Altaf Qadri: How I survived Libya
I have been asked by many of my curious friends to share what actually had happened in Libya while I was on an assignment there in April 2011. After a long delay, I was finally able to jot down my experience which I had during those 30 horrific hours of ordeal. Here it goes, starting with a brief background about the Libyan revolution.
By Altaf Qadri
Houses at a distance seen from one of the storeroom. Photos: Altaf Qadri.
The Libyan revolution was an armed conflict in Libya fought between forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and those seeking to oust his government. The war was preceded by protests in Benghazi beginning on February 15, 2011, which led to clashes with Gaddafi forces that fired on the crowd. The protests escalated into a rebellion that spread across the country.
I crossed into Libya to cover the revolution for the Associated Press (AP) on March 29, 2011 through the Egyptian land port of Salloum, the main border point between Egypt and Libya. Spent the first night in Tubruk, a small coastal town in eastern Libya, before heading toward Benghazi. This was one of the best route for foreign journalists to reach Benghazi as it was under the control of journalist-friendly rebels. The rebels were composed primarily of civilians, such as teachers, students, lawyers, businessmen and oil workers, and a contingent of professional soldiers that defected from the Libyan Army and joined the rebels.
The Battle of Brega–Ajdabiya road was one of the many battles during the Libyan revolution between forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi and the rebels, for control of the towns of Brega and Ajdabiya respectively and the Libyan coastal highway between them. On March 30, following a government counter-offensive, loyalist forces took control of the town of Brega, just west of Ajdabiya. Rebels attempted a counter-attack to take back the town. For eight days, loyalists and rebels battled for control of Brega. In the end, government troops repelled numerous rebel attacks on the city and managed to push the rebels back to Ajdabiya by April 7. Following the rebel retreat, government troops consolidated full control over Brega and were preparing a raid against Ajdabiya. By April 8, most civilians had left Ajdabiya, but rebels regrouped in the city which was still in rebel hands, after their forces fled in panic to several different directions near Ajdabiya following a swift government push down the road from Brega using artillery the previous day.
It was Saturday morning, April 9, 2011 when I along with other AP staffers finished our breakfast and were about to leave for the volatile frontline between Brega and Ajdabiya some 140 kilometers from Benghazi, where we were based. Our routine was to head to the frontline in the morning, file from Ajdabiya and then head back to Benghazi by evening. I was traveling in one car and the then Cairo-based AP photographer Ben Curtis and Islamabad-based AP correspondent Sebastian Abbot were traveling in another. My driver was not the one, one would like to have in these situations. He had deserted me just a few days ago on the same route, saying he was running out of fuel, as he was too scared to go to the frontline. It was my colleague, Jordan-based AP photographer Nasser Nasser, who came to my rescue and picked me up near the frontline after which I decided never to use that driver again. But this morning, one of our trusted driver, who was driving Ben and Sebastian that day, convinced me that he will never repeat his mistake again. So I went along with it. Eventually, both the cars left Benghazi hotel at around 7.30 am.
It is a pretty long drive from Benghazi and at even 150 kilometers/hour it would take an hour and a half to reach the frontline as we drove along the the desert which was dotted with the remains of tanks and other military vehicles. Suddenly, my mind went to the four New York Times journalists, including photojournalists Tyler Hicks and Lynsey Addario, who were captured by Gaddafi’s forces the previous month. They were brutalized for four days before being freed. However, everything looked ‘normal’ that morning.
It was around 9 am when we reached the town of Ajdabiya, the last Libyan town held by the rebels in the east, some 80 km before the frontline. We crossed one of the many checkpoints manned by the rebels on the way to the frontline which was at a gas station and a mosque that marks the halfway point between the Libyan towns of Brega and Ajdabiya.
Most of the fighting between rebel forces and brigades loyal to Gaddafi was focused around Brega. Ajdabiya is about 80 km to the east. We parked our vehicles near the rebel pickup trucks at the gas station. There was lot of activity going on. Drivers drew diesel manually from the underground tank in plastic bottles, the rebels were loading ammunition onto their vehicles and driving ahead to fight and the journalists were busy with filming and writing. No journalist was allowed beyond this point.
I had told Ben that if I had a chance to go further toward the frontline towards Brega, I would, and then others could then move up with the cars and meet me. Ben told me to let him know before I went ahead. So we both agreed on this arrangement. Meanwhile, a rebel pickup truck came zooming from the frontline carrying a wounded Gaddafi loyalist whom the rebel forces had captured during the fight. So all the photographers started taking photographs of the captured soldier, including Ben and I.
