime, volunteers continue to shoulder much of the burden.

In the revolution’s early days in February, civilians handled matters as basic as policing and traffic management. With traffic lights not working, ordinary Libyans stood at intersections and directed traffic without pay. They also formed neighborhood watch groups to patrol their neighborhoods. More recently, the TNC has restored police functions in Benghazi, largely through an organ called National Security (Al-Amn Al-Watani). Essentially a revamped police force, it includes many of the same police officers who patrolled Benghazi’s streets before the revolution — those who have passed a screening by the new government.

Nevertheless, some citizens still feel ill at ease on Benghazi’s streets, especially as rumors of lurking Revolutionary Committee cells — the ideologically devoted Gaddafi loyalists — abound. “I don’t feel like there’s proper policing,” says Farah El-Sanousi, a 20-year-old dental student. “I don’t feel safe.” Near Benghazi’s Hawari Hospital, she explains, “the traffic lights aren’t working, and ordinary people are directing traffic.”

Enas Mahmoud, 20 years old and also a dental student, worries about going out as well. “There’s always fear — going out of the house, going places,” she says. “Especially after sunset.” State and society focus on the threat to women in particular; Libya Hurra TV, the opposition’s channel, has advised that women stay home between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Others see a mixed picture when it comes to public safety during the revolution. Dr. Shawg Najem, a 26-year-old anesthesiologist who is volunteering to teach first aid to adults, gets calls from her parents all the time when she’s away from home — they want to make sure she’s safe. “It’s because of the lijan al-thawriyah [Revolutionary Committees],” she says. “They’re crazy, and you never know what they’re going to do. But other than that, I feel safer now, after the revolution.” She describes taking a walk with her mother in the center of town recently, without a male family member accompanying them. “Before the revolution, we couldn’t do that,” she said. “It wasn’t so safe for women to do that by themselves anywhere other than one of [Benghazi’s] shopping streets. Now, we can walk side-by-side with men.”

Nuha Naas, the 36-year-old chemist at Libyan International Medical University who helped organize LIMU’s first-aid program, recalls the first days of the revolution in Benghazi — February 17‒20, when unarmed demonstrators were being shot by Gaddafi’s security forces and stormed government security buildings, taking heavy fire. She called doctors she knew at the city’s Jala Hospital and the Benghazi Medical Center, who asked her to come join the many volunteers already helping.

“When I got to the hospitals, everything was a mess,” Naas recalls. “There was no one to tell us how to help.” The volunteers did their best to figure it out on their own what help was needed. “We cleaned blood off the floor, carried food, made beds for patients, took people to get X-rays.”

This lack of organization in a time of crisis gave Naas the idea for the first-aid course at LIMU that she now manages, which has taught basic medical response techniques to over 600 people. “I saw lots of medical students [at

A public-service announcement tells Benghazi residents to keep their city clean. The "trash" shown in the ad is Gaddafi.

the hospitals] who could be more helpful, but who didn’t know what to do,” she says. “And I saw people on television carrying wounded patients or trying to stop bleeding,” she added, “but they were doing it the wrong way.”

The other face of unexpected chaos: a cathartic wellspring of spontaneous goodwill

Despite the disorganization, Nuha also witnessed solidarity and courage during those critical days in February — more than she had ever seen in her life. “It was amazing,” she says.

But the spontaneous upwelling of goodwill in the early days of the fighting was a powerful antidote to the disorganization. “Doctors and volunteers were treating the wounded, while singing to them and encouraging them at the same time — [saying] things about Libya, about freedom, about Gaddafi leaving,” Naas says.

Even the wounded were upbeat: “They were being brought in, covered in blood, looking miserable, but even they were doing this,” she recalls, making the opposition’s V-for-victory sign with her fingers. “I never thought that I would live to see these things.”

Everyone in opposition-held territory seems to have a story about how much nicer people are to one another now that Gaddafi is gone. “Before the revolution, you’d go out into the street and find a bunch of angry people,” says Shawg, the anesthesiologist. “They’d be taking it out on each other — you’d find a lot of fights on the street, people saying bad stuff to each other, or even [getting angry at one another while] driving. Sometimes you’d find people just fighting for the sake of fighting. Everyone was in a bad mood, all the time.”

“But after the revolution,” she continues, “we discovered that all the anger, all the negative feelings … were toward Muammar [Gaddafi] and his system. We discovered that we don’t have problems with each other — we only have a problem with the system, not with our neighbor or the guy in the market.”

The goodwill extended to taking pride in the city. Mardiya El-Fakhery, a 28-year–old anesthesiologist, recalls that before the revolution, “you’d never see Libyan boys cleaning up the street and taking ownership [of their city]. People had the attitude that [Benghazi] is already [dirty], so just let it go.” But as soon as the revolution began, she saw young boys and old men taking to the streets with brooms. The opposition government has sought to build on this goodwill around the territory their control, posting billboards throughout eastern Libya exhorting citizens to keep their cities clean. One such billboard (pictured above), featuring a giant hand holding a cartoon Qaddafi by the scruff of his neck as if he were a used tissue, reads:

Every day, all of the youth will participate in cleaning our beautiful city, starting with you yourself and your own house, with your family, as well as cleaning the street with your neighbors and cleaning the area with your brothers and friends. This is our country, and it’s our responsibility.

Frustration with Libya’s medical system turns into appreciation for its doctors

But nowhere is the new goodwill more clearly on display than in Libya’s hospitals. Under Gaddafi’s rule, the dilapidated medical system had become an infuriating symbol of the spotty distribution of resources in the country. Mohammed, who trades in used cars, is typical: He told me he had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket to take his ailing mother to Tunisia, where better medical facilities are available. Noting Libya’s oil wealth, he asked, “Why can’t my country pay for decent hospitals? My mother should be able to get treatment here in Libya.” He then took out his phone and showed me a video of his elderly mother, grimacing in pain before she went to Tunisia for treatment. She died soon thereafter.

Before the revolution, some Libyans, unable to find adequate medical care in their own country, took their frustrations out on Libya’s doctors. “Just a few months ago,” remembers El-Fakhery, the anesthesiologist, “people hated Libyan doctors. They’d run off to Tunisia or Egypt for something as simple as a common cold.” She recalls that a surgeon at her hospital was even physically attacked after a failed surgery. “We didn’t have the facilities [to provide proper care],” she says.

But with the revolution, people in Benghazi began showing an outpouring of support for their doctors. She recalls how on March 19, as Gaddafi’s tanks were rolling through Benghazi’s streets and Revolutionary Committee members were shooting at civilians, she and other doctors were overwhelmed by the number of wounded they had to treat — and by the kindness that ordinary citizens were showing them. “In the hospital, men as old as my father would run around the ICU [Intensive Care Unit] at Jala Hospital [in Benghazi], passing out milk and juice and boxes of dates to the doctors,” she says. “They’d stuff them in the pockets of my lab coat and shake my hands, and they’d hug the male doctors. They’d bring pillows and blankets from home, giving everything they could to the hospital.”

“It’s funny,” says Mardiya, “but he” — Gaddafi — “brought out the best in us.”

Charles Homans contributed to this article.

I was driving back from the west gate of Ajdabiyah, where opposition forces were trading Grad rocket fire with Gaddafi’s forces to the west, when I saw a bombed-out upside-down pickup truck by the side of the road. It was probably a truck from Gaddafi’s militias that had been hit by a Coalition air strike.

There are countless bombed-out vehicles lining the road to the front. But for some reason that I can’t explain, I decided to pull over and check this one out.

Hanging out underneath the truck was a cat, nibbling on a few crusts of bread.

The cat let me do a photo shoot.

The thud of rockets in the background didn’t seem to bother it.















(for Maia)


A version of this article will appear on Foreign Policy‘s website.

Getting rid of Gaddafi — but at what price? Benghazi residents discuss whether they would accept a peace deal granting immunity to Col. Muammar Gaddafi

BENGHAZI, April 17

Virtually everyone in Libya’s opposition-held east agrees that Muammar Gaddafi must leave Libya for the country’s war to end. But how would Libyans feel about a peace deal that granted the colonel immunity from domestic and international prosecution? Would they accept a hypothetical agreement stipulating that Gaddafi and his children leave Libya tomorrow, bringing an immediate end to the war and the fall of the loyalist regime in western Libya — but on condition that Gaddafi and his family never have to answer for their crimes in a courtroom?

I posed this question to people on Benghazi’s streets. Opinions varied.

“We don’t want any negotiation with Gaddafi — he’s a murderer”

Abduh, 52, stood in front of the Hotel Tibesty holding a sign that read, “NO NEGOTIATION WITH MURDERARS [sic]… GHADDAFI MUST LEAVE.”

“We don’t want any negotiation with Gaddafi,” said Abduh. “He’s a murderer.” Abduh was opposed to any deal that would grant Gaddafi and his sons

Abduh, 52: “We don’t want any negotiation with Gaddafi. He’s a murderer.”

immunity. Together with around 2,000 other people, he was protesting the presence of an African Union delegation inside the Tibesty on April 11 that he considered too close to Gaddafi to produce a diplomatic outcome fair to the opposition.

“He’s been killing our people for 42 years,” said Hussein, a 49-year-old shipmaster. “Even if everyone here dies, that’s no problem,” he said defiantly. “There must be international prosecution.”

