I'm discovering that war journalism is a lot like surfing: 99 percent paddling out to sea, 1 percent riding a wave that could crush you at any time. The newest rumor was that Sert, Gaddafi's hometown, had just fallen. Journalists ran out of the hotel in a herd. Anything seemed possible, which prompted me to finally borrow a flak jacket and helmet. Curiously it's mostly the television journalists who are wearing protection. Maybe the print guys are just looking for an easy way out of their perishing industry, or perhaps TV correspondents don the gear for dramatic effect as they stand sheepishly in front of the camera. The older journalist I was with offered my set to the driver, because it's almost always the person guiding reporters around who gets shot.
My friend who has been accompanying me throughout the trip didn't join us today. He packed his stuff, got to the car, left for a meditative shit, and returned. "No," he said, and shook his head as he pulled his bag out of the back of the SUV. "That's why I said to pack mine last." The fear got him and it got him good. He was up most of the night with many of the other journalists listening to the celebratory gunfire in Benghazi. Sert may have fallen, but Gaddafi loyalists were still nearby, which made everyone nervous.
We drove past Ajdabiya before realizing we were short on gas, so turned around and got in line behind a pump. The gas there is free; you just have to find a place where you don't have to scoop it out of a well by hand. We filled up and were finally on our way. It was sunny. There were endless guys dressed in camo and plenty of smiling teenagers throwing "V" signs.
We arrived at our destination, the El Fadeel hotel in Ras Lanuf. Our fixer told us that he had stayed there the last time rebels overtook it. It was a mess: shattered windows, Arabic graffiti on the walls, and lots of men with crisp camo and guns walking around. We salaamed our way up to the second floor and settled in a room overlooking the ocean. The power was out but the toilets flushed, thank God.
On the way out, we ran into a 23-year-old man named Mohammed who was checking out. He was from San Francisco, but his father was half-Egyptian and his mother half-Libyan. Mohammed told us that when things started erupting in Libya he sold his car, acquired contacts from AP and CNN, and jumped on a plane bound for his mother's homeland. He also said that he and the French guys he was working with (who, according to Mohammed, were a pain in the ass) had driven headlong into an ambush earlier. They were checking out the aforementioned rumors about Sert in Nafoora, which is just beyond Ben Jawad. As they approached the city they saw lots of green (i.e. pro-Gaddafi) flags, and then they were fired on from two directions with rockets, bullets, and mortars. They jumped out of the car and ran. When they returned to the vehicle later the windows were shattered with bullet holes. Mohammed's story wasn't enough to deter us; we decided to push forward and stop just short of where he ran into trouble.
Later we arrived at what appeared to be some sort of checkpoint by the Ben Jawad hospital. It turned out to be a rebel tailgate party. As always, guns were being fired randomly and constantly. We talked to more people who had been caught in the ambush. Rebels with clean faces shouted "Allāhu Akbar" for the camera. A kid in a car booked past a checkpoint and parked in the dirt beside the road. As soon as he jumped out, another kid who was manning the checkpoint rushed him. It was like an after-school rumble, except everyone had an AK-47. Some shots were fired and everyone pushed each other around. There were faux rebels galore. I took some photos and stared at a burning bus. I had no idea how it was set on fire, or by who, and I didn't care. The heat felt good and the flames erupted in a nice orange.
We left soon after the ruckus, and when we returned to the hotel people were leaving. It was dark and the rebels were acting like hooligans. I watched a guy walk out of the hotel holding a TV. Very bad vibes accompanied our fellow journalists as they filed out. The older reporters advised us to leave. That's when we realized that we didn't have enough gas to make it back to Ajdabiya. Rookie mistake.
We had brought our backpacks and cookies and water to the car, but after realizing our fuel tank was almost empty we were forced to head back to our room. A rebel standing by the door held a chicken by the legs. It squawked the ugly sounds of chicken death before he cut its throat. The blood dripped on the foyer and flowed onto the sidewalk. I don't know why he couldn't have taken a few steps and committed the deed elsewhere, out of my sight.
A photographer talked to me about a weak frontline and all the yokels with rifles. Some of them wanted to smoke hash with the older journalists. The photographer thought they wanted to make babies with her. Then somebody shot some tracers across the sky, which looked like shooting stars as they arced upward. More macho bravado. Inside I heard glasses being smashed by some of the faux rebels. Things were getting uglier.
I was a bit scared and called my brother on a satellite phone. He was at work. We talked a bit, he prayed for me, I hung up, and then paced under a blanket of black and felt the fear shoot through my legs. I told myself it was all in my head—that Jesus walked with me. I got back in the car, fighting the urge to smack the driver for acting so calm and choke the older journalist for complaining about not filing her report earlier.
Luckily I didn't and she managed to score us some gas. We grabbed our stuff from our room, again, and got the hell out of there. We were hours away from civilization, but for some reason the fear vanished and I found myself daydreaming about the hamburger I had on the road to Benghazi. It wasn't even a very good hamburger, but that didn't matter.
We drove past a big fire on the side of the road that appeared to be coming straight out of the ground. The flames glowed orange and beautiful and the rebels were wrapped in blankets and surprisingly weren't shooting wildly. Whatever happens we won't be searching the front line tomorrow, but we will try again soon.
See more at jeremyrelph.com
Also by Jeremy Relph: