On the Road with Libya’s Lions of the Desert
Jan 7 2013
The smoke from Taha’s massive cone joint flowed through the cabin of our silver Hummer. The A/C was on high and blew long fingers of smoke to the back seat. We were all mellow. Taha’s aviator sunglasses hid his tiny black eyes as he cranked the volume on the Arabic Reggae beat until it became painful. Then he floored it.
'Jesus Christ, he’s PTSDing again,' I thought, as the speedometer cranked past 100mph.
“He has to drive fast here,” Hamid said in flat, Arabic-accented Canadian English. “This is where the snipers were, and if we didn’t do this we were dead.”
The Hummer slalomed as we sped towards the sea west of Misrata. The dark asphalt was covered with sand on the edges, and I prayed Taha could keep the car from sliding out of control as it swung side to side on the twisting road. I kept thinking about what my father had taught me about a tyre’s contact patch and how small it is; his father had been a champion racecar driver in Havana in 1920. 'I’ll never get to see Havana,' I thought sadly, convinced Taha was about to roll the car.
A white Mazda pickup appeared over a rise, coming straight at us. Taha expertly pulled right and slid the Hummer around him, lining us up on the sea road. We sat there for a second, staring at two T-55 tanks, burnt hulks that sat guard on the road like ghosts. Taha sat crouched in the driver’s seat, his sunglasses barely over the steering wheel as sweat covered his brow.
Hamid dialled back the music as Taha leaned back and we continued to Misrata.
“See, I told you he has to drive fast here.”
“Hashish no problem. Whiskey no problem. Music problem,” Taha said. His English was meagre and talking to him was like conversing with George “The Animal” Steel. I looked at Lucian my cameraman.
“You get that?” I asked.
“Got it,” he said, sitting up next to me, taking the camera down from his face, rubbing it against his perfectly trimmed beard. At first I thought he was lying down next to me fearing for his life until I realised he was angling for a shot of Taha, the joint and the speedometer.
I was back in the US after two trips to Libya in three months when I pitched Dan Rather the idea of doing a documentary on Muammar Gaddafi’s death. I used to be one of the UN’s war crimes investigators in Libya after the war. I primarily looked at Nato’s bombing. But we were short staffed, and so I was also given the lead on investigating Gaddafi’s death. The UN wanted to know if he was “EJE’d” – or Extra-judicially Executed, as they say in international legal circles. It was an odd request, I thought. Who gives a shit if he was EJE’d I asked? Should we give the guy a medal? If someone popped Bashar al-Assad earlier in Syria wouldn’t we all just be better off? Maybe so, but this was serious stuff so I went about it seriously doing two trips to Libya – November 2011 and January 2012 – along with a team of about a dozen war crimes investigators.
Working for the UN is funny. Everyone thinks we have some great karmic authority. It is as if people say, oh, it’s the UN, how can we help? The reality is sometimes you show up at a site and an old bespectacled Libyan in fatigues and a beret tells you, “Take your fucking paper and shove it up your ass,” in perfect English. We drive around in huge white Land Rovers that scream “HERE I AM, SHOOT ME” and we are often confined to base for security reasons while our colleagues and friends in human rights organisations and the press call us from shisha bars on the beach in Tripoli telling us “It’s safe. Get your ass out here.”
We flew to Libya via Rome in November, shortly after Gaddafi was killed. There were 12 investigators, a chief of security and a close protection guy that had the guns. The chief of security was a massive dark-skinned Brazilian and the close protection guy was a dashingly handsome Tunisian who never stopped smiling. We flew to Rome from Geneva when the Italian police showed up. It was a buffet of heavily accented English.
“What do you mean no guns?” the chief of security asked.
“Prego, we are sorry but there is a UN arms embargo on Libya. You must send your weapons back.”
“But we ARE the UN.”
“Still, Alitalia refuses to break the embargo.”
“But it is OUR embargo. We are not importing weapons to Libya. These are for our protection. Should we throw our cell phones if we get shot at?”
The Italian police shrugged but would have none of it, and the guns went back.
We flew on one of the oldest MD-80s on the planet. The MD-80 has a staircase in the rear of the aircraft. Fabulous design. The ass of the plane is a huge cone that just swings aside to let the stairs down. The cone on this plane didn’t seem to seal great. There was a constant whistling in the plane and it was icy cold inside.
We carried blue UN passports called “LPs” or Laissez Passer, literally LET PASS. They are a curious document that not every country accepts. I took mine out at passport control and faced a young man in mismatched camouflage: blue navy pattern pants with desert shirt. Rebel chic, I thought. “Please mister,” he asked, “which is the Libyan VISA?” I stared at him a second, flipped past a half dozen or so orange and green striped Afghan VISAs and finally found the blue-green Libyan one.