Khadijah, a 46-year-old engineer standing in the crowded women’s section of the protest area in front of the Tibesty on April 11, agreed. “He’s killed many people — maybe 10,000. And he’s still bombing Misrata, Zuwarah, and the western mountains. There absolutely must be a trial.”

“I myself haven’t had any friends or family die,” said Mus’ab, a 27-year-old oil-company employee. “But all [Libyans] — from the west to the east — they’re our brothers.” He opposed a settlement granting Gaddafi and his sons

Electrical worker ‘Abd al-Hafiz (50, right): “The blood of Libyans is priceless.” He would reject any immunity deal for Gaddafi. Hasan (52), a mechanic, agrees.

immunity. So did Abdul Hafiz, a 50-year-old electrical worker. “The blood of Libyans is priceless. Gaddafi oppressed the Libyan people for 42 years — killing them, hanging them. Now he and his sons are international criminals.” Hasan, a 52-year-old mechanic sitting next to him, nodded in agreement.

Some Libyans insist that Gaddafi must be brought to justice because he will otherwise be a threat to a free Libya. “He has millions in his bank accounts, and if he goes off somewhere in Africa, he could raise an army and try to come back to Libya,” said Suleiman, 26, who co-owns a car-rental agency, on April 17. “Also, there are so many families who lost sons and brothers and fathers during the fighting. He absolutely must be prosecuted.”

“Just go — to save these people”

In the name of saving lives, others would accept a deal that would get rid of Gaddafi without prosecuting him. “He jailed me, and he killed my brother,” said Idris, 39 [conversation in Benghazi, April 17]. This mechanical engineer spent a month in prison — “for being a Muslim,” he says, stroking his three-inch beard in allusion to Gaddafi’s crackdown in the 1980s and 1990s on thousands of Libyans who made the mistake of praying regularly at mosque or growing out their beards. Idris’s brother died during the Abu Salim prison massacre in June 1996, when Gaddafi’s forces killed over 1,200 prisoners.

But despite his personal travails, Idris’s main concern is that Gaddafi leave, to end the ongoing bloodshed. “Just go,” says Idris to Gaddafi. “Save all of these people.” Idris would accept an immunity deal if it would lead to Gaddafi’s immediate departure.

Muraja’, a 70-year-old retiree, agrees. “If it were up to me, yes, that would be ok,” he said, referring to a hypothetical agreement granting Gaddafi and his sons total immunity. But he also expressed conviction that international prosecution would eventually take place, arguing that the question of whether Gaddafi is ultimately tried in an international criminal tribunal is outside the hands of Libyans.

Bobaker, 37, would accept a deal granting Gaddafi immunity in exchange for his immediate departure — “under condition that he be monitored 24-7.”

Bobaker, a 37-year-old mud engineer working in the oil fields of north-central Libya, saw a difference of opinion among different groups in Libyan society. “Most of the people I know,” he said in very good English, “the intellectuals — they would accept this.” He himself would accept such an arrangement as well, but only “under condition that [Gaddafi] be monitored 24/7, including his phone calls — because he’ll still be a threat for Libyans, even if he’s not in Libya.” He was standing in front of the Hotel Tibesty holding a sign that read, “Libyans accept any initiative requires Kadaffi & his sons LEAVE.”

Political constraints on the TNC

The question of what conditions Libyans would accept on Gaddafi’s departure has political implications for the Transitional National Council (TNC), the interim governing body in opposition-held territory. ‘Abd al-Mun’im, a taxi driver in his 30s, would personally be willing to accept an arrangement granting Gaddafi and his sons immunity — but he thinks such a deal is politically infeasible. “I would be ok with that, to save lives,” he said. “But the TNC can’t make a deal like that, because they’d have to face the anger of all of these people who have lost their children and their parents and their relatives in the fighting.”

‘Abd al-Mun’im also estimates that there are significant portions of Benghazi’s population on either side of this hypothetical divide. Conversations with people across Benghazi suggest this is true: it’s not difficult to find people on either side of this question — once the question is posed to them.

Protesters in front of Benghazi’s courthouse, April 15

That said, the question of whether Gaddafi could be immune from prosecution does not seem to be a frequent topic of conversation, because most people in Benghazi remain hopeful that such a compromise will be unnecessary. Everyone I spoke with hopes that Gaddafi will be prosecuted vigorously, and they view with gratitude those governments who advocate Gaddafi’s departure aggressively. Few seem to expect that the international community would let Gaddafi off the hook. Others note wryly that Gaddafi has sworn enemies outside Libya as well — such as among Lebanon’s Shi’ite community, whose prominent religious leader Imam Musa al-Sadr disappeared in Libya in 1978, allegedly at Gaddafi’s behest.

