Sirte and Misrata, Libya’s Last BattlePrint
A journalist remembers her days in Libya with James Foley
By Clare Morgana Gillis
September 30, 2014
BENGHAZI, April 2011–A large and detailed map of Sirte hung on the wall of the general’s office where James Foley and I conducted what turned out to be our last interview before our capture by Qaddafi’s troops, leading to an involuntary stay in Tripoli. The general—I forget his name–smoked cigarettes in a natty holder and explained his strategy for taking the town, almost exactly halfway between Benghazi, the rebel capital, and Tripoli, the regime stronghold, on the narrow, brush-lined coastal road. It had served as the front line when the British fought the Axis powers during World War II: “a tactician’s paradise, a quartermaster’s hell,” one of Rommel’s generals called it. Now it was where columns of rebel gun trucks beat hasty retreats once regime Grad missiles started thunking down, and the front line that had once spanned nearly to Bin Jawwad had been pushed back to somewhere around Brega. Sometimes those small cities changed hands twice in the same day.
The general’s take on rebel capabilities was a few shades brighter than our own, but Jim was enthusiastic anyway and showed up the next morning with a bag packed for Sirte. I raised my eyebrows and scratched my head. “Are you joking me?” He smiled sheepishly and left his bags in my room, both of us taking only small backpacks.
When we finally arrived in Sirte some five months later, on a circuitous and unimaginable route that began in Misrata, not Benghazi, we saw up close the failure of the blithe faith everyone had had in those early days: that once Qaddafi had been eliminated, the freedom-thirsty people of Libya would unite–into a nation, a state, a common good. We witnessed only chaos and distrust, and Jim, dedicated and clear-headed reporter of the movements once dubbed the Arab Spring, recognized it as soon as anybody did. Had he lived to continue reporting the news, he would himself likely be calling Libya a failed state.
SIRTE, October 2011–“We go to check. You wait here I think?” With a crooked smile Lutfy removed his blue sea captain’s hat to slip on a flak. He’d already loaded the RPGs and his Dragunov sniper rifle and grabbed binoculars for spotting along the seafront high-rises.
Bullets popped through the air at the fighters standing guard. As head of Misrata’s sniper brigade during the months of its siege, Lutfy identified with “Special Forces” and spray-painted “SAS” on his truck. He had no orders that day, so he was freelancing his countersniping expertise at a new front heading west along the seawall, his target a Qaddafi sniper 500 meters down the road. “I like to work alone,” he said.
Lutfy and his partner advanced to a house on the corner and slipped to the roof, darting across exposed areas in the stairwell to elude sniper fire. The last stair was piled high with ladies’ shoes, all sequins and heels, furred over with concrete shards. On the roof they couldn’t get a line of sight to the high-rise, so they tried another building, where they encountered a guard.
“He said I can’t go in,” Lutfy said. “They took the building, and they don’t want anyone else coming in. They’re from Benghazi; I don’t know them. If they were from Misrata …” he trailed off. “But I would do the same.” Anyone can grab an AK-47 and say they fight against Qaddafi, he meant.
Lutfy got it but didn’t care: the only thing it did for him that day was fuck his strategy. Sweating, he lit a gold-tipped cigarette and headed for another of the city’s many frontlines. He made his way cautiously through streets that lay under a foot and a half of water–flooded, the fighters said, by Qaddafi’s troops in order to thwart the rebel advance–which was going fetid in the midday sun. The driver of another truck heading out shouted “no organization!” from his window. Ignoring the flood and the warning, Lutfy pulled up at the blackened three-story building that served as the de facto frontline for several weeks. There he joined the haphazard crew of fighters holding the corner.
Lutfy fired RPGs furiously, one after the other, and switched off to the AK and finally to the Dragunov, its scope blind in the clouds of smoke. The irregulars that day were bad shots and ill-tempered ones at that. As Lutfy tried to mediate arguments, medics dragged a casualty, downed by gunshot, to an ambulance behind him. Pausing in the truck bed to reload, Lutfy shook his head soberly. “This is all wrong,” he said.