We drove to the UN base and my jaw hit the floor. Every UN facility has to be MOSS certified by meeting the Minimum Operational Security Standards. Part of that means they need to be able to secure a compound, and the only one they could find in Tripoli was a five-star beach resort. It was stunning. I had a lovely villa. There was a state of the art gym, swimming pool, Jacuzzi and sauna. Coming from Afghanistan where I had lived in relative squalor I thought I had finally found a mission where life could be as good as the work.
As we prepared to set out the next day we all gathered for the morning security briefing. The Brazilian reviewed where everyone would be and when and made sure we had our phones set and radios on.
“What’s the freek?” I asked, wanting to know what the frequency was for the radio in the Land Rovers. In dangerous places like Afghanistan where cell phones may not cover everything you need a way to communicate so handheld radios are crucial. But they only have a range of a mile or so. To remedy this, the UN places repeaters throughout the country and every vehicle has a powerful radio that is always in touch with base via the repeaters. No matter where you go, you always know that radio works and your life may depend on it.
“Well, the mission is too new,” he said. “The radios haven’t been set up yet.”
“Seriously?” someone asked. The team was full of very experienced investigators with time in places like Afghanistan, Bosnia and Darfur.
“We all have our cell phones and we will always travel in pairs. I will make sure things are secure. Either that or we stay at the resort.”
'Break out the swim trunks,' I thought. But the reality was you do the job no matter the challenges. We were also down a few vehicles from what we had requested. Budget cuts.
My first site was in Gargour. It was Gaddafi’s command bunker during the war and Nato just missed killing him there when two bunker busters slammed into it on April 30, 2011. Gaddafi left minutes before the bombs tore the bunker open but his son was there and died in the attack. It was also the Tripoli base of a Misrata brigade called The Lions of the Desert. The Brigades all had cool names like the Lions or the Tiger Brigade. The 501st was named after Misrata’s area code. But the Lions had a logo – two glorious lions looking out over the Libyan desert – and they were running this place.
Months later, after Dan Rather decided to make the documentary for his show Dan Rather Reports, I rolled up to Gargour’s gate, a massive corrugated metal monstrosity with the new Libyan flag painted on it. There was a tiny peephole. My cameraman Lucian and I hopped out of the dilapidated Mercedes van we were driving with the fixer we had hired to take us around. Things were tense. The fixer had promised he would take us to Misrata but he hadn’t delivered.
“It’s a closed city,” he said, his oily hair matted to his face in sweat. It was Africa hot, about 104 degrees and the van’s A/C wheezed as it tried unsuccessfully to keep things human.
“You need a special paper. It has to be signed by the Misrata Military Council and the city council to allow us through the checkpoints and to film. We will have it.”
He kept saying that, “We will have it.” After two days I was tired of listening to his prattle and wanted to get on with the job. We were running out of things to film in Tripoli.
The gate moaned as a slender Libyan with crooked teeth swung it open from inside. He walked out with a massive man in a robe, his stomach so large he looked like he was walking in a personal tent.
Jesus Christ, it’s Jack Sprat and his wife I thought.
The fixer spoke to the slender man as the large man walked up to us, pushing past the Libyans with his girth, shaking our hands enthusiastically.
“Hello!” he bellowed. “How are you?” his accented English began a litany of questions anyone who has worked in multiple Middle East war zones is used to hearing. It was the list of catchphrases that children learn in school or they hear from soldiers passing by. How are you, where you from, what’s your name? “I am Dumby!” he exclaimed.
Lucian and I looked at each other. Well, this was a good start. The last time I was here they interrogated us for an hour just to get access. At least Dumby seemed to like us.
“Come, come,” he said, swinging the gate open. We jumped into the van.
“Lucian, last time I was here this place was full of technicals. Turn the camera on.”
Our sweaty driver started the old van, and we rolled into the compound. Sure enough there were two pickup trucks, double-barreled 14.5mm machine guns on makeshift mounts were on their beds. Lucian sat low, peeking around the seats. We wanted this on camera just in case they stopped us from filming it later.
When I slid the side door to the van open a small crowd had gathered. It was rapidly clear who was in charge. Two men appeared, a tall, hulking dark-skinned man with aviator sunglasses and a gut and a smaller light-skinned fellow with a hoodie and jeans. Both had their hair razor tight like a Marine. The smaller fellow asked us to enter a small building they had turned into an office.
We walked into a nightmare from Ikea, fresh wooden slats ran along the walls and floor. There were brand new prefab cream-coloured wood bookcases with tiny Ikea accent lights shining light through glass shelves. The floor was fresh pine. I wondered where the tiny meatballs were.
Lucian and I sat on couches recycled from the 1970s, deep plush couches like my grandparents had that change disappears into for decades. The large man scraped two metal chairs along the floor and he and the one in the hoodie sat down. Our translator sat next to us and rattled off some Arabic as the two looked over our passports.