At about 10 am, I saw some rebels loading grad missile into a red pickup truck with a launcher mounted on the back. “I thought I would take some photographs while they launch them towards the Gaddafi’s forces’ positions. The rebels looked familiar so I went ahead and asked them, mostly by sign language, if I can accompany them, and they agreed reluctantly.
When I climbed on the back of the truck, I waved at Ben. My face was covered with a scarf, making me indistinguishable from a rebel fighter. He photographed the truck at the time. I was sure he saw me and knew that I was going to the frontline with the rebels. However Ben later said that he never saw me in the truck maybe because my face was covered. I wanted to ensure a smooth ride through the check point were lot of other journalists were waiting for an opportunity to move beyond that check point. Which was manned by the rebels and were not allowing journalists beyond that check point. I thought I was lucky to pass that check point in the disguise of a rebel and was about to see live action at the frontline. I am sure given a chance any journalist would have done the same.
The truck advanced for about a kilometer, then went off the road into the desert and behind a sand dune. Three rebels were in the truck, one driver and two others riding at the back. The rebels fired four grad missiles, then drove back toward the main road to reload. They then returned behind the sand dune and fired two more rockets.
All of sudden we came under heavy return fire. Panic broke. Shells, fired by brigades loyal to Gaddafi, started falling all around us. There was also heavy machine-gun fire, so a rebel and I jumped in the back of the truck. I was sitting right beneath the grad missile launcher. The rebels fired a third missile as they were speeding away and the blast knocked me off. I fell on the sand with a thud.
I tried chasing it but it sped away. One of the rebel who was on the back looked at me and tried to tell the driver to stop, but they were too scared to stop, even for two seconds, because Gaddafi forces were apparently more closer to us than I had thought. Forces were using heavy machine guns as they were closing in. Suddenly I found myself being deserted amid a rain of bullets and bombs.
I heard bullets whizzing through the air and saw them hitting the sand near by while running for my life. I was wondering why none of these bullets hit me. I rolled down the sand dune and ran back to the gas station, which was still about 500 meters away. By the time I got there, all the rebels and journalists had already fled, including the AP team I was with.
Meanwhile, according to AP reporter Sebastian Abbot after the injured Gaddafi fighter was transferred to an ambulance, he and Ben decided to go interview him in the hospital in Ajdabiya. That’s when they realized I wasn’t around, so they decided to leave my driver at the gas station. On the way to the hospital, they heard shelling and then got a call from my driver saying he had to flee the shelling. All of them reunited at the hospital.
Back to the frontline: while running towards the gas station I briefly looked back only to find Gaddafi’s forces, riding their pickup trucks and other military vehicles, firing heavy machine-guns indiscriminately in the direction of the gas station. I got this unintentionally recorded on the compact camera, which was dangling from my neck.
As soon as I reached the gas station, I briefly paused at the door to the mosque just a few meters ahead and started praying and thinking where to hide. Then suddenly I thought there might be some rooms at the back as gas stations usually have bathrooms and toilets located behind the main building. So I ran behind and found three storerooms, a toilet and a small dark room with a shattered glass door.
I stood there for some 5 seconds to decide which would be the best place to hide. I decided against hiding in any of those storerooms as they were easily accessible and with lot of light, toilet was not a good option either as anyone could come there. My only option was that dark small room, with a shattered glass tinted door. The door was locked so I crawled into the room from under the shattered tinted glass. It was a very small room, but dark to my advantage. It had been used as a kitchen before. There was a portable gas stove. I lifted the lid of the stove to further darken the room and placed it just near the shattered part of the door so no one could see me inside. All this while, gun shots and grenade blasts were drawing closer and closer.
No long after, I heard Gaddafi’s forces rushing towards the back of the gas station hunting for rebels. They were going along the storerooms behind the gas station and kicking the doors, then firing their guns inside. I could visualize them searching every storeroom. They finished three rooms already, now it was the turn of the small room I was hiding in. I could hear them walking towards the room. I could hear the shattered pieces of glass door being crushed under their boots as they walked towards my room. I was sure they’d shoot me than ask for identification. I said my prayers, remembered my family and asked Allah for forgiveness. I also recited some prayers, from the holy Quran, which are recommended in such situations, seeking Allah’s protection and help. I was very hopeful that my prayers won’t be rejected. All of a sudden they stopped just near the door, discussed something in Arabic for a few seconds and retreated back to the front of the gas station without firing a single shot into the room. What a relief as they walked away. I took a deep breath and thanked Allah, the Almighty.
