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The frontline.
The Libyan Diaries – Day One: A Journey Begins

THE SUN sets in Giza as we drive out of Cairo, a Cairo that has changed after the 18-day uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak, ruler supreme for over 30 years.

“There’s a nur (a light) here in Egypt now,” says Gift of the Givers director, Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, “a balagh (a dark curse) has been lifted.

It’s so true that when a people help themselves, Allah helps them,” he says.

As darkness starts to fall on the outer suburbs of Cairo, I start to think about what lies ahead.

Our destination in Libya is Ajdabiya, a town 125 kms west of Benghazi where the biggest hospital to the frontline is.

We’re beginning to hear disturbing stories via the Egyptian grapevine. We are being told that casualties are great. But no-one can come up with figures.

It’s a strange story with too few details. No images of the wounded, no bodies and only “grabs” of events.

The big question is why so many thousands are fleeing? In usual conflict scenarios, people move away, and wait to return to their lives.

But here, workers from poor countries are running away from their livelihoods to their home countries, where they will have no hope of employment.

Why is there so much fear? What is it that’s making them run?

As we bump past northbound trucks towards Alexandria, I think about the mercenaries. I’ve been told that one of Gaddafi’s sons was seen in Syria just after the first Green Square protests in Tripoli.

“There could be Syrian mercenaries,” a Syrian-born medical student tells me.

So add that to the forces from Chad, Niger, Nigeria, Algeria, Zimbabwe…let’s just hope that South Africans are not in the mix too.

Indeed, as I’m told, these professional soldiers, their bank balances bloated with dollars, are the only people Gaddafi can get to do the dirty work of containing a popular uprising.

Of course, there’s no doubt that Libya is in the throes of a civil war and that Gaddafi, a ruthless survivor, will do everything on his own terms.

But surely, there has to be a limit?

Surprisingly, one of the few positives is President Barak Obama’s reluctance to engage with a “no fly zone”, to all intents and purposes, a declaration of war that can have many unintended consequences.

To declare a no-fly zone some government will have to bomb Gaddafi’s jets and helicopters into the ground.

With Arabs no longer afraid, the last thing any major power needs is military engagement and restless natives. Iraq, Beirut and Somalia have been a profound lesson.

At the end of the Libyan day, only a Libyan solution will lead to lasting peace – and let’s all hope that the rest of the world, and Gaddafi, will see it that way.

Bangladeshi workers stranded for 10 days at Egyptian border.
The Libyan Diaries – Day Two/Three, Misery at the Border

THE desert is icy cold in March. As we drive towards Alexandria, I open the bus window and a bone chilling blast hits my face.

In the northern skies I see constellations that I don’t recognise, galaxies and stars that inspired the ancients to worship them.

The road is long and lonely and we drive relentlessly until midnight. In a town whose name I never get to know, we eat supper – kebabs, humus and tea. Bored Egyptian soldiers watch us from their tanks.

For the Gift of the Givers team it proves to be a long night. At dawn we finally reach Saloumi, the border town between Egypt and Libya.

At the crossing we stop to change buses. I see a litter strewn landscape in the early dawn. The border post looks like a human wave has just washed over it.

I also see piles of coloured plastic, the kind that is used for tarpaulins, shade cloths and cheap travel bags.

What is people’s luggage doing there? I think.

A few figures wrapped in blankets shiver around a smoky fire. They’re from Mali, former oil industry workers stranded at the border.

“We’ve been stuck here for 8 days,” they say.

It’s then that the plastic sheets begin to move. The luggage is alive. An open air camp of nearly 1,000 Bangladeshis is beginning to awaken.

It’s drizzling and it’s very cold, but I notice a man in slip-slops.

“I’m hungry and cold,” says a man with a beard and keffiyah who can speak broken English.

“Our employers, Al Afcan, didn’t pay us for four months. I have no money. I’ve been stuck here for ten days,” he says.

I’m soon surrounded by a buzzing crowd of complainants.

In the customs hall I can’t even walk across the floor. Hundreds of people are crammed inside. As I lift my camera an Egyptian official shoos me away.

I approach a group of Ghanaians. I speak to Muhammad, a 35 year old oil refinery worker from Ras Lanuf, a town that has just been bombed by Gaddafi’s forces.

Muhammad tells me he’d been working in Ras Lanuf for eight years.

“But they (the Libyan opposition) started killing black people, calling us ‘mercenaries'”, he says.

“I’m afraid and so I run away. But there are still many people hiding in houses in Benghazi and Tripoli who can’t get out.”

Another man tells me that some men abducted him and took all his money. It’s a lament that soon becomes depressingly familiar.

Gaddafi’s feared African mercenary stormtroopers, renowned for their viciousness and cruelty, have precipitated a wave of Libyan xenophobia against African migrants.

My blood runs cold when I hear stories – admittedly unconfirmed – that the mercenaries (believed to be from Chad, Niger, Burkino Faso and other sub-Saharan states) have been moving into towns and suburbs, killing civilians suspected of being anti-Gaddafi.

I pray to myself that this is not the truth.

We leave the chaos and misery of Saloumi to the overwhelmed Egyptian officials and trudge across no-man’s land to our transport.

It’s then that my Blackberry blinks into life: an earthquake, a massive 8.9 on the Richter scale, has just shaken Japan.

I’m happy that my BB still works, in spite of the bad news, and curse the idiot at the Johannesburg satphone company who forgot to give me an aerial.

“Get one in Tripoli,” he e-mails me, unaware that if I did so I’d come home in a body bag.

Back in Libya we book into a hotel for a meal and to charge up laptops, phones and batteries.

Outside, a truck festooned with Gift of the Givers banners and loaded with medical supplies, is parked.

On Al-Jazeera I see Benghazi’s town square packed with people attending jumu’ah, but at the moment we’re stuck. Word is coming back to us that due to instability down the road we must stay put for a while.

Libya 2011 is definitely your typical relief mission. And by “typical” I mean it’s hallmarked by unpredictability, the unexpected and sometimes even the scary unknown.

Car in which Al-Jazeera journo was shot with bullet holes.
>The Libyan Diaries – Day Four: Al-Jazeera journalist is killed

WE ARRIVE in Ajdabiya, a town 125 kms west of Benghazi. We’re about 60 kms from the front line.

The country is flat and featureless. The Gift of the Givers doctors meet with their Libyan counterparts at the hospital, the first stop for wounded fighters from Ras Lanuf.

We spend the night in the basement of the Amal Africa Hotel. The next morning the manager tells us he’s closing his doors and that everybody must check out immediately.

The only people in the hotel are journalists so there has to be a message here, I think.

But what is it? Are Gaddafi’s mercenaries just down the road? We hear the deep rumble of anti-aircraft gunfire. After jumping out of our skins, we realise it’s just the opposition forces testing their weapons.

We also learn that the previous day the Al-Jazeera van had been attacked by Gaddafi’s air force.

By 11am all the media crews (from networks such as CNN and ITN) have left. The hotel shuts its doors.

We drag our bags to the hospital; most of the media has now left Ajdabiya, but I know that Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, Gift of the Givers director, is definitely going to stay as long as he can.

His work is humanitarian and he reckons that by Sunday our doctors could be busy.

Rumours are already circulating that a major onslaught is imminent. Gaddafi is running out of fuel. With the Ras Lanuf facility out of action, he needs to capture Brega.

He has been pinning down opposition forces from the air and the sea, but has struggled to move east on the road.

Back at Ajdabiya, the hospital is rudimentary, but the staff makes do with what it can.

“What system we had is collapsed, so we don’t even know if we’ll get paid,” says Dr Salim Langhi, an orthopaedic surgeon from Benghazi who studied in Ireland.

He is dressed in his scrubs ready to depart with a fleet of ambulances for Brega and Ras Lanuf.

“Gaddafi has been attacking our field hospitals, and so we will use the ambulances instead,” he says.

Later that morning, as we mill around, I’m told that Gaddafi had executed over 20 military officers. Is it true? Yes, it is.

But not only that: a Libyan doctor, a sober man not given to hyperbole, tells me the Brother Leader had forced his Prime Minister to read the news on national television!