What Benghazi residents do agree on

Though they may differ on whether they would trade Gaddafi’s instant departure for his immunity from prosecution, Benghazi residents speak with one voice about a number of other issues. One is their insistence that any post-Gaddafi Libyan government be democratically elected and accountable to the people. Another is that civil rights be guaranteed in the new Libya. A third is that Libya’s oil revenues be spent on its people and the rebuilding of Libya’s infrastructure, not on its leader’s children or on preferential handouts to those connected to the regime.

Another issue on which Benghazi residents appear unanimous is that militant religious extremism has no part in the revolution. Many people in Libya’s east are frustrated by international speculation about a possible role for Al Qaeda in their revolution. “Al Qaeda’s beliefs are hated here,” says Mansour, a 40-year-old businessman. “But can you tell me why everyone thinks Al Qaeda is here?” He points to my face and laughs, wondering if it’s because some Libyans have beards. “You have a beard, but you’re not Al Qaeda!”

A protester in front of Benghazi’s courthouse on April 15 says she wants Gaddafi out — in Arabic, Hebrew, English, and French

Indeed, humor itself is a ubiquitous feature of life here — despite the fact that the front line hovers near Ajdabiyah, 160 km to the southwest and the last city before Benghazi on the coastal highway. “I saw a guy holding a sign in front of [Benghazi’s] courthouse a few days ago,” says Suleiman, the car-rental-agency owner. “It read: ‘BREAKING NEWS: Satan defects from Gaddafi regime.’”

See Amber Lyon’s investigative reporting from Bahrain for CNN:

If the Obama administration speaks out about the crackdown in Bahrain and the shooting of unarmed protesters, it will anger GCC oil producers — especially Saudi Arabia — that worry about the possibility of pro-democracy movements in their own countries.

The Washington-Riyadh axis is a red line the Obama administration isn’t willing to cross, even if it means human-rights activists in Bahrain continue to be shot, beaten, and killed. Oil is thicker than blood.

The United States also has a military base in Manama, a few minutes’ drive from Pearl Roundabout. Pearl Roundabout was the center of Bahrain’s pro-democracy protests — until it was forcefully cleared out by government forces.

A boy with the Libyan opposition flag painted on his face learns how to make a splint

The names of all children mentioned in this post have been changed.

A version of this article is published on the website of Foreign Policy.


“What do you do in the event of a third-degree burn?” asks Dr. Randa Abidia.

“The hospital! Straight to the hospital!” the kids respond.

I’m sitting in the third row of a classroom at the Libyan International Medical University (LIMU) in Benghazi, next to ten girls and five boys. At the front of the room stand Randa, who is teaching a one-week course on first aid for children aged 9‒14, and her two assistants Maryam and Enas, who are students at LIMU. Today’s two-hour session is on burns.

This could be a classroom anywhere — most of the kids are paying attention, with one or two excitables at the front raising their hands at every prompt, and one or two squirmers fidgeting and chatting in the back. But these kids are here for an unusual reason: School has been closed since February 16, when the revolution got under way.

Dr. Randa Abidia teaches first aid to children in Benghazi. (This was her first course, in mid-March.)

Randa is dean of LIMU’S Faculty of Health Sciences. She and other staff and students at LIMU at volunteering to keep these kids busy — and to teach them first aid that could prove vital if they or their family members are wounded.

With the eastern front in Libya’s war hovering around Ajdabiyah, 160 km southwest of Benghazi and the last city protecting it from Gaddafi’s militias, renewed shelling and street fighting are a real possibility here. This city of 800,000, Libya’s second largest after Tripoli and the temporary capital of opposition-held Libya, has already seen fighting twice — in mid-February, when the revolution began, and in mid-March, when Gaddafi’s tanks were on its outskirts and hard-core Gaddafi supporters emerged from within the city [LINK TO “DARK PLACES” STORY], strafing at civilians with Kalashnikovs. It was Coalition air strikes that saved Benghazi then, forcing Gaddafi’s militias to retreat.

Randa divides the class into groups of three, pulls out a red pen, and draws a small circle on the hand of one member of each group. “You’ve just gotten a second-degree burn,” she explains. “Go treat it!”

The room becomes a beehive of activity. The kids shuffle off, rinsing the “wound” under cold water, packing it with gauze, and pretending to take their charges to the hospital.

Children in the LIMU program do art as well as first aid. The sign at upper left reads, "We are all devoted to the homeland."

Not much to do but sit at home and listen to gunfire


The kids are having a great time. They seem cheerful. After class, some of them stick around to talk to me about their experiences during the war.

“What’s it like at home now that there’s no school?” I ask.

“Boring,” says Ahmad, a chubby-cheeked 11-year-old. He’s sporting a red jacket bearing the logo of Al Ahli, Benghazi’s most popular soccer team.

