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What I did in the war:
A rookie’s two-week hitch in the Middle East

Steve Hendrix

Originally Published on WashingtonPost.com on March 21, 2011
Published on BunchofMadmen.com on April 24, 2011

This is a normal day reporting on the ground in eastern Libya:

The cellphone went off at 4 a.m. A photographer and three Libyan interpreters and I were in a spartan worker’s apartment in the town of Ras Lanuf. We were desperate for sleep after a full day of nonstop fighting near this oil port.

But the army of Moammar Gaddafi had other ideas.

“Get out of there now,” said the Libyan contact on the line. “They are coming.”

We were on the road in minutes, unable to confirm the risk but unwilling to take a chance. Other reporters piled into cars in the pre-dawn gloom as the warning spread. Any foreign journalist in that part of Libya had crossed the abandoned border from Egypt illegally. We were all keenly aware that any encounter with Gaddafi forces would mean instant arrest, press card or no.

For me it was remarkable, my first evacuation from my first war zone. It followed a day when I’d interviewed my first wounded soldiers, pondered my first dead ones, squatted behind a sand dune with mortar shells shaking the air.

But for the seasoned pros around me, it was just a day at the desert office. Close calls are routine, and several journalists in Libya have been caught and released, or caught and smacked around. On Tuesday, four New York Times journalists disappeared near the front line. Among them was Anthony Shadid, a veteran foreign correspondent and a former colleague at The Washington Post. I saw him briefly in the lobby of the Uzu Hotel in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, which was crowded with war reporters from dozens of countries. Anthony looked perfectly at ease.

They all usually look perfectly at ease, even in the most unsettling conditions. They never stop scribbling notes, even as they duck instinctively against the bursts of antiaircraft fire just yards away. I saw them toggle between the physical and the cerebral: adrenaline-filled mornings of battle, political interviews in the afternoon, 30 inches of clean copy to pull it all together, written after a bad dinner and filed by East Coast deadlines. The Times said its last contact with the quartet was on Tuesday morning; Shadid’s byline was on the front page of its Wednesday edition. The four were in government custody but would be released , ABC News reported.

The collective of war reporters slept through the hand grenade that a Gaddafi loyalist tossed onto the front steps of the Uzu Hotel one night, shattering windows. I, the guy on his first war-zone assignment, the guy who came with an electric toothbrush and P.G. Wodehouse novels, was the only one who came down to investigate. The explosion barely registered as lobby chatter the next day, far below complaints about the hotel’s awful food and the city’s squirrelly cellphone service.

A Washington-based feature writer, I found myself in rebel territory thanks to the sheer magnitude of the rolling upheavals in the Middle East. The reporters based in the region have been in story-of-the-decade mode for months, day after day, riot after riot. For their health and safety, editors are digging for reinforcements.

When I got to Benghazi late on March 5 to relieve Post reporter Leila Fadel, she had not had a day off since the Lebanese government collapsed Jan. 12. During that time she had written dozens of stories, been briefly detained by police in Cairo and reported on battles and munitions dump explosions in Libya. She talked about her 14-hour drive back through Egypt with relish; she would sleep the whole way.

“You’ll probably want to go west tomorrow, to the front,” she said, still excited through her exhaustion. “That’s where the story is now.”

Leila set me up with one of the many interpreters gathered in Benghazi, a young revolutionary named Yosef. With almost all businesses and schools shut down, seemingly every young person who spoke any English was making himself available to the foreign press. Yosef would take no money (although others charged about $100 a day for interpreting and driving services). He had been arrested during the early days of the protest and saw aiding the Western media as a duty to the cause. I won’t give his last name, in the faint hope that he will remain unknown to the Gaddafi forces poised outside of Benghazi. For a car and driver, we found another volunteer, Mohamed.

When The Post’s foreign editor asked me whether I would be willing to go into Libya — making it absolutely clear the choice was mine — I sought advice from some of the old-timers at the paper. “Just don’t hang out with the photographers,” said one. “They are crazy and they will get you killed.”

So I found myself traveling to the front that morning with Sebastian Meyer, an American freelance photographer based in Iraq. He had come to Libya on his own dime, because combat is his business. He was looking for a ride. I was happy for a little expert company.

After a three-hour drive from Benghazi, we pulled into the circus of Ras Lanuf. The little town was jammed with hundreds of rebel fighters, most of whom had traveled to war in the backs of pickup trucks and borrowed cars.

When the ambulances screamed in, we rushed to the town’s small hospital, pushing our way into the ER, ignoring all protocol to ask doctors, soldiers, the wounded themselves what was happening in the fight. Most of them were eager to talk. They had run into a withering ambush about 23 miles up the road.

It was only 3 a.m. in Washington, but I set up the portable satellite antenna and tapped out a quick update to go online. The rebels’ momentum had collided with a sustained artillery and air assault. Gaddafi was pushing back.

All day we watched the wounded and dead come in from the west; all day we watched rebel fighters rush back down that road. At about 4 a.m., Meyer asked the question I knew was coming. “Should we go see what’s going on?”

We climbed in his car and, with Mohamed murmuring prayers the entire way, we drove to the front line. After 21 miles, we pulled over. The road was lined with rebel vehicles, exhausted fighters smoking and leaning on their trucks. Around the next corner, we could see mortar shells landing in the sand.

This was plenty close for me. We got out and interviewed a fighter who had been fixing a flat on his truck, a machine gun mounted in the bed. In real life, he was a porter in a vegetable market.

Meyer shot a few photos and said: “I’m going on up. See you back in town.” And with that, he jumped into the back of a pickup loaded with rebels, gave us a big grin and disappeared into the fight.

He wasn’t gone long. Within minutes, his truck and every other vehicle on the road came screaming back to the east. We jumped in our car, too. Mortars were slamming both sides of the highway, getting closer with every round. A rebel officer stood in the middle of the road, trying to halt the flight. We didn’t wait to see whether he was successful. My heart was pounding. I was, against all reason, thrilled to be there.

The interpreters, or “fixers” as reporters call the best ones, are vital. When I asked a spokesman for the rebels’ provisional government to get me into the jail, he said it was impossible. When I asked an interpreter named Mohamed (a different Mohamed), he suggested we try anyway.

He took me to the courthouse near the harbor. We had a dozen hallway conversations, none of which I could understand. We climbed to higher floors and got deeper into the offices. Finally, he talked for several minutes to a lawyer in the attorney general’s office. She responded with a refusal that was plain in any language. Mohamed shook his head.

“Is there something about the treatment of these prisoners that the provisional government doesn’t want readers to know about?” I asked. Mohamed hesitated, then asked the official. She stared at us, sighed, then left.

A half-hour later, she came back with four tired-looking men in dirty clothes. Three of them were African laborers from neighboring countries who had been arrested on suspicion of being mercenary fighters for Gaddafi. The other was a Libyan soldier who had fired on the protesters.

They had agreed to talk to me, the lawyer said. Mohamed beamed as he began to translate my questions. He is an engineer when things are normal, but he was learning to love reporting.

After two weeks in the Middle East, I was exhausted. I drove back to the Egyptian border, where I handed off the satellite phone to Sudarsan Raghavan, The Post’s Africa bureau chief and a seasoned veteran of war coverage in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He is in Libya now, as Gaddafi’s fighters battle on in what Gaddafi says is a cease-fire. He had been traveling with the Times staffers the day they disappeared. He knows the risk, he knows the limits. But when I last saw him, I was happy to be heading home and he was, clearly, happy to be heading into the war zone.