The next titbit is that Tripoli’s blood banks have been purloined by Gaddafi. He has ordered his doctors to treat only his forces, and no civilians. This is a clear breach of international law.

A Libyan doctor alleges that Gaddafi’s forces went into the hospitals and, after rounding up wounded civilians, executed them.

I soon hear another war rumour. His Libyan pilots are going on sorties without parachutes.

Is this urban legend? I’m assured that it’s not.

The grotesque enters the frame when I’m told that Gaddafi’s thugs in the eastern town of Zawiyya had dug up the bodies of those killed in the protests and disposed of them.

This done to prove on Libyan state television that casualties in the conflict weren’t that high, and that the international media was lying.

Later that afternoon we head out to Brega which is the marker of the battlefront, and about 20 minutes from Ajdabiya.

Brega’s refinery is in opposition hands and we stop to have a look at the town’s burnt out police station and government offices.

“For sale – 5 dinars (R35)…terms available” says graffiti outside the gutted town hall.

This, however, is not the work of mindless mobs. Throughout Libya I’ve been struck by the focus of the uprising. Little else has been destroyed except posters of Gaddafi and his centres of power.

Libyans are a proud and hospitable people who want their country to work.

On our way back to Adjdabiya, we pass 4X4’s, and even flatbed trucks, loaded with anti-aircraft guns, LMG’s and rocket launchers. All the traffic is moving west. We even see a few tanks.

The young men all give us victory signs.

Later that night a huge blast rips through the hospital. There is instant panic: is the town under fire?

No, some gung-ho idiot was sitting playing with a home-made bomb, which he accidentally detonated.

The corridor is sprayed with blood and some of his fingers are blown off. The doctors are not impressed.

In the hospital canteen Al-Jazeera is broadcasting a statement issued by its head, Wadah Kamfer.

To my horror I learn that Ali Hasan Jaba, an Al-Jazeera journalist, has been killed in an attack near Benghazi, hundreds of kilometres from any conflict zone.

It’s then that I realise if you as a journalist expose truth to power, you can incur the wrath of power – and as in the case of Ali Hasan Jaba and Al-Jazeera, you can pay the ultimate price.

Young fighter is rushed into the ward from the front.
The Libyan Diaries – Day Five: The Voice of the Youth

I JUST know that Sunday is shaping up like Monday when an AFP photographer, who has covered stories such as Rwanda, is freaked out.

He has just returned from the front which has advanced overnight to Brega.

“They were bombing us from the sea,” he says, adding that Gaddafi’s forces will be in Ajdabiya in 8 hours.

“I’ve been here since the 22nd of February and I’m getting out of here,” he says.

In spite of his feelings we’re still determined to get to the front. Our plans go pear-shaped, though, when our drivers refuse to go. The bombing is too intense, they say.

By now the sentiment is that Gaddafi is targeting journalists, not exactly a reassuring feeling.

There’s nothing else to do except hang out at the hospital.

Things are now tense. Throughout the morning we listen to rumours of Gaddafi’s mercenaries marching on Ajdabiya. Opposition forces have retreated to 10 kms outside the town.

We also hear that Brega has fallen – bad news for us. Ajdabiya is the next town and is the gateway to the east.

Of course, it’s difficult to find out what’s really happening. War is about fear and rumour. The bang-bang is just a part of it.

But what makes the situation difficult here is the poor communication networks.

Cellular networks are erratic, the internet is down and landlines are dysfunctional. The local TV network can only be trusted to churn out propaganda.

I’ve managed to borrow an aerial for the satphone, and it works. I file a story and phone home.

We talk to some soldiers (who wish to remain anonymous). They’ve joined the uprising and have families in Tripoli whom they don’t want to compromise.

So great has been the fear in Libya they’re still worried their families will be victimised by Gaddafi’s thugs.

They tell us that Gaddafi has 1,000 elite forces surrounding him at any given time.

What about his forty “Amazons”? I ask.

“For his pleasure,” laughs a young sergeant.

We ask the soldiers what they want out of the uprising.

“We need a no-fly zone so we can defeat Gaddafi. We want nothing else,” says a paratrooper.

So how do they feel?