“I’m Hamid,” said the one with the hoodie in perfect English. “This is Taha. I hope you don’t mind but we need to find out who you are before we can just let you in.”
“Of course. We are here doing a documentary about the death of Gaddafi,” I told him. “I was here back in November and January with the UN. We want to film the bunker. That’s all. You are welcome to watch and we won’t film anything you don’t want us to.”
Taha thumbed through Lucian’s thick passport. He had spent numerous tours in Afghanistan filming the Marines, had worked throughout Africa and the Middle East. His was a passport that said experience. Mine was brand new. After leaving the UN, I needed to get a clean passport, my other having Israel stamps from multiple trips. Libya doesn’t allow people in with stamps from Israel.
“You look familiar,” Hamid said, “When were you here?”
“November and January. I was all over the place. The Misrata Brigade also let me into the rooms in the building where Gaddafi had the pool and sauna. Are they still there?” I asked, hoping details like this would prove my bona fides.
Taha showed him my VISA and spoke in Arabic to him.
“Why is your VISA issued by the ambassador and not the press office?” Hamid asked, picking up Lucian’s passport and reading the Arabic writing on the VISAs. This was news to me. Unable to read Arabic, I had no clue what was written on the VISAs.
“We have a very tight schedule and due to Ramadan we couldn’t get a VISA from the press office. We went through the ambassador. He must have thought it would be better to personally endorse them.”
“He thinks you are spies,” Hamid said, waving at Taha. I took a moment to look at the man. He still wore the aviator sunglasses, even in the shade of the room. The passports were like playing cards in his massive hands, and his forearms bore the scars of combat. 'Don’t fuck with this one,' I thought.
“Look at it from our perspective,” Hamid began. “You have a new passport. This guy has been basically everywhere bad shit happens. You know a lot about this place and have VISA from the ambassador. Where are your press passes?”
Lucian shrugged. Hamid smiled.
“Hamid,” I started, trying to dig us out of a hole, “Why would we come here to this place where so many reporters have already been? You know the UN was here too. This is a famous place. What is more likely, we are just another group of journalists or we are hunting for Gaddafi’s gold?”
He laughed. “But you are no journalist.”
“I was in the UN. I have been here and know these sites like the back of my hand. Isn’t it natural they would hire me?”
Taha’s cell phone rang and he handed it to one of their men as Hamid spoke to him. The man quickly handed the cell phone back to Taha who took the call. Taha’s voice jumped an octave and he wagged a finger like the man was in front of him. He hung up, rose and yelled to Hamid as he left the building.
“One of our men who had been kidnapped by Gaddafi men in Bani Walid has been released. He was tortured, and we are going to storm the parliament.”
“Can we come?” Lucian asked.
“But you must ride with us to get past the checkpoint.” Hamid said.
We all jumped and ran out. There was a roar and Taha sat before us in a massive silver Hummer.
“Now you are talking,” Lucian said, raising his camera to his shoulder.
Bani Walid is a pro-Gaddafi town. During the revolution in 2011 the brigades from Misrata laid siege to it in the old medieval style by cutting it off from the outside world and firing explosives at it for weeks. Instead of trebuchets tossing balls of Greek-fire, they lobbed hundreds of Grad rockets, launched shells from recoilless rifles and plastered the city with inaccurate 23mm anti-aircraft machine guns mounted to pickup trucks. That tends to piss people off. Since the end of the war Bani Walid and the rest of Libya have been at odds. But recently the Gaddafi supporters have been stepping things up in a campaign of kidnappings targeting people from Tripoli and the surrounding area, but especially Misratans.
My first time to Bani Walid was in January 2012 when the UN sent our teams there in a small convoy of three Land Cruisers. UN DSS, the Department of Safety and Security, warned us that things were tense but we had meetings set with the local authorities and they promised things were calm. We set out on a clear crisp morning from Misrata driving southwest on a road that took us through the Libyan Desert. Wild camels grazed on scrub brush as we sped past.
I couldn’t help but think about my grandfather’s cousin Libert who was part of Rommel’s Afrika Corps fighting across Libya in 1941 on a 20mm anti-aircraft cannon much like the Libyan brigades had used. The story goes his Bavarian Colonel brought a hand-carved oak bed with him and he had Libert and his battery move the bed every time the front shifted. Well, back in ‘41 Rommel was hard charging towards Tunisia, so the bed moved every day. The damn thing was so heavy it took several men to lift and one day Libert, a fed-up Corporal, told his buddies they would lose the bed in the desert and tell their crazy Colonel they had to abandon it during an attack. Six men hefted the oaken beast in the blazing sun and walked right into a British patrol. Libert spent the rest of the war in Roswell, New Mexico at a POW camp. That bed probably saved his life.