SIRTE, October 2011–Salem Hamid Farjani, a 48-year-old businessman from Benghazi, watched as fighters fired heavy machine guns in deafening hours-long blasts, RPG launchers splashing into the foot-deep water to fire at the snipers down the road. Farjani was skeptical of the offensive. “It’s maybe six of those snipers, why do they have to use heavy weapons? They’ve destroyed the city. It didn’t have to happen. They make it look like Misrata.” The dry parts of the road, once a grand boulevard, were littered with shells and chunks of concrete that had fallen from the buildings whose corners were now skeletons of rebar, blackened shards dangling from them.
“Misrata wants revenge on Sirte, on Qaddafi,” Farjani gently goaded Lutfy. While Lutfy would bawl out his own men, he was hard-pressed to tolerate a lecture from Benghazi. But he didn’t disagree.
MISRATA, September 2011–In Misrata’s Gostik Hotel, the lone warble of civilization was the courtyard fountain, which bubbled up day and night. Its swimming pool was empty. I arrived at night: Jim had given me the name, and described it as “something like a ghost hotel.” It was. Dark and eerie, it was next to the hospital, which meant that funeral dirges echoed in the rooms every day. The lobby was windswept; bullets had destroyed the windows. Pockmarks from mortars speckled the walkways and a layer of grime and cigarette butts coated February 17 stickers slapped on tables. The shower had no hose, just rusty water gushing from a spout.
My arrival in Misrata was trailed by a TV team I’d picked up somehow in Malta. They filmed me doing interviews and nodding off in the car, and asked me repeatedly if I felt “traumatized,” returning to a country where I’d been detained in uncertainty after seeing a colleague, South African photojournalist Anton Hammerl, shot and killed. “Not really,” I replied.
It was when Qaddafi lost Tripoli that it became clear to me: after four months, it was time to go back.
It was then I discovered that publications eager to claim me as their own when I was being held hostage by the Qaddafi regime were not nearly so eager to accept my reports from liberated Tripoli. I was told that I was being selfish and reckless, that I was a security risk, that I had potential but would never get a job in the industry. It seemed that some preferred me as a captive to me as a reporter.
Jim resolved to go right away. He was always the most dedicated of our number, and, for that reason, it seemed especially just that he was generally the happiest and most lighthearted as well. He, the Spanish photojournalist Manu Brabo, and I had been captured by soldiers loyal to the Qaddafi regime on the day that Anton was killed: April 5, 2011. From the beginning of our captivity in Tripoli, Jim worked to get us out, asking to speak to the director, taking notes once he had a pen, even hatching plots to escape. When we were released after a month and a half, he set his sights on helping raise money for Anton’s children, and eventually also to looking for Anton’s remains. It was not surprising that he decided to return quickly.
I spoke to Jim about all this. He’d begun working for GlobalPost in Boston–breaking news, a desk job–in the summer. “I fucking hate that shit, man,” he told me when we met up there in July 2011, over beers in a cellar bar near Harvard Square.
But I could see that it was good for him to be working. Manu, too, had gone to Honduras to shoot stories about farmers and sex workers for an NGO. I had planned to join him there once I’d finished a long piece I was writing. But I didn’t have time.
Tripoli fell within a week. And, since I preferred myself as a reporter to myself as a captive, I flew back there. It was a city I’d seen only through bars on a paddy wagon, through stolen glances from the gaps in a blindfold, or barred-over windows. (Once, for several surreal days, from the heights of a five-star hotel, sunset over the harbor.)
TAWERGHA, October 2011–Just, rape.
The most often adduced justification for Misratan punishment of one of its suburbs was rape: Misratans allege that Tawerghan men infiltrated Misrata and raped as many as 300 women and girls there. “They are not human, they are not normal,” said a guard at the entrance checkpoint.
Yet no victim appeared; hardly anyone had even viewed the cellphone videos that provided the evidence. “My cousin saw it, okay? What, you want to watch a girl getting raped in front of her father?”
When Misratans liberated themselves, they went straight for Tawergha. By October it was a ravaged ghost town of blackened houses, where herds of goats roamed under tattered green flags. Graffiti such as “Qaddafi made a fool of you” and “you are still slaves” referred to Tawerghans’ black skin (the town is said to have originated as a slave colony), and mocked his continued reliance on black African mercenaries.
“Rehabilitating the winners is much more difficult than rehabilitating the losers,” Mahmoud Jibril, erstwhile captain of good ship Transitional National Council, observed wryly in Tripoli in March 2012.
Tawerghans agreed. Some 150 Tawerghan refugees remained under Misratan “guard” at a mosque skirting Sirte. It was a kind of protective custody, since most were women and children. According to one woman, “We have things to say about Misrata that we can’t say here. We don’t have a problem with Misrata, Misrata has a problem with us. … They will kill us if we tell you here.”
In Tawergha we gingerly entered houses. In the courtyards, penned goats reached for pomegranates that over-ripened, frustratingly, out of reach over their heads. We grabbed the pomegranates and threw them against the walls to open the fruit. It was spooky and not a good place to be.
Since I’d arrived in Libya later than I’d wished, I wasn’t always feeling so good about it. I mumbled to Jim that maybe I was bad luck. He threw his arm around my shoulder. “No way dude, you’re good luck,” he said, with a beaming grin.
Near SIRTE, October 2011–“THE 50”
At the 50-kilometer checkpoint outside of Sirte, the frenzied hum of the front line began: Chinooks, cooks, doctors, foreign aid workers, and many, many fighters with AKs slung over their shoulders. The 50 had a large field hospital, kitchens, and helipads. It was where journalists filed and drank coffee at “Café de la Mosque.” Sometimes we rode in a car shared by friendly staff people with expense accounts; sometimes we hitched a flight in the Chinook operating between Misrata airport and Sirte, if there weren’t too many casualties aboard.
Refugees who were fleeing Sirte–some to Qaddafi stronghold Bani Walid, others to farms outside the town–told stories of state TV broadcasts that included videos, they said, of rebel fighters cutting off limbs from civilians and raping the women.
The ones who were going in? Columns of spectacular gun trucks in formation, divided into groups according to the homemade paint jobs indicating battalions, and speeding off into the plumes of smoke.
SIRTE, October 2011–“Do you know Call of Duty? This is Call of Duty,” said a fire-eyed young man, clutching his AK awkwardly as he crouched behind a bullet-riddled sign for an automotive shop, taking cover from sniper fire. Before I could ask him if he really believed war was a video game, he darted ahead with a handful of companions toward the front.
Sirte began humbly as a fishing village at nearly the exact center of Libya’s Mediterranean coast. Its change in fortune was the result of the Brother Leader’s birth in Qasr Abu Hadi, a village at its southern outskirts–once Qaddafi came to power, he sank tremendous sums into transforming the city into a personal resort for his family and inner circle, his personal grounds flush with imported gazelles and pigeon huts. Sirte was walled and heavily guarded at its gates, and special permission had been required to enter there.
Nearly every corner of this town he’d built up for more than 40 years became a soot-blackened shell. Rebels shot at, RPG’d, bulldozed, ransacked, set to fire, and flooded every single thing, every single day for more than a month.
One night, one of the luxury hotels had become a smoke-filled cauldron where deafening artillery fire raged. “It’s hell down there,” said Fabio, an Italian friend, clearing his eyes in a daze and shaking his head as he emerged from the courtyard, clutching his cameras. Fires and the headlights on tacticals lit the city, while tracer rounds streaked the night sky. The sharp scent of hashish floated from the windows of these trucks as they chewed paths through the sculpted terraces and exotic flora that Qaddafi had imported to adorn the hotel complex. They raced to evacuate wounded or simply to escape, the improvised holes in walls dangerous chokepoints that saw wired-together gun trucks slamming into each other indiscriminately, the odd traffic accident only the most banal of fatalities that could befall you here.
One elderly man knelt in the courtyard with a mortar round and firing tube. He pitched the tube against some stakes and loaded the round. Putting his hands over his ears, he was nonplussed to see the round fail to fire. He peered down the tube, dumped the round out and reloaded.
“God, I hope Grandpa over there doesn’t blow himself up,” my colleague Tom noted as we took cover and watched from what we hoped was a safe distance. “Or us!” I added.
But the men were dulled to fatality anyway. One hot afternoon at the gates of Ouagadougou Palace, Jim and I were crouched behind the engine block of a Land Cruiser when we saw a man not three meters from us slump forward a moment after a crack whistled through the sky. He was eating, or talking, then suddenly … men hastened to carry him off to the ambulance, pausing not to weep but to eyeball the length of the run.
SIRTE, October 2011–At a crossroads on the eastern side of town, a string of cock-eyed tents lined the far side of the wall against a row of trucks from eastern Libya. Sirte saw the western units (primarily from Misrata, Zintan, and Tripoli) bump up against those from the east. Distrust was the least dangerous outcome of this geography, where frontlines collided and sometimes exchanged what only policy reports reports might term “friendly fire.” Misratans accused Benghazi fighters of being slow, “like turtles,” not stepping up when needed. Benghazi brigades also used the Land Cruiser pickups from Qaddafi’s storehouses without even a minimum of spray-painted additions to distinguish them from the enemy. You could see Misratans thinking–they’re too stoned to even do that right.
Adel, a dark-skinned Libyan from Benghazi, wore socks but no shoes as he crouched in the sand giggling with a friend. Stuffing hash and tobacco into an emptied cigarette tube, he seemed, unlike his comrades, unperturbed by bullets whizzing intermittently through the air. “Where’s the sniper?” I asked. He shrugged and gestured “everywhere!” Amid exhortations “takbir!” and “Allahu akbar!” they laughed and got high.
A 16-year-old fighter showed his scars from four months in prison in Sirte. When the shooting started, he argued with someone, while others looked confused and turned uneasily. In English, one of the fighters shouted exasperatedly, “Can we at least see what we’re shooting at first, please?”
MATTHEW VANDYKE–The English voice belonged to an American rebel, a former Qaddafi captive and one-time journalist, Matthew VanDyke. Sometimes I rode with VanDyke, who was bearded and wiry and dressed in combat fatigues, perched in a Jeep at the Dushka turret. “Best gun fight of my life yesterday!” he exclaimed one day. “I was just spraying the Dushka all up and down the street.”
But another time, he wanted to go back to a house in Sirte’s District 2 to check a position he had shot at the day before. “I’m almost totally sure I didn’t hit that guy,” he mused. “God saved me from killing a man on the last day of the war–I wasn’t familiar with the sights on the new rifle. I didn’t see any spots of blood or anything.”
Even so, he wanted to go back, just to check. VanDyke, who has spoken of the psychological effects of his five and a half months of solitary confinement in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, said “my OCD is bad today.” Footage of VanDyke after his release from Abu Salim shows a gaunt and haunted soul who spoke openly of his hallucinations, the waking nightmares that had him believing his own execution was imminent.
Flush with drink and victory when the battle for Sirte ended, he said something that made sense to me one night in a hotel room in Benghazi, where he visited Jim and me. The conversation concerned the possible rise of Islamists in elections. “That’s okay with me. I’m only interested in people having the right to fuck things up for themselves.” But another night he compared himself to Che Guevara and the sense passed. (Jim was asleep that time, and probably would have remained indifferent to the comparison.)
MISRATA, October 2011–One night Lutfy and I visited his brother Mohammed’s studio in Misrata. Mohammed is an artist and revolutionary and a revolutionary artist: he invented a method of textureless painting which has the curious quality of being waterproof, and he was picked up by the secret services on February 15, two days before the uprising started.
“Yeah, they were watching me and my family,” said Mohammed, whose bouncy energy and curly hair call to mind a desert prophet. Where Lutfy is Il Penseroso, Mohammed is L’Allegro. He and his brother Habib spent six months in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison, where Mohammed used tinfoil food containers to etch frescoes on his cell walls.
Glossy prints of sensuous, colorful figures lined the walls of his workspace, on a side street in downtown Misrata. That night Mohammed’s open door policy lent his studio a salon flavor: visitors discussed politics and art, and English flowed, along with a bottle of clear booze they flavored with lemonade. A tiger kitten tussled over territory on the couch before settling down to a deep purr.
SIRTE, October 20, 2011–Gun trucks eased through the rubble- and shell-strewn streets. Whatever wasn’t being burnt was getting stolen.
“I heard Muatassim on the radio this morning, and we think Number One might be here too,” said Osama Omar Muttawa Swehly, a commander from Misrata. His Dolce & Gabbana sunglasses nestled crown-like in his dreadlocks as he worked the radios. Behind him, fighters rigged a nylon rope tow package for a lime-green Jeep.
Barely an hour later, gasps of disbelief and excitement met the radio call to the fighters around us: “Qaddafi captured.” The directions brought us to a concrete drainage ditch at the western edge of Sirte, where dozens of fighters shouted “Allahu akbar” and jostled for position to look at the last bits of human wreckage at the capture point. Two men were still alive, but barely.
Footage of a captured Qaddafi, bloodied but still alive, swept through the cell phones. Yet within half an hour reports of “Qaddafi captured” became “Qaddafi, finished,” with a finger drawn across the neck.
Those who fought alongside the dead man fared no better. A line of sapped and filthy prisoners sat, backs to the wall, not far down the road from where Qaddafi had been captured. A fighter confided that there were 63 of them, and they were last seen loaded on a flatbed truck, hands zip-tied, on the road to Misrata. Later, a Human Rights Watch investigation determined they were the ones found at a hotel at Sirte’s western outskirts, site of the largest documented mass execution on the rebel side.
MISRATA, night of October 20, 2011–The city was full of wheels slamming into already dented bumpers. Car horns and the ululations of women and girls reverberated on Tripoli Street.
Another type of victory dance was roving Misrata’s neighborhoods this night. Headlights from hundreds of cars streaked the city as they raced, feeding off bits of information from thousands of mobile phone calls, to see the body.
We got there the same way, but a burly fighter tried to stop us from entering the private home where Qaddafi had been taken. Fabio, my Italian photographer friend, tugged my arm and we sidled off under the palms out of sight and made it into the house. Standing over Qaddafi’s body, I was struck by a thought.
“This man knew my name,” I realized. That may have been an exaggeration. But the surprisingly small figure that lay on someone’s living room floor, rank curls askew, blue medical sheet hastily pulled up over his bare torso, was once credited with a gift bag I had received while in Al-Jdeida Prison in Tripoli in May 2011: a carton of Marlboro Reds, perfume and chocolates, and English-language books, including, most amusingly, Animal Farm. Looking at him, I wasn’t thinking of who pulled the trigger, or of the more than 1,200 victims of the Abu Salim prison massacre, or the rock-throwing teenagers gunned down with antiaircraft artillery in the streets of Benghazi in February 2011. I was wondering what, if anything, he had had in mind with Animal Farm, and how it came to be that my life could be intertwined, even in such a small way, with 42 years of history.
They were about to move him, and they asked me to leave. Outside I rejoined the crowd and felt the night breeze on my face.
SIRTE, October 24, 2011–The glassy stillness of the water doubled the scene: gap-toothed buildings, dented and twisted electrical poles that hung spindly like birds with broken wings. The stench of death wafted through the air, betokening what lay beyond creaking gates. A lone gun truck from Misrata sped around the corner, spinning on rubble and spent shells. The rebel yell echoed through the unpeopled ruin: “Allahu akbar!”
Fatima Zidane opened the door cautiously. She had just returned to her home in Sirte’s District 2, and inside her suspicion gave way to fury. “Look at this. Our house is destroyed. Everything is gone, the televisions, the blankets, jewelry, mobile phones, all the electronics.” Zidane gestured at the shells and rubble from artillery fire littering the ground around her.
She and her sisters had fled the home to a nearby farm months ago. This was the first time they had returned since.