“We’ve lost our fear. It’s victory or death.”

As the afternoon turns to evening, the casualties start to come in from the front.

Ambulances squeal to a halt and the injured are rushed off to trauma. It’s chaos. Paramedics sluice the blood out their ambulances and scream off again.

It’s then that an ambulance volunteer, Osman ibn Salik, approaches me.

“My son has just died in the fighting and I need to phone the USA to tell his mother,” he says, his eyes brimming with tears.

I hand him the satphone. Watching a father tell a mother that their son has just died is an awkward moment.

I discover that his boy Muhammad, a 22 year old from Virginia, had come back to Libya to fight Gaddafi.

He had died from his wounds during the morning’s bombing.

Osman sits down and weeps. There is nothing further I can do.

Journalists begin to gather at the hospital. Most are going to Benghazi.

Dr Imtiaz Sooliman then appears and tells us to evacuate.

“The TV has just said that Gaddafi is claiming the hospital has an arms cache and that he’ll bomb it,” he says, adding that our hosts don’t want us to be in danger.

Not everyone is happy with the decision, but Dr Sooliman says that our hosts have our best interests at heart.

Just before we depart, the Free Voice of Libya – a “pirate” radio station – is broadcasting. This is what its presenter had to say:

“We will sing with raised voices, the front line speaks with one voice…our (fallen) fighters are beyond courageous.

“What are we in their presence? They are in Paradise. Don’t hold your prayers back for these souls; we want a Libya that is free.

“Our voice (for freedom) will never be silenced until all the soil of Libya is liberated…

“Let’s listen to the voice of the brave youth.”

My thoughts went back to the 22 year-old Muhammad Salik. His life was over, but I knew that his cause to be Libyan, and to be human, would live on.

Young men outside Gaddafi's dungeon
The Libyan Diaries – Day Six: Gaddafi’s Secret Killing Fields

AJDABIYA, the eastern town and opposition stronghold, gets bombed during the night. Well, a shell lands in the town. Not much damage, but lots of fear.

Everybody knows there is worse to come.

And that’s just how Gaddafi likes it: raw terror. Here’s a man who has no respect for his people, a man who bombs them from the air with US supplied fighter jets.

With his ego larger than the African continent, one is dealing with a modern-day Pharaoh. Forget about Islam, the Third Universal Theory or the Green Book.

Gaddafi is all about himself. He is his own wrathful god. Gaddafi is god. Traitors are those misguided ones who do not worship at his feet.

Except that this time, his bullied subjects no longer fear him. After 42 miserable years, they’re tired of being beaten, tortured, burnt and killed.

His poor, dusty and undeveloped Libya – a country that should be as wealthy and comfortable as any Gulf oil state – is being reduced to ashes.

And as so many Libyans have told me; Gaddafi doesn’t care if he ends up ruling an empty country. He will just carry on killing and killing. He has been doing it for four decades, so why stop now?

The fact that every government building, every security facility, every army barracks and every Gaddafian pleasure palace has been gutted from Tobruk to Tripoli is irrelevant to him.

The fact that the Libyan people have finally risen up, and said NO with a resounding voice, only means to him that they’re disobedient chattels who must be punished.

A doctor who used to be part of Gaddafi’s personal medical staff tells us that the Libyan leader – apart from dabbling in the occult – suffers from asthma, hypertension and insomnia.

Another medical man, Dr Zaruh Nabus of Harawi hospital in Benghazi, believes that the Brother Leader is schizophrenic.

“I’ve seen dictators and Gaddafi is not a dictator,” he says, “he’s schizophrenic.”

We see the real measure of Gaddafi when we visit the Katib al-Fadil security compound in the coastal city of Benghazi. It is where many died during the uprising, Gaddafi’s African mercenaries shooting unarmed civilians with anti-aircraft guns.

The injuries and fatalities were horrific. Ack-ack guns fire shells with explosive heads. Dr Nabus’ eyes fill with tears. He says it was heartbreaking having to pick up body parts from the road.

The fall of Katib al-Fadil is a story that will become a Libyan epic.