We pulled into the hospital parking lot in Bani Walid. Hospitals are always good meeting places in conflict areas – everyone knows where they are and they hopefully don’t have any pissed-off guys with guns. We parked the three Land Cruisers next to each other and broke open a crate of juice boxes as we waited for our government contact. An old Corolla, more body-rot than car, pulled up in front of us and a Libyan wearing a white shroud approached us.
“Salam Aleykum,” he said, his breath a cloud of vapour in the cold winter air.
“Aleykum al Salam,” our Egyptian colleague replied. And they started to talk rapidly. Abdul, the head of our delegation was a wizened Indian from South Africa whose precise English commanded authority, went over to them and began a parlay. He was a devout Muslim whose keen perception and cool head had kept us out of trouble.
“Welcome to Bani Walid. I represent the people and welcome the UN,” the Libyan said through the interpreter.
“Many thanks, we represent a delegation of eminent scholars here to investigate the crimes of the war.”
“Then you must come with me. I will take you to all the places.”
“Thank you my friend, but we have an appointment with the government representatives and await their escort.”
The man spat. His body language and demeanour changed, his hands rapidly gesticulating through the air. He spoke at length. This can’t be good, I thought.
“The government does not represent the people. They are spies for foreign governments and if you meet with them I will gather 100 of our fighters, and we will slay you.”
“My friend, we represent the United Nations and we will meet with all the people of Libya. Please understand we do not take sides and must meet with the government. We will be happy to meet with you at an appointed time.”
The man in white turned and got into his car without a word. He wrestled with the starter, placed the car in gear and was gone.
“Merde,” said our security chief. The January trip to Libya was larger than the one in November and we picked up several people because we had to split up. The Brazilian went to Benghazi with one group while we inherited a fine Frenchman named Christian. He was in his fifties and had been the head of security in Baghdad when Sérgio Vieira de Mello, the UN’s special representative in Baghdad, was killed by a bomb in 2003.
Eventually our government liaison showed up and took us to a tall white building that had been a prison during Gaddafi’s time.
“I do not like this,” Christian said, “there is only one entrance.” One entrance meant one exit. If things went tits-up, we were screwed.
Our delegation was taken to a conference room on the top floor and we began a droning meeting filled with pleasantries. Then my radio crackled.
“Marc, we have a problem.”
Christian had made me the security point of contact for the group when we were in meetings because of my field experience. We all had massive Motorola walkie-talkies strapped to our hips, but most everyone turned them off in meetings. I was to keep mine on in case Christian needed to get us as he always remained on watch with the vehicles.
I walked out of the meeting into a maelstrom. The hallway was full of men dashing towards the stairs. Suddenly I saw everyone had a gun out, pulling them from under long coats. I looked out the window.
“Fuck,” I said to myself. Our friend had kept his word. Outside there were dozens of angry men, many waving guns and shouting. They had blocked the one exit with their vehicles, effectively stranding us in the prison. Then the shooting started.
I hit the floor. There wasn’t a lot of shooting but it was random and angry. I crawled to the stairs and tried to get Christian on the radio, but it must have been too loud for him to hear, so I thought it best to look for an escape route. I clambered down the stairs and found a back door that led to an empty parking lot behind the building. We could all get out, but Christian and the drivers would be fucked. The shooting was intermittent and it didn’t sound like anyone was returning fire thank God. Hopefully it was just pissed off men firing into the air.
I ran up the stairs and pulled Abdul out of the meeting.
“We have a problem,” I began, and I filled him in.
“I will go out and talk to them,” he said.
“You will WHAT?” I asked, incredulous that he would try to face down an armed angry mob. They really didn’t look like they wanted to talk. But he was the boss, so the two of us walked down the stairs.
Abdul strode out of the building, walking directly towards the mob. I skulked behind a cement column on the side of the building. Christian came out of the car with the drivers and the Egyptian came down to translate. I watched stunned as Abdul took on the guise of Charlton Heston from The Ten Commandments, standing before the crowd, his arms raised high as if to part the Red Sea. He beckoned them to put away their arms, to disperse, and spoke of the UN representing all people and willing to listen to their grievances, but not at the end of a gun. Eventually the guns disappeared and the crowd dispersed and Abdul spoke to their leader, the man in white from the hospital. Then Abdul came to me.
“They have agreed to take you to the sites while we stay here to talk to the government.”
“They WHAT?” I asked, my voice squeaking as I looked at Abdul, pleadingly. “You are giving me up as a hostage?”
“Don’t be melodramatic, Marc. You need to investigate the Nato airstrikes. If they take you to them we are ahead of the game.”
And he was right. Site after site, they brought me to places Nato had hit where civilians had been killed by Nato. Some were clearly legal, others dubious. We spent the rest of the day combing through debris, doing interviews and getting the job done.
