Now I can tell you about him..... his name is Mohammed
03/10/11 - BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Mohammed Mattardi (right) translates for Fatouri Warfali, father of Fat Warfali (pictured) who was arrested in 1993 and executed in 1996, part of the 1,200 Benghazi citizens killed in a matter of hours. Families of the 1,200 did not receive confirmation of the deaths until 2009.
Rick Madonik, Staff Photographer
With last week's developments in Libya, I can finally tell you about a remarkable young man. Due to security concerns, both Mitch Potter and myself have been reluctant to speak about him in any public forum. Mohammed Muttardi, and his family members, would be an easy target for Gadhafi loyalists. (Although Gadhafi is dead, there are still elements loyal to the despot who can, potentially, cause great problems. Before posting this blog, Mohammed was consulted about writing about him. He gave the thumbs up.)
Mitch Potter first visited Tripoli in 2004 as Gadhafi reinvented himself to the West and then Prime Minister Paul Martin met Gadhafi in Tripoli. During the trip, Potter established some contacts, one of which was a young Libyan with a web business. It was through that contact, Potter and I were introduced to Mohammed.
Our first day in Benghazi, I was running around while Potter made contact with Mohammed and sat down with him in our hotel. When I returned to the hotel later that day, I was introduced to Mohammed.
For the next 14 days Mohammed was instrumental in helping Potter and I get our stories out. In his mid 20s, Muttardi is an IT specialist working for a major cell phone provider. Although the parent company was owned by a Gadhafi offspring, Mohammed worked more for the emerging National Transition Council, and foreign media types, than his regular job. His Benghazi bosses were very understanding and cut him a lot of slack. Once in a while, he would have to pull himself away from his work with us, to troubleshoot some issues at his day job.
We both came to like Mohammed. His communication skills were/are by far the best of any "fixer" I've ever worked with. He understood the complexities of what was unfolding around him, and he understood the dangers. He was not deluded that everything would change drastically once Gadhafi was gone (there was never an IF, but WHEN) and fully recognized change would be slow. He was open and honest with us and taught us much about Libyans' and the undercurrents which ran through the culture.
His driving skills were excellent, to the point where I had no trouble dozing off in the backseat while we streamed across the countryside at 100 mph (yes, MILES per hour). He never complained about the abuse we put his poor car through, wracking up approximately 3500 kms over two weeks. We used his car for everything we did, and he was more than generous with his time and energy.
His resourcefulness was unmatched. The first day we met him, Muttardi was able to secure US dollars for a Barcelona TV crew that hitched a ride with us to Benghazi from the border. For some reason, the TV guys thought they could finance their trip with Credit Cards, and barely 100 Euros in their pocket. Despite the closing of all things business, including banks, Mohammed was able to secure cash dollars to enable these guys to work. And he didn't know them, merely did it as a favor, since they had travelled into Libya with us.
When Potter and I decided it was time to get much closer to the fighting, we explained to Mohammed our plans and needs, and told him if it was too much risk for himself, we could find someone else to drive and translate for us. After all, he was already taking considerable risk, and now we were asking him to put himself at additional risk. He was all for it. He'd come to recognize neither Potter nor myself were cowboys and we took his safety as seriously as we took our own. We were keen to tell the story which was around us, but to do it in as safe a manner as possible - given the circumstances.
Mohammed's focus was to lead us to the people and places which could facilitate our goals. For him, it was important the world witness what was going on inside Libya, and he wanted to do what he could to make that happen.
Spending so many hours in confined spaces, we recognized we enjoyed each other's company. Mohammed would tell us about his family and their life under the Gadhafi regime. His parents were involved in a charity organization which through the years helped to feed undernourished babies of lower income families. The family home, which we were invited to, was stocked with boxes of baby formula. When meeting Mohammed's father, we learned the charity was involved in sending hot meals to rebel fighters. Instantly I asked if I could photograph the cooking of the meals, and within a day, Potter and I were standing among a dozen women who were cooking and packaging 1,000 liver and rice meals that would be sent to fighters to the south.
Through it all, Mohammed remained rock solid, never flinching and always enthusiastic. It didn't matter if a MIG was dropping a bomb close by, we were inching along the highway at night without headlights, or trying to find somewhere to sleep when there were no hotel rooms anywhere.
We came to respect Mohammed. And I think its safe to say, he came to respect us. To this day, both Mitch and I are in contact with him. With the menace which was Gadhafi gone, Mohammed has said the wedding plans are moving forward. The house he was building is once again under construction and he's making noise about Potter and I coming back for the wedding. Should I get a formal invitation, it is a trip I will undertake. Hopefully, I'll be able to fly into Benghazi and not have to endure the 17 hour drive from Cairo.
03/11/11 - BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Mohammed Muttardi (right) helps move a cauldron of food to another location across the street to prepare more box meals. A local charity, Sanabel al-Hidaya, initiated by his father (seen in doorway) has for the last three years delivered food to less advantaged Libyans. While continuing that work, the charity is now preparing warm meals of liver and rice for rebel fighters.
03/10/11 - BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Mohammed Muttardi slips among boxes of baby formula warehoused at his family home. His family is invovled in a charity which helps less advantaged Libyans.
03/07/11 - ADJABIYA, LIBYA - The luxurious confines of foreign travel in war zones sometimes involves sharing a the LAST room available in a city near the front lines. Mitch Potter works (right) while Mohammed talks on his cell phone in the $30 ($10 each) room we share at a 1 star hotel.
03/12/11 - WEST OF BREGA, LIBYA - Mohammed Muttardi takes some time for noon time prayers before we head back to Benghazi.
03/13/11 - BENGHAZI, LIBYA - Mitch Potter (left), Mohammed Muttardi (centre) and Rick Madonik. Photo was taken as I said my goodbyes to Mohammed as I would leave Libya the following morning. Potter stayed on for another couple of days. ED NOTE: Worst hair day of my life! (Photo by Etienne de Malglaive)