The Road to Tripoli – Part 1
Rick Madonik, Staff Photographer
RAS LANUF, LIBYA - A man holds a knife to his own neck to show what he wants done to Libyan leader Muammar Ghadhafi as rebel fighters are greeted at the gates of Ras Lanuf after its liberation from Ghadafi forces.
WARNING BLOG CONTAINS SOME GRAPHIC IMAGES
When I was approached two weeks ago about heading to Libya to cover this angel of the “Arab Awakening,” I thought Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi would have recognized the tide of the people and fled, or at least make a deal where he gave up power and retreated to his tribal homeland in the south, or his hometown of Sirte. I expected, perhaps optimistically, the assignment would involve a cross-country roadtrip, beginning at the Egyptian border, and ending in the capital of Tripoli.
Fact is, the trip I coined The Road to Tripoli, is stalled.
Apparently, my optimism has been overshadowed, and as each day passes it looks more and more like civil war.
From the outset, the plan was never to get “ahead” of the rebel advance, but to follow it. If we got stalled in Benghazi, so be it. Not much we (Foreign correspondent Mitch Potter and myself) can do except follow developments as they occur. One thing we agreed upon was we wouldn’t risk our safety beyond the inherent risk of covering such an event.
As I write this, we’re in Adjabiya, a city about 130 kms south of Benghazi. We spent the first few days based in Benghazi, with the front line of conflict being near the small city of Brega – about 80 kms south of Adjabiya and 210 kms south of Benghazi.
On our 2nd day in Benghazi, Brega was over run by Gadhafi forces. Brega, with the countries 2nd largest oil facility is strategically important to both sides. It is also the gateway to Benghazi with only Adjabiya between the two. There was now a need to get closer to the action to see what was happening. At 1130 am Mitch was on the phone with a doctor who was part of the new rebel army and those forces were bogged down at the airport south of the city. The doctor relayed to Mitch some 200 rebel fighters were surrounded by approximately 1,000 Gadhafi loyalists (that number turned out to be overstated). Before he hung up in a hurry, when small arms’ fires could be clearly heard over the phone, the doctor said the rebels would not surrender, would not retreat, and would die where they stood. They would not give up the airport without a fierce battle.
We proceeded south, with other journalists, and with caution. From just outside the northern gates of Brega, the fight could easily be heard. By time we arrived, the airport had been defended and Loyalists forces forced back, yet the battle continued at the university south of the residential part of the city. Small arms and RPG fire was clearly evident and audible as we arrived at the hospital about 7 kms from the fighting. A MIG dropped its ordinance about 10 kms east of the city, clearly away from anything strategic.
Streams of ambulances arrived at the hospital bringing the dead, near dead and injured. We spent about 2 hours before heading back to Benghazi. When we left, Brega had been liberated and the city was in joyful glee. Rebel forces were semi-euphoric and streams of anti-aircraft guns and fighters poured into the city. The rebels pushed the Gadhafis’ approximately 160 kms further down the road, then secured the city.
The following day, we decided to head back to Brega. It was Friday, and we got a late start because of Friday prayers in the main square of Benghazi. When we left, we knew the front line was at least 30 kms west of Brega. By time we arrived in Adjadbiya, the information was the fight was now a further 200 kms down the road in Ras Lanuf.
Ras Lanuf, which has the country’s largest refinery, holds great importance. It also had always been under control of Gadhafi forces, so IF it were to be liberated, it would be a great psychological lift to rebel forces and a blow to the Tripoli regime.
Moving forward with caution, getting information from fighters and journalist as we proceeded, we knew of a significant battle ahead. Information also included Gadhafi forces were now employing heavier firepower employing weaponry which could project their destruction upwards of 20 kms. About 40 kms from town, the highway was stretched long with parked cars. A mix of Ras Lanuf citizens who fled, and hundreds of rebel vehicles, marshaled. The sun was setting and we were prepared for a night in the car, along the road. With our communication gear on hand and stores of food and water, we expected a long night.