By 4PM Christian and I headed back to rendezvous with the others at the hospital. We needed to head back to Tripoli before dark. The cell phones were out of network and we sat there, huddled in the Land Cruiser waiting for the other two to arrive, making calls on the Motorola. Eventually we heard a crackle, “Inbound.” As we drove out in a three-car convoy two pickups appeared. I was in the lead car when a colleague from Iraq who had been in Saddam’s Republican guard spat out, “We are taking fire from the cars behind us.”
I looked back and saw the telltale flashes of gunfire from men hanging out the windows of their vehicles.
“Merde,” Christian said as the driver increased speed and we headed towards the road to Tripoli. Bullets whizzed past our car and bounced off the asphalt. Then suddenly they stopped. I looked back and saw the two pickups, side-by-side. We had reached the edge of Bani Walid and they let us go.
The protest in Tripoli was a crazed affair; Misratan men climbed over the bamboo walls to the Rixos Hotel, where Parliament was held, trying to breach security. The guards were gentle, first asking the men to stay on their side of the wall, then softly coaxing them down and sending them back. A car appeared and inside was a man in grave distress. Lucian put the camera on him, spoke to him, but I was too far to hear what was said between them. Later Lucian told me the fellow had been tortured by men from Bani Walid and agreed to speak to us. Hamid came, expressing his gratitude, and Taha appeared, happy we had come to record their grievances with the government. We left them and planned to meet the torture victim at the hospital later that night.
His body was covered in sores. The men from Bani Walid tried to get him to utter pro-Gaddafi slogans. He refused. And so they took spoons from a fire and touched them to his skin. They poured boiling tea on his head. They beat him. As he lay before me in the hospital on his stomach, too damaged to sit on his back, he spoke softly, deliberately. “There are evil men in Bani Walid,” he told us. “There are also men that fought to free me,” he said. “Do not revenge. Free our brothers.” This man was kidnapped and tortured, yet he begs to show mercy. Hamid and Taha were happy with our efforts. The next day they gave us free rein of the bunker in Gargour and agreed to take us to Misrata and Sirte and be our guides.
The drive to their base, what they called the “Lions Den”, was not far once Taha had recovered from his PTSD episode. We pulled into western Misrata near the sea. The air was a combination of salt and diesel fumes from God knows what. The Lions of the Desert had made their base out of an old garage tucked into a space between a high–rise apartment complex. Taha pulled the Hummer up to a corrugated metal gate and sat on the horn until it swung open, revealing a dozen pickups armed with Russian SPG-9 recoilless rifles and 14.5mm anti-aircraft cannons.
We pulled in, and the door slammed shut behind us. A slender man with curly black hair closed the door and greeted Taha and Hamid in a long embrace.
“This is Shafiq,” Hamid told us, and the man gave us warm handshakes as Lucian pulled out his camera to film the scene. As if on cue Shafiq mounted a cannon and began to spin around like a teacup ride at Disneyland, only this cup carried twin-barrels of death. He laughed as he spun, almost dizzy. I just prayed his feet didn’t hit the foot-peddle trigger. I was amazed at how little respect these men showed to weapons. Their trigger discipline didn’t exist, and they often showed off with guns or pulled grenades from the glove compartment to impress us. Lucian and I only raised our guards further when they did this.
Once Shafiq was done touring us around the shop, we went to their lair, a small rectangular room with an air conditioner that wheezed as it tried to cool the room.
“This Gaddafi!” shouted Taha ebulliently as he pointed to the couch he sat upon.
“We took these from his palace at Bab al Aziya in Tripoli,” Hamid said. I looked at the garish golden couch as we sat on it, lounging after the three-hour drive from Tripoli. Taha reached under the table and pulled out a full bottle of Ballantine’s Scotch. He put plastic cups before us and started to pour.
“I thought this was Haram,” Lucian said as he lifted the Scotch to his mouth, inhaling deeply. It had been days since we had enjoyed alcohol. Libya is a conservative nation with a total ban on alcohol. But there are bans, and there are bans.
“The Prophet taught us that if you do something Haram out of the sight of others, it is permitted,” Hamid said, slamming a shot of Scotch. Taha poured me a good two inches, topping it off with a splash of Pepsi.
We sat back. Staccato Arabic filled the room as the men caught up and two others eventually joined us. Taha downed the Scotch with glee, filling his cup again and again, his tiny black eyes glazed over in a hashish-whiskey stupor. Out came Bouckie, a plate of spicy pasta like penne-al-arabiata garnished with goat. We ate communally, everyone dipping his spoon into the slop, our spit mixing. Then Taha rose. He said something in Arabic and beckoned for us to follow.
He staggered like a linebacker rising from a sack, his huge girth moving out of synch with his head. He fished out his sunglasses and walked to a vehicle. He reached in and pulled out a shotgun with a stunning redwood stock. The last place I wanted to be was around a drunk with a gun, so I pulled back, keeping something solid between Taha and myself. Lucian stood behind him, camera raised, darting back and forth to make sure he was always behind the large man. Taha opened a box of ammunition, loaded and fired randomly, laughing. He did it again and again. Everyone crowded around him. I was the only one that hid.
He opened the chamber, carefully slid a shell into it and slammed the bolt closed, concentrating like only a drunk can when trying to do the most basic things. He pointed the rifle out laughing and didn’t look as he pulled the trigger. A car appeared, darting down the road in front of the lair, Taha’s poorly aimed shot firing just in front of the car’s grill. The brakes squealed and the car slid. The driver leaped from the car screaming, incredulous as Taha laughed uncaring. Suddenly the men looked at each other and embraced. They were old friends who had fought together. A few words passed, all was forgiven, the shotgun was put away and we retreated to the Den to drain the Ballantine's.
The next morning they took us to meet the Mayor of Misrata. His office was adorned with more awards and glass plaques than I thought he could have earned in the few months since the war had ended. It was in a strikingly modern low building with white stucco walls. We entered, the room filled with more than a dozen men arguing with the mayor as Taha lit a cigarette. Lucian grabbed a glass tray with a sailboat motif and slid it to Taha, a makeshift ashtray to keep the room clean. The conversation halted as the mayor raised his hand.
“That is not an ashtray,” he said in perfect English. Lucian mumbled an apology and the men went back to their argument.
Hamid leaned close to me, whispering. “These are the representatives of the war wounded. They are angry with the government for failing to provide follow-up medical treatment.” I looked around the room and for the first time noticed that all of these men were hobbled by one ailment or another. Some walked with a cane or had massive scars. Hamid lifted the traditional Libyan robe he wore that day to show me a fist-sized scar on his leg.
“I had a chunk taken out by a mortar. The guy standing next to me was killed. The doctors removed flesh from my thigh to fill in the hole.”
The argument with the mayor continued. Eventually he placed his fingers together, touched them to his mouth, spoke and the men left grumbling.
“I told them I am only the mayor,” he said to us, “I have no control over such matters. But if the government does not deal with this they will have a crisis.” He said. “Now, how many I help you.”
“We are journalists here working on a documentary on the end of Gaddafi and the birth of a new Libya. We would like to meet with Mansour Dowd and the Younis brothers,” I told him. When Gaddafi tried to escape Libya on October 20, 2011 he started with 200 men. Three survived. I had interviewed them when I was with the UN and wanted to get them on camera to talk about Gaddafi’s final harrowing moments. The mayor said no.
“These men are under investigation and without the authorisation from their legal counsel I cannot give you access to them.” I understood and thanked him.
Without a witness to Gaddafi’s final moments we had no story. The only three survivors were in a prison in Misrata. That was a dead end.
“I know the man that captured him,” Hamid said, as we walked from the mayor’s office in a funk. I looked at him smiling.
“That is all that is left of Gaddafi,” Mohammed slurred in Arabic. “That is his blood,” he said as I held a polo shirt up as Lucian focused the camera on it. “I will keep that as a memento,” he said.
Mohammed was an average looking man with a swollen nose from heavy drinking and the large, fleshy hands of a manual labourer. When we met him he was already drunk, slurring his greetings and staggering to his chair. But he told us about how they had fought, how he had found Gaddafi after a wild firefight in Sirte, and how he had beaten Gaddafi until he couldn’t feel his fists.
We interviewed him at night, the stars above, but a glowing, whining, shimmering halogen was the only light Lucian had. Bitching about the high ISO he had to film at, he nodded to me and said, “speed,” my indication it was time to start asking questions.
“Are you afraid?” I asked. “For yourself or your family?”
“No,” he said quickly, as a child walked to us with a tray of Chai and sweets. “What can they do to me that has not already been done?”
The first time I had been in Sirte was January 2012. Even months after Gaddafi’s death his hometown was still clearly dangerous. Here the population lauded praise upon their deranged leader. Unlike in much of the country, Gaddafi had poured money into the city, ensuring the locals lived a good life with a state of the art hospital and modern highways leading directly to the capital so he could dash back and forth. This was where he swore he would die, and he kept to his word.
In January, I traced Gaddafi’s route with the UN as it was described to me by Mansour Dowd and the Younis brothers. They described in excruciating detail every moment leading to Gaddafi’s end, from the airstrikes to Gaddafi’s belly-crawl almost to freedom. He defiantly called for a last stand, and I had crouched in the spot he hid and walked the road where he died.