“Yeah, boring,” agrees Maryam, a ten-year-old girl.

“Boring,” echoes Walid, 13. “I don’t see my friends anymore,” he says. Concerned about safety on the streets, parents are keeping their kids at home. “I have a lot of free time. But I’d rather be in school — I like learning.”

These kids are dealing with more than just boredom, though. One of the girls in this week’s group of students just lost a cousin to fighting in Brega — she was too sad to come to class today. “And in the group of kids I taught two weeks ago,” explains Randa, “one had a brother who was missing, another lost a cousin, and another had a relative who died in Gaddafi’s shelling.” The mother of the child who lost a cousin called Randa and asked her to give the kids time in class to talk and write about their lost loved ones, which they did.

Randa’s first-aid course for kids also includes a session on weapons — how to identify them and stay away from them. But Randa has found that after two months of war, the kids already know most of the weapons. Her husband, dentistry professor Ahmed El-Hejazi, notes that after less than two months of war, the children have already learned to identify weapons by sound. “They hear a tuk-tuk-tuk [he’s mimicking gunfire] and they say, ‘that’s a Kalashnikov,’ or ‘that’s a fourteen-point-five meem taa’” (a reference to a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft heavy machine gun — meem taa is the Arabic acronym for “anti-aircraft”). “They hear an explosion and say, ‘that’s a hand grenade’ or ‘that’s a missile.’”

“Especially the boys,” Randa adds.

War is hard on kids, even if it doesn’t always show


While this week’s group of first-aid students may not have lost immediate family members, it’s clear that the war is stressful for them.

“My aunt, uncle, and cousin are in Tripoli,” says Amina, a ten-year-old girl with short hair. I’m worried about them. Especially my cousin — I really like him.”

“When I was at the Katibah [the military base in Benghazi that rebels stormed on February 20, liberating the city], I saw blood,” says Nadia, a 14-year-old girl with braces and a quiet confidence. “It was scary.”

Lina, 11, says, “I get scared when I hear bullets.” She has big eyes and is wearing a white headscarf with flowers embroidered on it. “My parents don’t tell me what’s going on. I keep asking them, but they don’t want to tell me because they don’t want me to worry. It makes me even more scared.”

Randa has seen a change in attitude between the group of kids she taught two weeks ago and this week’s group. “The first group were more optimistic,” she notes. In late March, the war was going well for the opposition, thanks to aggressive Coalition air strikes on the eastern front that allowed opposition forces to advance rapidly toward the strategically vital city of Sirt, Gaddafi’s hometown. The kids sensed that.

But this group, Randa explains, realize that the war may drag on. They’re less upbeat and more nervous.

“I worry that I’m going to have to repeat fifth grade,” says Amina, the short-haired ten-year-old. Nadia, the 14-year-old with braces, agrees: “I’m scared that I might lose the rest of the [school] year.”

“Do you watch the news on TV?” I ask the kids.

“Yeah, I have to,” says Mona, 12. “It’s boring — there’s no internet. And when I come home, my parents are always watching the news.”

Lina, the eleven-year-old in the white headscarf with flowers, agrees. “People are always watching the news at home. It’s painful to watch people who have been burned and wounded.”

“What did you watch before the war?” I ask her.

“Cartoons,” Lina replies softly, her voice breaking. “But now, it’s always Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya. All the time.”

She looks past me and stares out the window. Her eyes tear up. I wasn’t ready for this — until now, the kids had been bouncy and energetic. She buries her head in her arms on her desk. The girl next to Lina leans over and comforts her.

The aural environment

Posted: April 14, 2011 in Uncategorized

Flag vendors in front of Benghazi's courthouse


This article also appears in Foreign Policy, together with a synopsis of this blog to date.

BENGHAZI, Libya — Lately I’ve been trying to work in Benghazi’s press center, set up by the opposition for foreign press in the building that — until the revolution — housed Benghazi’s high court. It’s a dank building with crumbling walls, but it’s now covered in bright hand-drawn posters, most of them mocking Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in one language or another. It has Internet — slow and sporadic, like all telecommunications in Libya at the moment, but a crucial service nonetheless. But it turns out to be a pretty difficult place to get any work done. Free Benghazi has become a raucous place, one with its own loud rhythms.

When I was here the afternoon of April 8, a rally passed by, chanting slogans. This is pretty standard — rallies pass by every day, starting in other parts of the city and ending at the courthouse square, which, like Cairo’s Tahrir Square, was the opposition protesters’ base when the revolution got under way in mid-February. These days, many of the rally signs are in English, to get the world’s attention — everyone is well aware of the international reach of photographs taken here.