Now it was time to examine the place which was supposed to be my shelter for the rest of the day or may be even days. It was a very small room — 4×6 sq. ft. with a steel kitchen sink and a small window opening towards the storerooms and a huge wall. The room was stinking of rotten onion and human excrement in one corner, an empty plastic bottle and two steel plates etc. I found a piece of cloth which I put over the window to make the room even darker and to hinder the view from outside. I took my compact camera and started filming the room, briefly. I disabled all the alarms and reminders from my mobile phone to ensure there’s no noise. I replaced my used camera flash cards with blank ones and hid the used ones in my boots.
The gas station was taken over by the Gaddafi forces by now and was used as a halt point. Rebels had left the power generator running at the gas station which made it a bit difficult for me to make out what was exactly happening on the front. But it wasn’t difficult to make out that the heavy military vehicles were moving towards the town of Ajdabiya, the last Libyan town under the control of rebels. Which meant that I was in effect behind enemy lines. It was later known to me that Gaddafi’s forces had attacked Ajdabiya from three directions, including the southern desert and two western roads.
By this time, my legs were numb as I had been crouching down on the floor for a pretty long time. I changed my positions from time to time to keep the blood flow going. Many scary thoughts crossed my mind, like what if I am killed or captured. I was more worried about my family than for myself. I started looking at the photos of my family and friends stored on my mobile phone which encouraged me not to give up.
I started thinking about Anton Hammerl. A South African freelance photographer who went missing after coming under fire from Gaddafi forces near the frontline just a few days ago on April 5. It was still presumed that he was captured by the forces. I recalled when I offered him a ride in my car to the frontline, just two days before he went missing. We spent a complete day at the frontline. I could see he used to push his limits to get a perfect shot. While riding a rebel truck we video-graphed each other, some of which are still with me. He talked about photography, his family and his newborn baby, Hiro. The Libyan regime repeatedly told Anton’s family that he was alive and well. The truth was that Anton was killed on the very first day. But the Gaddafi regime knew about Anton’s fate but chose to remain silent. I asked myself, am I also going to meet the similar fate? I kept reciting verses of holy Quran, prayers and whatever I could recall that time. Which soothed my heart and gave me courage to fight my way out. As time passed, I felt cold and there was an urge to urinate as well. I checked my watch and it was 4 pm which means I have been in a same position for the last five hours. I couldn’t take a chance to urinate on the floor because if it flows out, anybody could see it. So I urinated in the plastic bottle, which was lying there, then I used it for warmth.
At sundown, I heard forces talking and then getting in their vehicles and driving off to the east, towards Ajdabiya. I decided to stay in the room until dusk. By then, all was quiet. I crawled out of the room and peeked from the corner of the gas station. I didn’t see anyone there. So I explored those storerooms which were raided by the forces earlier in the day. Interestingly, I saw a group of newly built houses, through a steel mesh window of one of the storeroom, at a distance in the desert. I thought it would be a good idea to stay in one of them, after dark. I went back inside the small room and waited for some more time. When it was dark enough, I ran away from the room towards this group of newly built houses which was a few hundred meters away from the gas station. I decided to stay in the middle one to be safer.
As I entered, it was pitch dark. I was afraid that I might run into the forces. I had a small flashlight attached to the zipper of my jacket, which I had bought from Afghanistan during an assignment there a few months ago. I was very careful while using the light as it could attract attention of the passing military. I started exploring the house which had four rooms, a kitchen, two bathrooms fitted with bathtubs but it seemed that the construction was still not over. I looked into every room and found nothing until I went to the fifth room. I found two mattress, two pillows and a blanket. It appeared that fighters from one of the sides had squatted in the house. There were empty bottles, empty cigarette packets and food wrappers scattered about. I considered myself lucky.
I put my cameras down on the mattress and lay down. My back felt like heaven, by then I had become so thirsty that I couldn’t relax. I badly needed some water. I rummaged though the mess. Finally, I found some drinking water in a plastic bottle lying in a corner with other trash. I also found an unfinished small mango juice packet with a straw in it, next to the door. So I returned to the mattress. I drank some water from the bottle and some mango juice, leaving some for desperate times. But it proved too little to be able to quench my thirst. So I decided to go out in the compound of the house and search the trash bin for some more leftovers. Finally, I found a half full plastic bottle of water, which was pretty rancid, and returned back to room.
I started contemplating my next course of action. I thought of making my way back to Benghazi, which was more than 150 kms from this place, in the cover of darkness, but that seemed foolhardy since I could be mistaken for an enemy by either of the two sides and moreover walking such a distance in desert at night was crazy. I could hear heavy military vehicles and tanks moving towards Ajdabiya. So I decided to stay put unless there was a real opportunity.