We traded our silver Hummer for a gold Land Cruiser. The boys thought it would be lower profile. I just laughed as we got in it. Shafiq sat in the back row, a Russian Skorpion machine pistol in his hand. There was an AK-47 and several grenades throughout the car.
As we drove towards Sirte with Hamid and Taha the air was once again thick with hashish.
The UN had conducted an exhaustive investigation into the death of Gaddafi. He made his last stand, his back literally against a wall, between two drainage pipes in a ditch in his hometown of Sirte. Today the cement around it is tagged with so much graffiti it is all but illegible. What is also in dispute is how he died. Most think he was shot in the head in an ambulance. The UN report was inconclusive, mostly because the Libyans refused to give us his autopsy. I’m pretty sure he bled out from a shrapnel wound to the head caused by one of his bodyguards.
Gaddafi had all but escaped after his convoy came under attack. He had crawled through a drainage pipe with about a dozen of his men, and the rebels had no idea where he was. He could have walked away as the rebels poured rounds into a house about 300 yards from where Gaddafi was hiding. Yet he implored his men to fight to the last. And so he sat there in a blue flak vest as his men tossed grenades over the rise where they hid and fired their Belgian F-2000 assault rifles, giving away their position. One of the grenades hit the top of the rise, fell back and landed in front of Gaddafi. His bodyguard dove for the explosive, desperately trying to swat it away. Just as he got his hands on it the grenade exploded, tearing the man’s arms off and killing everyone except Gaddafi and three of his men. Gaddafi sat stunned, his vest shredded, a massive wound to his left temple pouring blood.
When the rebels found him he was in shock. One of them stuck a bayonet in Gaddafi’s ass, but there was no sodomy as had been reported by some. He staggered, was beaten by the man we interviewed among others and was placed in an ambulance. But there was no exit wound nor powder burns on his head, according to the doctors that did the initial investigation of his body in Misrata before his autopsy. The story of the young man that defiantly shot him in the head is probably bullshit. Gaddafi probably died of shrapnel wounds during the three-hour drive to Misrata. But that is not heroic and people like heroes so a story was probably invented.
We filmed the site in Sirte as Taha, Hamid, and Shafiq sat in the Land Cruiser, A/C blasting. I opened the door at one point to get a battery for Lucien’s camera and they were all passed out, a roach sat in the ashtray, Eminem cleaning out his closet on the radio.
The next day we drove to Tripoli, Hamid clad in his hoodie in the passenger seat. He had been up late the night before as part of a security patrol of Misrata and he wasn’t feeling great. I saw him in my mind’s eye driving through the city harassing people as the theme to Cops played, but he was so quiet it was hard to fathom that side. Taha lit up early and we drove shortly after sunrise in another haze.
“US Ambassador dead. Riots in Benghazi,” a text rang out on my cell.
Lucian and I got on the phones and we were shocked to hear about an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi. The American Ambassador was dead and pretty much everyone was pulling out.
Hamid awoke and we sat there mulling things over, wondering whether it was al-Qaeda, random violence based on the idiot video everyone was talking about, or something else.
“al-Qaeda is just doing its job,” Hamid said, his head laid back into the seat cushion. “Just like America killed a million Iraqis and thousands of Afghans. They are doing their job. It’s a balance,” he said.
Lucien gave me a “WHAT THE FUCK?” look.
On 9/11, I was in the Pentagon watching the towers burn. We all thought there would be men on the roof with Stinger missiles until guys in black pajamas with sub-machine guns tore through the NMJIC – the National Military Joint Intelligence Center, a vault deep under ground in the C-ring – and told us we had been hit. The Earth is an amazing insulator, and the bunker protected us from even feeling the impact of American Flight 77. As soon as I walked outside the doors I smelled burning horsehair. It was what they had used in WWII to insulate the building and it almost destroyed the Pentagon that day. I picked my way through candy and soda cans spilt on the floors – the vending machines had burst when the pressure wave came through the halls. When I walked outside I turned and watched as a column of smoke poured from the building.
“What the fuck is your story?” I asked Hamid.
“I’m from here but my family moved to Canada,” he had photos of himself from the war. He had faced Gaddafi’s army in a Montreal Canadians jersey, a baseball cap turned to the side. Taha had driven a front-end loader before the war.
“What did you study?”
“Get the fuck out,” I said. After the 9/11 talk there was no way this Muslim al-Qaeda supporter was a pilot trainee.
“Yeah. I loved the feeling. I loved the freedom. My uncle was a pilot but he was killed by Gaddafi. It was after the Pan Am 103 flight. There was either someone on the plane or something but Gaddafi blew up a Libyan airliner midair. My uncle died. I always wanted to be like him so I went to pilot school. We left Canada and I moved to Qatar. But when the war started I was drawn back here. We were fighting, man. It was going bad,” he told us, his eyes unfocused as they relived the past. Taha drove on, oblivious to our conversation.
