Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Pizza Deliveryman

Your normal pizza deliveryman does not check his AK47 before he starts a delivery and makes sure it is cocked and the safety is off. The again Ahmad is getting ready to make a delivery to the rebel soldiers on the frontline.

The Pizza factory in an abandoned building is less than 3km from the front, we cannot show the exterior of the building for security reasons as they do not want Gaddafi’s army to recognize the area and shell them out of business as they say.

Filming pizza making is not normally a dangerous assignment, but here I was in a flak jacket shooting a truly bizarre scene, 20 young men all volunteers under the watchful eye of a pizza chef of Libyan descent who until a few weeks ago was living and making pizza in Sweden.

The call of the revolution had bought him back to his hometown of Misrata, Ehmad Daiki had never fired a gun or any type of weapon and when asked by leaders what he could do, he replied I can make pizza.

And thus for the last two weeks, with his team he has been turning out 6000 slices of pizza a day for fighters. A production line chops olives, breaks up fresh garlic by banging it in a plastic bottle, crushes fresh tomatoes, knead and roll out dough. People and shopkeepers in Misrata as part of their war effort donate each and every ingredient.

Every time a rocket is launched in the area or even worse an incoming rocket lands in an adjacent field the whole production line celebrates by yelling

“Allah Akhbar”

Three ovens run non stop thru the late morning and lunch, each tray is cut up and five to six slices of fresh hot pizza are wrapped in tin foil to keep warm and within half an hour they are delivered up the road.

My producer and security advisor, refused to let me go up to the front for the delivery footage. Despite my annoyance of not being able to go up and film the final scenes.

The reason being

“Mal, How in the hell am I going to explain to New York, that you got injured or killed for a story on pizza, no you cannot go”

Even I had to agree after a short sulk, risk and reward as they say. No story or single shot is worth risking your life for, and a pizza story is not how I want to be remembered.

We gave a small camera to the delivery guy with the AK47.

Misrata, Libya

The Victim's

Misrata, Libya.

Viewer Discretion advised

“We wish to advise that some images in this story…………….”

If the image is shocking to watch on a TV News bulletin, image being in the hospital room and having to physically experience the pain, suffering and anguish of the victim.

9-year-old Faraz Abu Shaba is staring at the lens and his face fills the frame, it is a haunting image of a young boy suffering 2nd degree burns; every feature is burnt and discolored. Every few seconds his expression changes and is contorted with pain. His head is listless and his eyes are elsewhere.

You have to distance yourself and somehow the lens becomes a shield that helps break the reality of where you find yourself.

His father lay in a bed next to him, eyes in a catatonic stare to nowhere. And again I filled the frame so that only his eyes gave the window to his soul and despair.

It is the first hospital we are to visit on this day.

Farazs’ older brother Ibrahim is dead, cut in half by ball bearings that had been packed in a grad rocket and fired into Misrata from Gadaffi’s forces outside the city. He had been standing at the sink outside the kitchen of his modest house in the Eastern section of the city, when the rocket landed less than 10 meters away. A steel propane tank in the yard is full of holes, from the ball bearings; Ibrahim did not stand a chance as he washed to get ready for evening prayers.

Relatives show us a passport photo of Ibrahim as a 9 year old; he looked almost angelic in that photo.

Shrapnel razor sharp is gathered and displayed on the base of what remains a wall, so that everyone who visits can examine the evidence of another war atrocity.

From the roof of our hotel in the centre of the city, we can hear and see these rockets coming in. You become accustomed to the sound of war in a weird and disjointed way. In Misrata there is no escape, you cannot simply drive away and escape, surrounded on three sides by Gadaffi troops, and the sea on the fourth side. It was one of these rockets that had hit the Shaba family home. A distant boom and smoke cloud as dusk fell the night before.

Across town in the second hospital, as I walked into the ward room it was the sound of Faraz and Ibrahim’s youngest brother that drew my attention, 2 days old and lying in his grandmother’s arms and making new born squeals and lifting his arms and legs.

On the other side of the room his mother lay, burnt head to toe and wrapped in bandages, only her face and toes exposed charred and raw. She had probably been standing in the kitchen when the rocket hit and a fireball engulfed her after killing Ibrahim a second beforehand. I remember standing in her kitchen only an hour ago, everything black, mangled metal plates half melted and a pool of aluminum on the floor that had melted in the firestorm.