It was perhaps the loneliest night of my life. I was probably only unarmed man in an area of 150 sq. kms. I fell asleep at about 1 am, but often woke to the sound of NATO aircraft on reconnaissances mission, for a half-hour period about every two hours. A loud bang woke me up at around 5 am. NATO aircraft had finally started bombing the Gaddafi’s forces’ positions from Brega through Ajdabiya. But I was scared since most of the bombings I could hear were happening to the east, towards Ajdabiya. I was asked myself, “Why are these people bombing Ajdabiya”?. I didn’t know that Gaddafi forces had almost taken over Ajabiya and rebels had called for NATO airstrikes.
The house, I had taken shelter in, had many windows but two windows were at strategic positions — one opening towards the gas station and other towards the highway. So I could keep track of both the places. I could see what the Gaddafi’s forces were doing at the gas station and also keep track of vehicles that were coming from or going towards Ajdabiya. I witnessed at least eight airstrikes, in the first half of the day, from the window opening towards the gas station, all behind a sand dune on the other side of the road. The whole house used to shake during the airstrikes.
As the airstrikes ceased just before noon, I decided to take a look outside and see if there was any chance of finding a safer place or even if I could escape through the desert. As I entered the compound of the house, I peeped out through the ajar gate and saw a herd of camels grazing in the desert. I cannot express how I felt when I saw those camels. It gave me a sense of hope and I thought everything has not ended. At this point, I thought of disguising as a camel herder but that sounded stupid. I decided against venturing out as the road was very close to the house and there was continuous movement of military vehicles. So I went back to the house. I remained in the house all day, watching from the windows as Gaddafi’s forces drove up and down the road. Some of their vehicles were pick-up trucks with mounted rocket launchers, like the ones the rebels used. Most of them were sand-colored Land Cruisers to avoid from being noticed from the air. They were painted dull grey and brown and did not reflect the sunlight, a type of camouflage.
At around 2 pm, I saw a group of soldiers, who stopped by at the gas station, eating and resting. And then some soldiers rode a pickup truck and started patrolling near these houses. I was panicking again. But there was little I could do. Fortunately, they drove past this house without stopping and headed back to the gas station. There was no let up in the military vehicular movement. I wanted to film that but I didn’t as I knew it could prove fatal in case the forces capture me and see this footage. So I decided not to do anything which could offend the forces.
For about 45 minutes in the early afternoon, I heard the sounds of airstrikes again from the direction of Ajdabiya. Within no time, many vehicles start rushing back from Ajdabiya towards Brega. It looked as if the Gaddafi forces were retreating hastily. At around 4 pm, the area was quiet. Vehicle movement on the both sides ceased completely. At 5 pm, I saw normal pickup trucks arriving from Ajdabiya at the gas station, some of them with the rebel flag. It looked like they were rebel trucks captured by the Gaddafi forces.
One of the trucks drove near the house I was in. I heard it park, my heart sank. Then I heard men talking outside, then heard someone opening the front door. I stood just in front of the closed door holding my cameras up so the man would see them before reaching for his gun.
Rebels firing toward pro-Gadaffi positions from the desert.
As soon as the man opened the door and saw me, I yelled “sahafi, sahafi” _ “journalist” in Arabic. He was dumbstruck. Before he could say anything I started to communicate with him through sign language so that he could be sure that I was a foreign journalist and hence no threat to him. He lead me to the pick-up parked just outside the gate. As soon as I came out the other armed men in the pick-up truck trained their guns on me however this man informed them that I was a foreigner and not a threat to them and I cannot understand Arabic. I gestured to him that I was thirsty and hungry. He gave me a cheese sandwich and an orange juice bottle while making me sit in the pickup. We drove to the gas station, some 200 meters away.
I thought the forces were not as barbaric as they were being portrayed. I couldn’t eat the sandwich due to my dry throat and may be because I was nervous. I was holding my passport so that I could show it before their commander asks for it. When we reached the gas station I saw few men in uniform and some in civvies. None of them could speak English. So they called their commander who was examining the gas station.
It appeared to me that everyone present there was surprised to see me alive in a place which was rocked by bombs and gun fight a day before. When their commander, a short guy in civvis, came, he shook my hand and asked how I was here and since when? He spoke good English and sounded pretty tough as well.
I pictured myself being shot dead or at least arrested, where I would have to spend days, weeks, months or even years behind bars. I narrated whole story and he was listening with awe. I showed him my passport and he put it in his pocket. He said don’t worry we’ll take you back to your hotel but you have to say in front of the camera that we saved you.