We crept forward another 10 kms, making sure we were out of range of the guns but with new information the Gadhafi forces were digging the guns into the sand so they could point the weapons less than horizontal. Gadhafi forces held high ground at the airport, with rebels below them. We were confident the fire would be at them, and not up the road.
After being parked for some 30 minutes and setting up for the night, we started to notice the normal movement of cars (lights on, high rates of speed) back toward Ras Lanuf. I continued to edit pictures as the procession continued. After some 400-500 cars passed us we moved forward and passed the oil refinery (15 kms to the east of the city). It was secured by celebrating rebel fighters. The heavy guns had been silent for about an hour and the rebels assured us the city had been liberated. At the same time, some were jittery near the refinery outskirts as some Gadhafi loyalists had slipped into the desert under the cover of darkness. We again retreated to a safer position to confirm what had been told to us. We even called the office on the Satellite hookup to see what info could be relayed via wire services. Ironically, the wires continued to say Ras Lanuf was in Gadhafi hands but the stream of vehicles, and word on the road, tells us the wires did not have up-to-date info.
We moved ahead, but near the back of the stream of traffic. Traffic slowed to a crawl 100 metres from the gates. At that point I left the vehicle to photograph to the scene, the driver and Mitch negotiating the traffic with the car. We would meet 100 metres past the gates, then high tail it to the only hotel in the city to hunker down and get the story and pictures out.
In the morning, we visited the impromptu headquarters of the rebels. The Gadhafi loyalists had been pushed again well down the road. The next major city, some 350 kms further west, is Sirte. Between defending Sirte, and wanting the strategic oil town of Ras Lanuf, we decided to head back to Benghazi. We had only packed for an overnight trip, and if this advance continued, we would be leaving reserve money, a backup hardrive, a lens and clothing behind. We ventured only 20 kms up the road to the town of Ben Jawaad. Our “spidey” sense said it was time to turn around and make the 6 hour trip back to Benghazi.
Suddenly, covering this conflict was becoming a commuter nightmare, if we remained stationed in Benghazi.
The next morning we began the journey to Ras Lanuf. We arrived just before night fall and the city was now filled with foreign journalists. As we approached the city, we were between the refinery and the city, when a bomb strike by a MIG hit 3 kms in front of us. We waited a short while, then sped into the city where we found the same hotel now full of foreign journalists and not a single room to be had. The night before, I am now sure, Mitch and I (and a young English photographer traveling with us) were the only media to cover the actual liberation. The rebels were getting their asses kicked in Ben Jawaad. After documenting the injured being brought to the medical clinic we decided to drive back to Adjabiya to stay safe. As it turns out, it was prudent as journalist were awoken at 4 am and told to get out of the hotel for fear of attack. The medical clinic was also evacuated.
The road is now a target. The following day, an aircraft hit a car carrying a family fleeing Ras Lanuf. Keeping with our original approach to this conflict, we are staying well back from the action, venturing only close when it is as safe “as possible” to do so. At this point, it’s not safe and those who continue to go forward put themselves at great risks.
We are now in a position, should Ras Lanuf fall to Gadhafi forces, the line of defence is 80 kms to the south and the road back to Benghazi is clear and open. Each day, sometimes each few hours, we reevaluate and will continue to do so.
RAS LANUF, LIBYA - Rebel fighters burn the old Libyan flag while the new flag, held by another, flies in the breeze in front of the scene. Soldiers gathered near the edge of town where command officers and some tribal elders met in building in Ras Lanuf.
RAS LANUF, LIBYA - A General in the rebel army, wearing a handmade scarf of the new Libyan flag, talked briefly to media outside a building being used for meetings with command officers in eastern Ras Lanuf.
RAS LANUF, LIBYA - A rebel fighter who was killed in action is brought to the clinic in Ras Lanuf and taken to the morgue. Rebel forces and Gadhafi loyalists clash in Ben Jawwad, about 30 kms west of Ras Lunuf.
RAS LANUF, LIBYA - An injured rebel fighter is held up by others in the triage area of the Ras Lanuf medical clinic.