In late March, in the early days of coalition bombing, the signs at rallies largely expressed gratitude toward those countries leading the campaign of airstrikes. But in recent days, as the war’s end no longer seems imminent, the rallies have taken on a more imploring tone. Yesterday, the demonstrators — who by my count were about 60 percent women — were holding signs that read:




The red-black-green opposition flag is ubiquitous at these rallies, though a few demonstrators wave the French tricolor or the Qatari flag. (The Qatari government has contributed planes to the no-fly zone, sold oil to the opposition, contributed extensive humanitarian aid, and  recognized the opposition government as the legitimate government of Libya.) Those are the “big three,” though you occasionally see others: EU flags, American flags, Italian flags, Spanish flags, British flags, and Egyptian flags.

The flag-waving rallies have become a regular enough feature of life in free Benghazi that they have given rise to a booming flag-selling business in the square. Small ones cost $3, big ones $5. Vendors sell mostly the red-black-green opposition flag, but you can buy French and Qatari flags too. Last week I asked a couple of teenage flag vendors where they got them. “We make them at home,” one of them told me, explaining that there’s a tailor in the family.

The stalls selling flags sell revolutionary memorabilia as well: pins, keychains, CDs. Also for sale is a faux one-dinar note that substitutes Omar al-Mukhtar’s figure for Qaddafi’s: al-Mukhtar, the hero of the anti-colonial resistance whom Libyans called “the Lion of the Desert,” was hanged by Italian forces in 1931.

Boy with Qatari flag in front of Benghazi's courthouse. His sign reads, "Thank you Qatar."


Al-Mukhtar was a native son of eastern Libya, and his image is ubiquitous here in Benghazi. Qaddafi rolled al-Mukhtar’s memory into the symbolism of his regime, though the appropriation was an awkward one — wary of threats to his own personality cult, Qaddafi removed a shrine to al-Mukhtar from Benghazi early in his rule, infuriating people there.

Now the opposition has taken al-Mukhtar back, and his image is plastered on cars and buildings everywhere, usually with the red-black-green flag in the background. (Al-Mukhtar’s grandson lent his family name to the anti-Qaddafi uprising in March.) I’ve interviewed countless rebels who recite to me al-Mukhtar’s famous phrase: “La nastaslim — nantasir aw namoot.” “We don’t surrender — we win or we die.” The al-Mukhtar faux one-dinar note sells for half a dinar — about 30 cents. It has convenient peel-away adhesive backing, so you can stick it on anything you want. And people here do.

Memorabilia vendors

*    *    *

I was at the press center around midnight on a recent evening when a man began delivering a thunderous speech on the street outside. It was full of exhortations to freedom and Allahu akbars (which don’t necessarily imply a religious message — just excitement and conviction). The PA system was of middling quality, and plenty loud — I loved the intensity, although it made focusing on writing a challenge.

One-dinar notes real and fake - Gaddafi and Al-Mukhtar

Then, another man started singing anthems for the new Libya. People are often signing anthems for the new Libya in front of the courthouse, over the PA system — women, men, even kids. After sunset, crowds gather, and the singers appear on stage in front of a giant opposition flag. It can be quite moving — and it must be doubly so for the spectators, many of whom are now able to speak (and sing) freely about politics for the first time in their lives.

The most haunting song of all is Saufa Nabqa Huna (“We shall stay here”), which one hears everywhere — in the courthouse square, playing from car stereos, from houses in the street. There’s a man sitting in front of me now whose phone just rang. The ringtone is Saufa Nabqa Huna.

Unfortunately, the man singing last night was out of tune. Badly. Surely someone ought to tell him? It reminded me of those karaoke incidents where you just let someone embarrass himself because he’s had a few too many drinks, and hope he doesn’t remember it the next morning.

Concert in front of Benghazi courthouse (this is not Out-of-Tune Guy, though)

There are other sources of noise. There are the sirens of the squad cars driven by the Katibat al-Shuhada (literally “The Martyrs’ Brigade”), the civil guard corps trained quickly by the opposition as a stopgap to replace the police and internal-security forces who, under Qaddafi, monitored Benghazi’s streets. Cars honk a lot, because central Benghazi’s streets, many unwidened since the days of Italian colonial rule, are congested during the day. When asked what Qaddafi has done for their city, Shargawis — that’s what people from Benghazi are called — just point to these streets and say, “You tell me.”

Sometimes there’s random gunfire. I hardly notice it anymore. Most of it comes from people shooting off their weapons in the air for fun — there’s no fighting in Benghazi at this point — though even that has dwindled from two weeks ago; maybe the thrill is diminishing. But it’s still enough of a problem that someone posted a sign outside a grocery 200 yards from the courthouse reading, “Our children are sleeping — Don’t fire bullets.”

"Our children are sleeping -- Don't fire bullets."

My friend Nabil had to repair his car roof last week because a bullet that someone shot up in the air came down and landed on it — the car he just bought two months ago. Ordering a new roof from Dubai for his Kia would ordinarily have cost him $300, but flights from the UAE have stopped, so he had to shell out $700 for repairs. That’s worse carma than bird shit, if you ask me.

Sometimes, from the press center, you hear massive explosions that sound like car bombs. Those are from fishing boats that use TNT to blow fish out of the water (the blast fishing I wrote about earlier). The last time I ate at Bala, the excellent seafood restaurant on Benghazi’s corniche, I wondered

Bad carma: The roof of Nabil's new Kia, struck by a bullet fired in the air

whether my sea bass had been blown out of the water. But Muhammad, a medical student who lives by the ocean, tells me that “they only catch small fish with TNT, near the beach. The big ones come from the deep sea.”

You can tell which journalists arrived in Benghazi recently: They’re the ones who get up, look around, and ask what the hell just happened when the fishing

The kitchen at the Bala Beach seafood restaurant

 blasts go off. The old hands sit and keep typing.

*    *    *

But today, there are no fishing blasts, no rallies, and no rousing speeches. It’s quiet. All I hear is the sound of waves crashing on the Mediterranean shore, 100 yards away. There’s a light breeze from the ocean. I’m ready to get some work done.

And then, from the square outside:

“I’m your laaaaaaady… and you are my man…”

Someone’s playing Celine Dion on a stereo in the square. Loud.

Charles Homans contributed to this post.

On February 17, at the beginning of the revolution, one of the first buildings that demonstrators stormed in Benghazi was the headquarters of the Revolutionary Committees. They razed it.

The Revolutionary Committees (al-lijan al-thawriyah) are Gaddafi’s die-hards. Established in the 1977 as the ideological vanguard of the Green revolution, their members have a reputation as thugs who menace, beat up, and sometimes kill those who take issue with the regime.

Being a Revolutionary Committee member can be lucrative, too. It is widely reported that members special benefits — such as cars and cash payments — for their dirty work. Members have also been promoted to senior government posts, in recognition of their loyalty to the Colonel.

When you see footage of Gaddafi supporters in Tripoli waving green flags with gusto and holding Gaddafi’s portrait aloft, many of those you see are probably Revolutionary Committee members.

Revolutionary Committee headquarters, Benghazi

Their Benghazi headquarters looks like an outsized high-modernist tepee. A fence in green trim surrounds it. Inside its burnt remains, there is a mural that reflects some of the ideological affinities between Gaddafi’s Third Universal Theory and communism. There are heroic laborers, rockets, and lots of right angles. It wouldn’t look out of place in Minsk.

A few other people are walking through the building, poking around. “Is this your first time in this building?” I ask a man in a black faux-leather jacket, probably in his late 20s.

“Yeah — only Revolutionary Committee members were allowed in this place before. And anyway, I wouldn’t have had any reason to come.”

Inside the burnt-out headquarters

He seems a little nervous talking about it. I imagine how it must feel being in the burnt-out headquarters of an institution whose name has been associated with fear for as long as you can remember.

I talk to another man, in his early 30s. It’s his first time here too. “You know, the Revolutionary Committee members — they’re not the kind of people you’d want to associate with. If someone introduced me to a friend and said he was a Revolutionary Committee member, I’d stay away from the guy.” He shakes an imaginary hand as if only decorum demands it, and then feigns walking away.

He then explains that many people are still uncomfortable speaking about the Revolutionary Committees. “They’re scared that Gaddafi could come back, you know?”

Fear of die-hards dies hard.

At the center of the giant tepee is a globe. To one side is a small auditorium that seats around 100 people. Burnt pieces of ceiling dangle like a torn spider web.

"Down with Gaddafi, the Green Book, and the Revolutionary Committees"

I wonder what kind of speeches neophyte Revolutionary Committee members had to listen to here. Marathon sessions in Green Book ideology, perhaps. I bet they were boring.

Mural inside Revolutionary Committee headquarters, Benghazi

In another room, charred and askew, are file cabinets. The floor is strewn with file folders. A friend walks over with one that he has found on the ground. On the cover is handwritten:

Fatimah Ahmad Al-‘Ubaydi*

Teacher, Benghazi Girls’ School

No. 1764*

*I have changed the woman’s identity and number here, just as I have changed the identities of every Libyan in this blog who is not a well-known public figure.

“These are the files that the Revolutionary Committees kept on the people they were monitoring,” says my friend.

But Fatimah’s folder is empty — the papers that were once inside have fallen out. The youth who stormed this building tossed the place.

Revolutionary Committee file on a teacher at the Benghazi Girls' School

Someone finds another file on the ground. “Check this out.”