“Gaddafi’s boys had magic. You might laugh, but there was black magic. Man, I saw it. We would shoot them and nothing happened. Nothing. They stood there and laughed at us. Then Ramadan came and everything changed. We were chaste Muslims. No hash, no alcohol, no sex. And God was with us. We killed them all. I saw stuff. Man, it will never leave me. But I try not to focus on it.”
“So now what?” I asked him.
“Now the government is full of Western ideologues, and we will remind them who won the war.”
“Will you demobilise?”
“Absolutely. But Misrata will be last. Bani Walid needs to be first. Then the other cities. We will follow but we won’t give up our arms until everyone else does.”
“Don’t you think that is kind of a zero-sum game? I mean, don’t you think the other cities say the same thing?”
“Yeah, but they didn’t face what we faced. They didn’t fight like we fought.”
His phone rang. He and Taha conversed.
“Can you roll a joint?” Hamid asked us.
“Sure,” Lucian said. And so Hamid passed him a rock of Moroccan hash, rolling paper, a filter and tobacco.
“What am I supposed to do with this?” Lucian asked, holding up the filter.
Hamid and Taha conversed in Arabic, laughing as Hamid smoked a Marlboro. I had never smoked and was sure I was at or near the limit of second hand smoke for imminent lung cancer.
“Just put it in when you roll it,” Hamid laughed.
Lucian took a lighter and slowly melted the hash into the paper, carefully mixing it with tobacco in a long thin line. He laid the filter in and rolled it, finally licking the end and passing it forward to Taha.
Immediately Taha erupted, waving the joint in the air.
“What the fuck is this tiny thing?” Hamid asked.
“That’s a joint,” Lucian replied.
“California style,” I said.
“Baby!” said Taha.
Hamid searched for a lighter, patting himself and looking around the Land Cruiser’s cabin. Not finding one, he opened the glove compartment. Out rolled a hand grenade.
“Oh, shit,” he said, trying to catch it as the smooth green egg with a silver ring fell harmlessly to the floor.
“Really?” I asked.
“Protection,” he replied.
Taha lit up and smoked it rapidly as Hamid rolled a cone joint. It was massive and thick. 'How can he concentrate on driving,' I wondered as I sat in my own fog.
“Dudes,” I implored. “Can we air the car out? I need to be on camera and need a clear head.” But no one paid attention as Taha chain-smoked joints.
“It’s OK,” Hamid said, “I don’t smoke hashish,” he said to me. I looked at him incredulously. With the windows closed and the A/C set to recirculate you are smoking up a storm, I thought.
Suddenly Taha was lucid. He screamed at Hamid who rat-a-tated in Arabic back to him. We pulled up next to a VW van and Hamid motioned for the driver to stop. Lucian and I had no idea what was going on.
“Fucking Egyptians,” Hamid said, “Need to check their papers.”
The three Libyan walked to the Egyptian van, packed with over a dozen men, demanding their papers. Hamid stood at the driver’s door, flipping through passports as Shafiq nervously walked around the car, his Skorpion machine pistol in hand. Lucian trailed them with his camera.
There was shouting but I sat in the Land Cruiser, happy to have several inches of metal, glass and plastic between me and anything that might happen that involved gunplay. There was high-pitched chatter and I looked back to see the guys dragging a young boy from the car.
“Jesus Fucking Christ, I said to myself, we are kidnappers?”
Everyone got into the gold Land Cruiser, a 16-year-old Egyptian boy sat between Lucian and me. 'What is going on?' I wondered.
Taha took off and we soon lost the VW. Hamid sat there interrogating the boy. He sat there looking down at his folded hands, shaking. He spoke to Hamid but never looked at him, fear hung in the air. I felt sick. My friends were now kidnappers, and I had no idea what was going on.
“This guy’s papers are not right,” said Hamid to us. “And maybe the Egyptians are fucking him. We’ll drop him at the next checkpoint for the police to deal with."
“Under what authority?” asked Lucian, “I mean, who are you to do this?”
Hamid squinted, regarding Lucian as a child that had just asked why the sky is blue.
“We have to protect Libya,” he said. “The government can’t do it. We used to have absolute authority during the war. You can’t just turn that off. And the government isn’t doing its job. So we fill the void,” he pronounced confidently. The discussion was over. I could hear my father tell me, “Because I said so.”
We reached the next checkpoint rapidly, the VW, unable to match Taha’s lead foot, was nowhere to be seen. But here things hit a snag: The checkpoint was unmanned. Unwilling to keep the boy until the next checkpoint, we pulled over and tossed him to the side of the road and drove off, leaving him to find his own way.
Note: The names of several UN officials in the story have been changed to protect them.