Fighting for a free Libya

© RIA Novosti . Andrei Stenin / Go to the mediabankFighting for a free Libya
Fighting for a free Libya - Sputnik International
RIA Novosti's Andrei Stenin spent almost a month with the Libyan rebels. A photojournalist by trade, he wrote this account of his experiences as a collection of fast-moving vignettes in the hopes of giving readers a vivid picture of life on the front lines in Libya.

RIA Novosti's Andrei Stenin spent almost a month with the Libyan rebels. A photojournalist by trade, he wrote this account of his experiences as a collection of fast-moving vignettes in the hopes of giving readers a vivid picture of life on the front lines in Libya.

* * *

We link up with a group of Libyan rebels heading west. Everyone is upbeat and hopeful we'll get to the capital, Tripoli, before long. Rebels passing by shout "Gaddafi - caput!" and toss snacks and juice into the car. They are armed with all sorts of exotic weapons, from a vintage pistol to a brand-new French assault rifle that resembles a musical instrument. The young men in the car are messing around with a Beretta. No one is surprised by the sight of a man on crutches who comes round holding TNT attached to a short fuse. He isn't quite fit for fighting, but he can still blow himself for the sake of the revolution.

While in Brega, I bump into a fellow photographer from Japan, and the two of us decide to follow the rebels as far as Ras al-Anuf. We are offered some food. There is no cutlery, so we have to eat with our hands. I'm making a mess of my rice, while my Japanese colleague is having a much easier time with his pasta.

After we eat, he leaves his backpack in the car and heads off to take some pictures.

Several hours later, the rebels suddenly take flight. I am running around frantically, unable to figure out what is going on. My Japanese companion is nowhere to be found.

I haven't heard any gunshots or explosions. But suddenly the checkpoint is deserted. I have an uneasy feeling. "We're heading to Ras al-Anuf," a rebel tells me. "We are going on the offensive. Are you coming along?"

I think of leaving the Japanese photographer's backpack behind. It would be too much of a burden to carry it along with my own. But when I look inside the bag, I see a camera with a 200mm lens, a stack of money, and several credit cards. Son of a bitch!

So instead of continuing on to Ras al-Anuf, I return to the hotel and leave the bag at the front desk.

Three days later, I find my Japanese colleague in a hospital, wounded. He greets me with a hug. He is visibly moved by the fact that I kept his stuff safe for him. He returned to Japan shortly thereafter due to the earthquake and tsunami.

Ajdabiya, el Brega, Ras al-Anuf...There is only one hotel in each of these towns. Half the rooms are taken by guys from Reuters. Italians and Spaniards - correspondents and their numerous colleagues and friends - occupy the remaining half.

I don't feel like roughing it outdoors in Ras al-Anuf. The nights are cold, and I don't have a sleeping bag. So I sneak into the hotel, settle into an armchair in the farthest corner of the lobby and try to take a nap, worrying that an employee will spot me and kick me out onto the street like a bum. I put in earplugs so as not to be startled in my sleep by the sound of people walking by.

I feel someone shaking me. I open my eyes and see a girl. It's nighttime. There are correspondents running around the hotel with their suitcases. Someone explains to me that Gaddafi has launched an offensive and his tanks are rapidly approaching Ras al-Anuf. People are fleeing the town.

Suddenly there are plenty of rooms available at the hotel. I wish I could finally take a shower and get a good night's sleep. But instead, I get into a pickup truck and head off.

I am freezing in the blistering wind. The cigarettes I'm smoking on an empty stomach are making me sick. And sleep deprivation has me feeling truly wretched.

We stop by a brightly lit oil depot. The offensive by Gaddafi's forces turns out to be a rumor. At dawn we return to Ras al-Anuf. In the town's only hotel we can now get free accommodations. You can choose any room you like, but no one is keen to stay.

We see staff walking around the hotel carrying machine guns. With the owner's permission, the reporters raid the kitchen. Leave nothing behind for the enemy! The rebels, meanwhile, are destroying a large portrait of Gaddafi - a new favorite pastime in rebel-held areas of Libya.

We are told we can try to get through to Bin Jawad, where there was fighting the day before. A group of fellow journalists had arrived from there just an hour before our return - a French cameraman, who has been wounded in the leg, and several of his colleagues, who are clearly shaken. The Frenchman is treated at a nearby hospital, where he answers reporters' questions. He seems happy to be in the spotlight and to be near the end of his assignment.

Whatever smiles we had on our faces disappear as we approach Bin Jawad. The road is empty, with guys in combat vehicles prudently opting for alternative routes. It seems like we are driving straight into Gaddafi's hands.

Along the way, I spot a photographer friend from the European Press Photo Agency. I get out to greet him and to find out the latest news. When I come back, my car is already gone. The EPA photographer resumes his journey in the opposite direction.

I find myself all alone in the middle of a desert. I sit down on the sand, my mind overtaken by dark thoughts. I look around as I chain smoke. The odd car zooms by, the drivers unconcerned by this would-be hitchhiker. After an hour of waiting, some reporters heading to Bin Jawad finally offer me a lift.

We stop beside a cell phone tower a few kilometers away from the town. Two television crews are waiting nearby. They are wearing bulletproof vests and helmets.