This one is a membership dossier for the Revolutionary Committees. It’s got two passport-size photos still paper-clipped to the front, showing a bored-looking guy with an ample mustache. It lists his name, tribe, date of birth, and other personal information.

Benghazi shook itself free of Gaddafi’s grip between February 17 and February 20. The security bulwarks of the ancien régime — the police headquarters, Internal Security headquarters, the Revolutionary Committees headquarters — were taken over or destroyed.

Some of the troops stationed in Benghazi switched sides or surrendered. But others didn’t. After a pitched battle on February 20 to break through its walls, Benghazi’s youth stormed the Katibah — the headquarters of the main Gaddafi militia stationed in Benghazi. A few leading regime officials, including Muammar Gaddafi’s son Sa’adi, narrowly escaped.

Benghazi was in opposition hands. The same drama had also played out across Cyrenaica, in Tubruq, Derna, Al-Bayda, and other cities. By February 21, Libya’s east was free.

Shortly thereafter, opposition leaders in the east announced that all Revolutionary Committee members had one week to turn themselves in, along with any weapons they possessed. If they didn’t, they were subject to imprisonment, or worse — especially if they were found with weapons on their persons or in their homes.

But by mid-March, Gaddafi’s militias had regrouped and his tanks had rumbled back to the outskirts of Benghazi. On March 19, Revolutionary Committee members emerged again from within the city. As Gaddafi’s tanks closed in from the outside, the die-hards on the inside prepared to take it back. Gunfights broke out throughout the city.

One 27-year-old who was manning a rebel inspection post in Benghazi describes what happened then, around March 20. He and some other rebels were checking all cars for weapons.

One car came through with two men in it. When the rebels looked in the trunk, they found a pile of Kalashnikovs.

The rebels figured these were almost definitely Revolutionary Committee members. If not, they had to be Gaddafi stalwarts from other organs of the regime. They contacted the opposition’s central authorities, and the two men were led away.

“To tell you the truth,” he says, “at that moment, I didn’t really care what happened to them after that.”

Auditorium in Revolutionary Committee headquarters, Benghazi

The rebels — with vital support from Coalition air strikes — drove Gaddafi’s militias away from Benghazi and pacified the city after several days of street fighting. The few remaining Revolutionary Committee members — those who hadn’t yet surrendered or been killed — melted away again.

So it’s not hard to understand why people seem a little paranoid about the Revolutionary Committees. People still tell me to be careful about the cars I get a ride with at night, or the alleys I walk down. It’s like there are ghosts and goblins about. But when you’ve lived through decades of fear and silent monitoring, not to mention two bouts of bloodletting in the space of a month, paranoia isn’t so paranoid.

In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon writes: “Only the paranoid survive.”

I glance at Bored Mustache Guy’s membership dossier again. I wonder if he’s one of those who surrendered. I wonder how his life would change if his dossier were posted on the internet.

Dossier on Bored Mustache Guy, a Revolutionary Committee member

Anyone could do that, after all. Anyone can walk in here and find files like his on the ground.

Benghazi’s residents seem determined to move toward a peaceful future without Gaddafi — a future without the Revolutionary Committees. But coming to terms with the ghosts of the past won’t be easy. Especially when the ghosts remain among you.

Kaboom (Part Ithnayn)

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

Benghazi, April 3.

Susanne Tarkowski, a Swedish media and communications specialist, is riding in a car with Mehdi, her Libyan assistant, bodyguard, and driver.

Susanne: “Mehdi, are you carrying a gun?”

Mehdi: “No.”

Susanne: “Under the circumstances, don’t you think that might be a good idea?”

Mehdi: “We don’t need one.”

Susanne: “Why not?”

Mehdi: “I have this.” [Rummages in the beat-up Mazda’s glove compartment and pulls out… wait for it… a hand grenade.]

Susanne (stunned): “What the hell are you going to do with that?”

Mehdi: “I’m going to throw it at Gaddafi when I see him.”

Kaboom (Part Wahid)

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

Benghazi, April 4, 12:30 am.

I’m sitting in one of Benghazi’s best hotels. For some reason, there are few journalists and TV crews in this one — this seems to be where foreign-government types hang out. The demographic leans toward Caucasian men in navy-blue suits with salt-and-pepper hair. A UN delegation stayed here a few days ago. And the Transitional National Council is staying in special quarters next door as well.

Kaboom. Loud explosion. Sounds like a car bomb.

But car bombs haven’t been a part of this war. I go into the next room.

Me: “You guys hear that?”

Ahmad (a friend): “TNT.”

Me: “You think it was an attack on the Transitional Council?”

Ahmad: “They’re fishing.”

Me: “Huh?”

Ahmad: “In Benghazi, they use TNT to blow the fish out of the water.”

(This is a technique known as blast fishing.)