Vice founder Shane Smith crosses into rebel-controlled eastern Libya.
The first time I went to Libya, in 2010, I was arrested just two days into my trip. Filming a documentary for VICE, I was detained for shooting where the authorities thought I shouldn't, and thus began endless rounds of questions, emphatic yelling, and head-shaking incredulity at my claims of innocence—and, of course, the requisite implications that I was a spy. When I was finally released, I swore I would never return to the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (official name). But that promise was quickly broken, and I found myself back in the country almost exactly a year later, in the midst of a chaotic and violent revolution.
Very rarely is one given the chance to live history, to experience revolution firsthand in all its ugly glory. And it is ugly. Sporadic, disordered communications; crumbling and damaged infrastructure that inhibits movement; intermittent electricity; infrequent meals; and the thumping bass of faraway artillery and the treble of nearby machine-gun fire ensures dialed-up adrenaline. It is, at its best, organized chaos and, at its worst, anarchic chaos. But what a wonderful chaos it is. Watching the push for freedom against one of recent history's most tyrannical dictators has to be one of the most inspiring moments of my life.
Not many people saw the Arab Spring coming. I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East and would have bet large sums of money that widespread upheaval would never happen in the region, so when rebellion erupted earlier this year—in Tunisia and Egypt—I was still doubtful that it could ever spread to Libya. Gaddafi had too much power, control, and money for the people to effectively challenge him. Again, I was wrong. As I write this, rebel forces have entered Tripoli, overrun Gaddafi's compound, and are hunting for the colonel so that he can be tried for crimes against humanity—or offered safe passage to exile.
My second trip to Libya consisted of two weeks of traveling from the Egyptian border to Benghazi and then onto the front lines in Misrata, embedding with a few different rebel groups along the way. I was shocked by how young many of them were. Barely past puberty and fighting with whatever they could find (one guy had a spear gun), they displayed so much heroism and courage that I would tear up while talking to them. One rebel I spoke with had left the hospital earlier that night—despite having lost a leg—so that he could get back to the front lines. He was offered a flight to Germany and a new prosthetic limb by an NGO, but instead snuck out of the hospital to rejoin his comrades.
Later, I met another group that had just returned from the front between Tripoli and Misrata. Most of them were teenagers from Benghazi. There were 68 who had arrived together; by the time I caught up with them, only 35 remained. Despite the high number of casualties, they were still optimistic.
But the big question looming over everything was "Why are they fighting?"
Everyone I asked—bankers, shop clerks, students, construction workers, oil engineers, and ex-Gaddafi loyalists—offered the same answer: "Freedom." It was like the end of Braveheart every time a rebel looked into my eyes and said it. One 16-year-old told me, "I will die so the others can at least breathe free air." Heady stuff for a teenager, especially when most of the rebels aren't old enough to have known a political system other than Gaddafism. Risking your life for freedom is one thing. But risking it for the concept of freedom is something else entirely.
They weren't fighting for sharia law or to become martyrs. And they weren't fighting for Islamism or against the West. They were trying to overthrow a man who has, over the last four decades, sponsored almost every terrorist organization on the planet. A man responsible for blowing up planes (the Lockerbie bombing, UTA Flight 772), ordering numerous assassinations, stealing most of the oil (and hence the wealth) of his country for himself and his family, and converting Libya into a police state and international pariah. Young men were dying so that they could rid their country of this evil dictator, so they could simply "be like everybody else."
Almost every building flew the old pre-Gaddafi tricolor flags to show support of the revolution. In many cases, the flags of France (the first to supply the rebels with arms), Qatar (large donors of financial aid and gas), Germany (who knows the fuck why), and America waved overhead. When I asked about why the American flags were flying (remember, this is a country that probably had more anti-American propaganda than any other place on earth in the past 40 years), they answered it was because to them America meant freedom.
When we finally got to Misrata, it was surrounded by Gaddafi's troops and only accessible by sea. We slowly made our way toward the front, stopping periodically to talk to rebels. One 15-year-old boy I met was preparing a Grad-missile truck for battle. Beaming, he wondered whether I could "ask Clinton and Obama for new weapons" so that they could beat Gaddafi and he could fulfill his dream of playing for the Miami Heat or the Dallas Mavericks. As we talked, it struck me how much had changed in such a short period—this was a different Libya than the one I experienced last year, a completely new country. Seeing this level of courage and conviction up close makes you realize that anything is possible, that we can indeed change our future. We can write our own history. In fact, we have to.
Watch Shane navigate the front lines of Libya's revolution in a new documentary this month on VICE.com.