We fling ourselves onto the ground at the sound of an approaching plane. As we contemplate whether we should go to the town, a rebel watching the road through a pair of binoculars shouts something to us and waves his hands wildly. We spot several cars coming our way. Unwilling to take any chances, we rush back to our taxis. Our drivers are even more eager to leave.

I meet a group of young Libyans distributing a revolutionary committee's leaflets. Cheerful Libyan music is blasting from the stereo of their Volkswagen. The trunk is packed with food and cigarettes. The young men seem fearless. Together, we arrive at a desolate oilmen's settlement outside Bin Jawad and break into one of the boarded-up houses to get some rest.

We sleep surrounded by the owner's personal belongings - a remote control, a pair of glasses, clothes covered in sand... I realize this is an old man's home. At night, we make ourselves some coffee and gaze at the stars. You can hear the waves of the nearby Mediterranean Sea crashing on the shore. I feel like a barbarian, a conqueror.

The fighting resumes the next morning, so we are off. From the top of a nearby minaret, we look at the house we spent the night at. Gaddafi's men are already there. Several motorboats have approached the shore and are firing on the town.

We keep a low profile in Ras al-Anuf. At a gas station we cook up some meat and pasta and drink coffee. We track each missile that's fired. One missile hits the hospital next to us. We decide to go and see the scale of destruction.

I walk a hundred meters and then look back to discover that I'm all alone. My Libyan companions must have decided to finish their meal. On my way back, I see a second missile hit the minaret.

Despite all the action, there is not much to photograph. Several rebels are lying in the grass, quietly contemplating the blasts and the smoke rising over the town. The rebels are an easy target here on the hill, but they believe in Allah, and their faith makes them fearless.

After lunch, we decide to move on. The shooting has subsided somewhat, and we get into our trusty Volkswagen and drive off. We find ourselves in the labyrinth of Ras al-Anuf's streets. The moment we realize we are lost, the town comes under a barrage of fire. A bizarre soundtrack takes shape: the sound of the explosions, Arab music blaring from the speakers, the agitated talk of my companions, and my own mantra of "move, shit, move!"

Suddenly I remember that I'm a photojournalist, and so I grab my camera to get a few shots. But my effort proves futile. The car is swaying and my hands are shaking too much. I put my camera down.

We drive past a checkpoint on the outskirts of town. The situation there is also far from normal. We come across a guy running around with an axe, screaming like a madman.

My companions have no desire to return. I summon my courage and announce I am going back on my own. "I've got friends there," I explain. "And I need to be with them."

Two photographers are crawling up a hill like bugs, trying to snap pictures of gunmen hiding in foxholes at the top. The gunmen are not firing at the moment. They are taking cover from a nearby tank.

"This isn't my war," an Italian reporter says to me.

"What the hell are we doing here then?" I reply jokingly.

I try to smile as much as I can today - to forget that I am shaking with fear.

We flee, then return, only to flee again. The rebels do the same. War is such a bore. I look at the sun receding behind the horizon, and I'm relieved. I can't take any photos in the dark. I have the perfect excuse to leave the scene of fighting.

A fighter jet flies overhead, dropping bombs at random. Missile launchers and machine guns fire back from the ground. I lie on the ground, look at the belly of the plane flying overhead, and brace myself, waiting to see when the next bomb will be dropped.

"Let's get closer to the tower," I suggest to my Italian colleague. "I don't think they'll bomb it."

I can see a Grad missile launcher sitting at the middle of the road. It belongs to rebels. But many of the rebels are fleeing.

We watch the Grad rotate in search of a target. Suddenly, it starts firing, with the flash of the launched missiles barely visible through the thick grey veil of smoke. I pay my respects to the lone hero manning the Grad and move on to Brega, hoping to get some rest there.

I reach Brega's hospital after nightfall. All the wounded have been evacuated farther east to Ajdabiya, I am told. I enter the hospital and take some photos inside. There is just one rebel here. He is undergoing surgery. I go to the bathroom. I can hear a new round of shelling begin - nothing extraordinary, just Murphy's Law in action. But I am not scared. For some reason I just can't imagine the bathroom ceiling caving in on me.

I try to take some pictures of tracers outside. We all hear a roar of an approaching fighter jet. Electricity in the hospital is switched off to avoid an airstrike. The doctors, meanwhile, carry on with the operation, using mobile phones for light. When the operation is done, the wounded man is put into a car and taken away.

I stay behind and get some sleep in a staff room. I have to share a bed with two other guys. In the middle of the night, they get up and go outside to smoke hash, much to my relief. I sleep like the dead.

In the morning, I hit the road again. The car I'm riding in with a few fellow reporters collides with a truck, which, we later learned, was carrying explosives and ammunition. My mouth is bleeding. We are banged up but OK. We get a ride in a minivan, where an Italian reporter is hysterical over the loss of her photographer. As we open the door to look for the guy, a missile explodes nearby. We drive off fast and make no stops along the way.

Once in el Brega, I pull out my broken teeth and throw them on the ground. I make a note of the spot. At night, I check into a hotel in Benghazi, stretch out on the bed and watch Home Alone 2. I don't think I've ever enjoyed a movie so much.

RIA Novosti's Andrei Stenin (Ajdabiya, Marsa el Brega, Ras al-Anuf, Bin Jawad, Benghazi - Libya)


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