Its unlikely hero is Mahdi Zeiw, a mild-mannered oil engineer. Born the year Gaddafi deposed King Idris, Zeiw put two domestic gas cylinders into his car and made a detonator from fishing explosives. He then drove into the gates, blowing them open.

It was a turning point for Benghazi, and Katib al-Fadil fell, with about 200 mercenaries fleeing to the neighbouring villages of Maghouri and Algouarsh, where some were captured.

I’m told by more than one source that Zeiw was not an extremist, or fanatic. Libyans, in any case, are not that way inclined.

Dr Nabus says it was an accumulation of sadness, anger and frustration boiling up like a volcano that saw him doing what he did.

“He just couldn’t take the children being killed.”

We drive into the compound, its 4 metre walls breached in places. All the buildings, including Gaddafi’s residence, have been gutted. The wrecks of burnt out cars and army vehicles are strewn everywhere.

We are led to a small building, the word “prison” sprayed on its walls. We enter through its ripped off doors and discover a massive chamber.

It’s gloomy inside, and big enough to park a Mac truck. Leading off the main chamber are two rooms. They are dark, and only via the light of a cellphone can we see inside.

I thought at first that I was looking at an ammunition dump. But Seraj Benserti of Benghazi’s 17 February Media Centre tells me that when they broke into the compound, they’d heard knocking and screaming coming from the ground.

“We found 20 live prisoners down here,” he said. This had been no ammunition dump, but a dungeon in which human beings had been locked up in total darkness.

Were those fingernail scratches in the one wall? None of us spent enough time in this hellhole to find out.

Benserti points to a series of craters in the compound. They are where protestors had searched for more chambers.

“We used bulldozers to look for entrances, but we couldn’t find any as the warders had fled,” he said.

He commented that not even those soldiers guarding the outside of Khatib ul-Fadil knew what horrors were being perpetrated behind its walls.

“We smelt rotting bodies but couldn’t locate them,” said Benserti, adding that they had found several corpses, most burnt beyond recognition.

Dr Musbah Abdullah, an anaesthetist, shows me a video at the hotel later that evening. In it a man lifts a charred body which disintegrates in his hands.

It’s then that I think of a statement made to me earlier that day by Dr Nabus:

“The difference between the tsunami in Japan and Libya is that Libya’s killing fields can be stopped.”

Let’s hope they can.

Anti-aircraft position somewhere in eastern Libya.
The Libyan Diaries – Day 7: Arms Caches, Cloaks, Daggers and SAM Missiles

REPORTS coming in from Ajdabiya are not good. Bombing has intensified around the hospital, which Libyan state TV claims is the site of an arms cache.

This is a serious allegation. Under the Geneva Convention hospitals have to be neutral zones.

I was at Ajdabiya. In fact, eight South African journalists and I spent three days there covering Gift of the Givers medical team. So did a TV crew from AFP, whose footage was syndicated around the world.

I can confidently say that none of us saw any arms caches at the hospital, which is 125 kms from Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi – and is surprise, surprise – an opposition stronghold.

As one of Gaddafi’s neglected eastern towns, Ajdabiya only has a small, under-equipped rural hospital; a hospital put under strain due to the nearby one in Brega being bombed by Gaddafi.

But, as we discovered, Ajdabiya’s doctors were proud professionals who said they would honour their Hippocratic Oath, and would happily treat the wounded from both sides.

Yes, there were lots of people with guns at the hospital gates. And rocket launchers, and anti-aircraft guns and AK 47’s…

But there was a war, and during wars armies take their wounded to hospitals, especially if they are the nearest ones to the front line.

It’s just the way things are. The Geneva Convention allows it, and common human decency demands it.

But then, for Gaddafi loyalists, Ajdabiya was a strategic crossroads. It was the gateway to the key eastern cities of Tobruk and Benghazi.

For Gaddafi to seize back the rest of the country, Ajdabiya had to fall. So in a war marked by rumour, propaganda and naked terror, why not create some more?

That the arms cache story was a manufactured one is beyond any doubt. And it was back in Benghazi that the pieces of the puzzle finally slotted into place.

Or did they? Let me explain.

We happened to meet (in the foyer of the Al Wahat Hotel) a “reporter” from the Ukraine. He was trying to get a Libyan sim card, a piece of gold.

He wore a US military cap he said he’d got in Iraq – the equivalent in the Arab world, I thought, of waving an AWB vierkleur flag at an ANC congress.

“I’ve got pictures to prove there was an arms cache in Ajdabiya,” he boasted when conversation drifted towards the Ajdabiya topic, as it usually did amongst journalists.

Our curiosity was piqued, and colleague Graeme Hosken from the Pretoria News was quick to challenge him.

“Show us the pictures then,” he said.

The man sat down, opened his dusty lap-top, clicked on his picture icon and his screen lit up.


He pointed to an image of a Toyota pickup truck loaded with rocket launchers, which he said were Surface to Air Missiles (SAM’s).

I knew that SAM missiles had been stockpiled in Gaddafi’s armouries. They had been broken open by the rebels after the 17 February uprising.

“But those guys were protecting the hospital from attack,” we chorused, “that’s not an arms cache!”

We also pointed out that the Toyota was nowhere near any recognisable hospital buildings. In fact, the Toyota could have been in any Libyan town.

This Ukrainian media man (he gave us his business card) was remarkably knowledgeable about weaponry.

He’d been present at most of the battles at Ras Lanuf and Brega, but his pictures and footage were amateurish.

There was a decided focus on opposition weaponry with his stand alone shots more like those of a tourist.

But when it came to armoury, he was fully conversant with their years of manufacture, their calibres and their combat capabilities.

He also told us that the opposition anti-aircraft guns and SAM’s were keeping Gaddafi’s planes to 5,000 metres, hence the inaccuracy of their bombing.

Conflicts attract spies, moles, arms dealers, intelligence operators and any measure of kooks. So who was this man?

At face value I had to accept that he was a journalist, even if I instinctively didn’t trust him. His card did not associate him with any credible publication or broadcaster.

On the other hand, did I go the conspiracy route?

This meant that Boris, as I will call our man, was from an intelligence agency. His interest in rebel weaponry, and his observations of how Gaddafi had to fly his missions, appeared to be of great importance to him.

SAM missiles had transformed the whole face of the anti-Soviet Afghan war when the US had supplied the mujahidin with them. The SAM’s had decimated Soviet armoury.

Gaddafi’s airforce jets, some 100 or so creaking Soviet era Mig 21’s and 23’s would probably have the same vulnerability to SAM missiles as in Afghanistan, especially over the flatlands of Libya.

But how did our Ukranian friend from Kiev fit in? Gaddafi had Russian SAM’s. Were they as effective as the US model?

Suffice it to say, it’s one of those tantalisingly unanswered issues. For as soon as we’d chatted we climbed into our taxis for Egypt and “Boris” melted into the street.

End Note

Young anti-Gaddafi fighters undergo training somewhere in Libya.
THE Gift of the Givers medical and media team arrived safely at the Egyptian border at 8 pm last night, Wednesday, from strife torn Libya.

The GOG team was the last to pull out of Libya’s eastern city of Benghazi against the background of increasing dangers to journalists and foreigners at the hands of Gaddafi loyalists.

Four New York Times journalists were reported missing after failing to return from the front lines near Brega.

Last week Al-Jazeera’s Ali Hasan Jaba was killed in an ambush 20 kms outside Benghazi.

Earlier BBC journalists had been beaten by Gaddafi loyalists.

The massive exodus of foreign journalists Tuesday night was prompted by threats from Gaddafi that if found in rebel territory they would be shown no mercy.

Meanwhile, VOC has discovered that a ship flying the Turkish flag docked in Tripoli earlier this week with arms supplied by Syria.

It is believed that Gaddafi’s forces were running low on fuel and ammunition.

Shafiq Morton/VOC

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  1. Thank you for your time we ‘Libyan people’ appreciated.
    and your invited to vest the new Libya.

  2. Thankyou for reporting these events, delighted to see Salem langhi is still alive, i worked with him in dublin ireland.

  3. Thankyou for your moving account of this war, and for news of Dr Salem Langhi who is trying to save his people. May peace soon come to Libya with the removal of this tyrant and all who have supported him to steal from his country and destroy it

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