I thought they were gonna shoot me after this. But at the same time I thought they cannot kill me if they record my interview or maybe they’ll arrest me and send this video clip to the media saying that we are not as barbaric as you people are portraying us… Look we have saved one of your colleagues.
He shot a brief interview of me and asked me to say that they saved me, which I did. At this point I was still sure that Gaddafi forces have got me. After the interview, he said, “Do you have any idea what you have survived”? As he was talking, I saw a man climbed up on the mosque and flew a rebel flag from its minaret. I was like, Oh My God!!! They are rebels and I am actually saved. I saw two rebels walking towards me.. whom I had seen many a times before on the frontline. They hugged me and apparently recognized me. I felt completely different now, I was a free man again.
The commander I was talking to was a Libyan banker, who had joined the fight like other civilian. He said they had heard about four missing journalists and assumed I was one of them. He said whole world is looking for you and every newspaper has your photograph and news. This made me so nervous and anxious because I knew if my family knew about this, they would be devastated. I badly wanted to inform my colleagues of my well being because I believed they too would be extremely worried. But unfortunately there was no mobile network. He comforted and told me not to worry they will take me back to the hotel and hand me over to my colleagues. But he still had my passport which he promised to return me once we were back in Benghazi. The sun was slowly hiding behind the sand dunes and it was getting dark. In the meantime, some of the rebels who had gone on the reconnaissances mission to the frontline came under a sniper attack and one of their colleague was shot in the arm. He was bleeding profusely and was evacuated immediately.
Finally, five of us, rebel commander, his three men and I, left in the pickup for Benghazi. However we first drove toward the frontline, where a short while ago a rebel patrolling party came under a sniper attack, to see some of his colleagues. On the way to the frontline, I could see what was hit during those morning airstrikes which I had witnessed, it were some tanks and military vehicles which were still burning. After spending few minutes at the frontline we turned around and headed toward Ajdabiya, some 80 kilometers to the east.
It seemed NATO airstrikes had been successful and the rebels were gaining control again.
Near the entrance to Ajdabiya, I saw dozens of cars that had been hit by airstrikes strewn on the sides of the road. I also saw six tanks, some of them inside the city — suggesting that the airstrikes had saved Ajdabiya again from falling to Gaddafi’s forces. I took some photos of the burning tanks and other military vehicles. I was told as many as 25 members of Gaddafi’s forces were killed in the attack. Even the journalists who were staying at a hotel in Ajdabiya had to flee when Gaddafi’s forces launched an offensive on the town a day ago.
Once I got into the city where there is cell phone reception, I called Ben, who recalled their conversation thus: “I said, ‘Hi, it’s Altaf,’ and he said, ‘Where the fuck are you?’ I said, ‘I am right now in Ajdabiya. I am fine and on my way to Benghazi. Please call the office and let them know I am fine and please ask them to inform my family.’ Ben sighed and told me that they had been looking for me everywhere, hospitals and even in morgues. He sounded so relieved.
After a while, Ben again called me check if I was really on my way. At about 8.30 pm, we reached hotel Uzu, where the AP crew was waiting for me in the compound. We all hugged and Ben handed me Thuriya satellite phone and asked me to speak to my family. As I called, my wife answered the phone with a sobbing tone and started crying as she heard my voice. By then, she had already been informed about my safe return. I felt so bad to make my family go through all that agony and pain. However, my mother and wife had been very brave throughout this ordeal. They didn’t let my dad, who is a heart patient, know about all this. Dad came to know only when I spoke to him that night.
I appreciate the way Associated Press handled the whole thing. They made sure that my family is taken care of during those long terrible hours of agony. My long time friend and colleague Rafiq Maqbool, who is based in Mumbai, flew to Amritsar to be with my family. My eldest sister and her husband were also advised to fly to Amritsar from New Delhi. May be they were expecting something worse. I had to cut short my assignment to back with my family. If it was not for my family I would have stayed back and covered it till I was supposed to cover it.
I left Benghazi on 13th April with my two colleagues from APTN. We drove back to Cairo, where I spent couple of days before heading back home.
On April 20, just after I arrived back home, two acclaimed photojournalists, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, also covering the Libyan conflict, were killed by a mortar attack in Misrata, Libya. 67 journalists were killed in 2011 and 19 journalists have been killed so far.
While back, I noticed many of my friends had even started a page on Facebook “Pray for the safe return of brother Altaf Qadri from Libya”. There were numerous emails and messages posted on my Facebook. I felt so humble and thankful to have so many good friends and well-wishers around. It was as if I was reading my own eulogy.