Zidane’s husband was dead, and she had one of her three boys with her. He played with a toy snake among the rubble of their belongings.
Her aunt Hawa asked me in disbelief about Qaddafi, “Is it true that he is dead?”
Yes, I said, I saw him. It was here in Sirte.
Hawa shook her head and said, “We don’t know our destiny. … we did not expect that. Death comes from God.”
“All Sirte is with Muammar,” said Zidane, standing on her roof. “Life under Qaddafi was good. We didn’t have any problems. Now he’s dead, God give him mercy.” Despite Hawa’s fearful look, she pointed to her heart, saying, “He is here.”
BREGA, October 31, 2011–“Do you remember those telephone poles? I don’t,” asked Jim.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I thought the trees were sparser, and I don’t remember seeing this road to the side.”
Jim and I had returned to the site where we had come under fire from Qaddafi’s soldiers back in April, hoping for clues to the whereabouts of our friend Anton Hammerl’s remains. He had been shot and killed in the ambush and, as far as anyone knew, left in the desert. Neither the Qaddafi government nor South Africa, Anton’s country, had provided much assistance in locating the body.
But Jim was determined to get somewhere with the whole thing. Exhausted after months on the front lines in western Libya, he returned east with a quiet dedication to what he saw as the most important task at hand: we were eyewitnesses, and we could investigate.
Brows furrowed in frustration, we paced the site, making our way through trees and piles of trash and prickly vegetation, the desert wind blowing sand in our faces.
“The hill seemed so much bigger,” we agreed.
Of course, it had been five months ago, and the memories were sustained under traumatic circumstances, shot through with fear, adrenaline, and 7.62mm incoming. This was the site of our capture and the last place we saw Anton, our fourth companion on April 5, 2011. At a particular spot in the road a few kilometers east of the university, a copse of trees sits at the base of a hill ridged with trees on the right-hand side when you look up. We had looked up from our slight cover on that day and seen Qaddafi regime soldiers firing at us as they sped down the hill in Land Cruisers.
The next day, we continued to pace the site.
I was looking, absurdly, for a hat that I had lost in the capture. Fixated on a detail that would prove we had been there, I was not mindful of how desert sands shift in the wind, burying and revealing their secrets.
All I found was a feeling. While crouching behind a clump of nettles to reenact my perspective on April 5, I felt a flash of recognition, an intuition rather than an intellectual process of matching the image in my mind’s eye with the reality of the hill in front of me. I wondered if the earth held onto feelings.
I kept looking for my hat. Tiny conical seashells peppered the sand–we were after all not far from the sea–and I took one for Penny, Anton’s widow. Jim walked further ahead to film and double back to check the perspective.
When two men in a passing truck stopped to warn us about land mines, we knew it was time to leave.
We didn’t find him then, and we still haven’t now.
MISRATA, November 2011–I was in Tripoli when Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, began. I saw a camel slaughtered in front of another, still living, camel, and I thought it must be awful to watch that happen and know that you’re next.
Back in Misrata, I fell into inertia and exhaustion. There I rented a room in a house with another friend in postwar drift. We wanted to buy hash. The most convenient purveyor was eager to do business, and more: “I want a sexual relationship with you, Clare,” he said, rubbing himself. “Please. I give you anything. You want a piece for 20 dinars, for 50, however much you want. Please.”
I finally made it out in November with Lutfy and three of his fellow fighters, who were headed to Morocco to celebrate the end of the war; I stayed in Tunis. Before leaving, Lutfy went on the Free Libya television channel to implore his fellow fighters to give up their weapons.
They still haven’t either. Sometime in the summer of 2014, news organizations and international bodies regularly began referring to Libya as a failed state.
August 19, 2014–The Islamic State released a video from their self-fashioned capital in Raqqa, Syria, announcing the execution of James Wright Foley, 40, an American freelance journalist.
Clare Morgana Gillis received her Ph.D. in history in 2010, and has since worked as a freelance reporter in the Middle East. In 2014, she served as a researcher for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, where she helped produce a report on Syrian refugee women. She is based in Cairo.