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03/14/2011

The Kid Goes to War

Rick Madonik, Staff Photographer

Rm_LIBYA0304479
A rebel fighter asks for his picture to be taken with young journalist Lawrence who travelled with Rick Madonik and Mitch Potter into the city of Ras Lanuf after it was liberated from Gadhafi forces.

I continue to be baffled by the number of young, inexperienced journalists who have ventured to Libya to cover the revolution. Actually, I don’t have much issue with them getting their feet wet within the confines of a “quiet revolution” but there is nothing quiet about this one and it is spinning – or as some claim, already spun – into civil war.

A couple of nights ago, walking between two of the hotels inhabited by foreign journalists, Mitch and I couldn’t help but be befuddled by the image of the shaggy-haired, young American walking alone toting his skateboard under his arm. Just days earlier, others had been robbed at gunpoint (crimes of opportunity are bound to pop up) in the 100-metre stretch between the two locations. (The other hotel has much better food). “Idiot,” I muttered to Mitch, as we watched him stroll toward our hotel, not once glancing around to see who was about or if cars were approaching. Simple things like not carrying my camera gear after dusk and not venturing out alone are the norm in such situations. Eyes wide open, scanning cars approaching and people lingering in parked cars, is my state of normal here. Simply said, being aware goes a long way. Some call it paranoid – I call it precautionary.

But this brings me to Lawrence, a young Brit who works for a small newspaper in Devon, England. When we first met him, he told us of his publication. Small, to say the least – a place most of us have worked at sometime in our career in which the “pet of the week” and “baby of the week” are prominent features. We sized Lawrence up to be a twenty-something full of vigor and with a keen interest to expand his experience and abilities. But, sadly, he didn’t come on his newspaper’s dime – or should I say pence. He was here on vacation time, with a quick stop in Cairo to visit his parents who work and live in the Egyptian capital. He thought he’d hop into Libya to photograph some of the “fun.”He was smart enough to buy added health/travel insurance should the proverbial “shit hit the fan.” Others aren’t so smart and being med-evaced out of such places can end up costing a healthy mortgage, not to mention the loss of limb or life.

Sticking close to the relative safe confines of Benghazi is one thing. Venturing to the front lines is another. When he learned of our planned trip for the next day, Lawrence was keen to ask if we had room in the vehicle as we headed south. I earlier recounted how the trip to Brega morphed into a 600 km trek to the newly liberated city of Ras Lanuf, some 300 kms further than we had expected to travel that day.

Mitch and I were both skeptical of bringing along a “green” kid. Usually traveling in numbers is safer – more “back-up” if you will. We discussed the liability he brought to the equation, but he had a fairly square head on his shoulders and he, unlike the skateboarder (his excuse, btw, for bringing a skateboard to a war had something to do with his own personal comfort zone, where I saw it as a big old target that says, SCREW WITH ME!), seemed eager to listen to what guidelines we set, including always keeping close contact and not wandering too far when anything was the least bit dicey.

As a photographer, one concern I had was the ridiculously large bag he totted about. He had two cameras and four lenses stuffed into it. They were never readily available, something he soon learned to be a great disadvantage. After chiding him a couple of times for leaving it somewhere and wandering off, he always had it slung upon his shoulder. It weighed a good 25 pounds and was way too large.

When we hit the road to go south, I took him aside and gave him his golden rules. “Always know where the car is and always keep me in sight.” This caution had to be reinforced when we photographed hundreds upon hundreds of people and rebel troops lining the road 40 kms outside of Ras Lanuf. It was easy to slink off and all of sudden not be in view. I also cautioned him about watching the roadway. Ambulances streamed one way, rebels the other, with people standing on the roadway. The normal speed of travel along the roadways here is 100 mph (I’m not exaggerating), so looking well down the road before traversing it is wise.

After a very long day, and several changes of plans, we entered Ras Lanuf after it was liberated. It was about 9 pm and the celebration was quite wild. Lawrence did what he was told. Leaving the car, Mitch said “We’ll meet you 100 metres after the gates” and I headed out with Lawrence on my heels. He quickly lost me as I began to shoot the celebratory scene. I couldn’t see him anymore, but figured he’d get to the gate (it was only 50 metres away when we left the vehicle) and he would find the car. I wasn’t happy that I couldn’t see him anymore, but nothing I could do about it. There were too many AK-47s being fired into the air in joyous celebration to be not paying attention.

A couple of minutes later I saw him clinging to a light pole, slightly elevated above the crowd, and shooting video. I was happy to see him staying put and we both now knew where each was. I later learned he had returned to the car shortly after leaving it to tell Mitch, and Mohammed (our fixer/driver) he had lost me in the crowd. Mitch told him where to meet up. Apparently he hadn’t heard that when we exited the vehicle.

One of the problems with the ragtag, rebel army, is they are not professional soldiers. NO ONE walks with his gun muzzle pointed to the ground (almost always held at 45 degrees across their chest). I’ve seen too many weapons with their “safety” off and for some strange with finger on trigger, instead of on trigger guard. Just walking about testosterone-enraged men brings a level of danger. (In fact, the next morning, standing with about 100 of them in front of the building housing the military commanders, a gun did misfire causing a stir. The rebel got a loud dressing down from others as they showed him the safety. A man standing beside the weapon bent over and covered his ear and started yelling. At first I thought he’d been hit by the round but I think he only suffered a bit of hearing loss from the close call.The scene was relatively quiet, with not much to shoot, so I had already retreated to a place of relative security, away from the muzzles and the eager soldiers. Lawrence was standing beside me when the round went off. “Told ya. Shit happens,” was my comment.

Shortly afterward, as we headed back to Benghazi (six hour drive), I asked Lawrence if he thought he would end up photographing such a scene. He was amazed at the opportunity that fell his way but also acknowledged his time was done and would head back to Cairo the next day.Mitch turned to ask him, “So, how you ever going to go back to shooting pet of the week, after this?” 

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Come on Mad Dog we were all young and keen once. Good to see you're keeping safe and obviously making sure the next generation is keeping their head down and their eyes open.

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