She cannot open her eyes due to the burns and swelling.

In a whisper barely audible thru cracked and burnt lips, she says

“God will take care of the people responsible”

It is hard not to want to show the close up because, the impact of the horrors of war are not some computer game whereby if you die you get another life, when you are hit the impact is forever and all that matters in life is shattered.

I walk out and back to the car, it has been a tough morning and more rockets fall that afternoon, from the roof I wonder if another families life has been destroyed.

I send the edited story back to Washington, and at the end I include extra video of wide shots of the hospital rooms in case the close-ups are too graphic they can decide, for at the frontlines of a war zone, you find yourself with a different acceptance of what war is really like. Close ups of faces and eyes show the doorway to the soul and without seeing into the soul you cannot feel the pain of innocent victims.


Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Field Hospital

June 21st 2011

Misrata Libya

You can get used to things in life, but the constant drone from the Mosque next door is starting to wear thin. From mid morning to night it plays a constant loop of call to prayer, repeated every 60 seconds, the same again and again and again.

Then again there are the Grad Rockets fired by the Gadaffi forces who are surrounding this city, from the roof of the hotel you can see them impact some a few km’s away towards the port and steel mill appear as plumes of smoke, whilst with closer ones you feel the impact and the smoke is much closer. As I was writing that sentence another landed close by, heard and felt the thump.

The attacks on the city itself are sporadic and come at anytime. Go to the frontlines outside the city and it is a constant barrage, both incoming and outgoing. At a field hospital 5km (3miles) from the frontline separating the Loyalists and the Rebels yesterday, a grad came in low and fast, hearing the incoming it’s a matter of dropping and preying because it is close, very close.

The field hospital is a converted tractor repair workshop. The doctor in charge, Mohammed Al Bayra is in his mid twenties and before the revolution worked in Oncology, asked how many rebels he has seen come arrive by ambulance or on the back floor of cars and pick ups, injured or dead. His response “Thousands”.

Frontlines are not “Lines in the Sand”, what was a safe distance can be become a disaster zone in the matter of minutes. The first indicator is normally the rebels fleeing back down the road in the back of trucks, faster than rats up a drainpipe. This is always a good cue for us to likewise consider a tactical relocation just in case, not to mention the Grad Rocket that came way to close for comfort.

An hour later we are back at the field hospital, and 6 ambulances and pickups arrive within ten minutes carrying more wounded back, Wounds to the arms, legs, chest and stomach evident as they are wheeled into the makeshift frontline hospital. They are patched up by the young doctor and his team of students and sent back into Misrata half an hour back down the road.

We leave too, there are only so many injured you need to film for a story and the scene will not change in the coming hours or days.

Back in Misrata. NATO jets are heard thousands of feet up in the sky, but even their noise does not drown out the mosque next door, the call continues and likewise the rockets will continue to fall around us, for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Crossing

Libya June 17th 2011

Benghazi as a story has been stagnant for while now, just as the frontline has varied little since the last time I was here at the start of the Civil War. However on the western coast is the third largest city in Libya, Misrata after Tripoli the capital held by Gaddafi loyalists, and Benghazi held by the rebels.

It has been the scene of some of the fiercest fighting and clashes, rebels despartely trying to hang on whilst being pounded by Gadaffi loyalists from three sides. The only side left to them is the sea. The port has become the lifeline for the people and rebels. And the only way into Misrata is by sea, a twenty hour crossing from Benghazi.

9:30pm Thursday 16th June Benghazi Port.

There is a scene of complete chaos and confusion as 700 people congregate in darkness the stern. As families, the injured and rebel reinforcements try to board the C/F Azzurra, a Turkish gambling ship. Shouts of Allah Akbar ring in the air as the mob pushed against barrier in the humid. People waving tickets in the air and screaming at the top of their voices illicit blank responses, from the men on the stern ramp. The only way onto the ship.

Finally the last truck is loaded with what looks like ammunition, we are told its food but I have my doubts. And the crowd surges, all trying not to fall off the edge of the ramp into the harbor waters.

And in the midst of this scene I have the camera out trying to film at the same time as get on the ship. Rick’s line as the crowd momentum finally pushes us thru is “That was insane”.

We had managed to get two small cabins, rather than sleep on the deck but until you have the door opened to your cabin nothing is assured and somehow we had left the vital cabin receipt down in the car deck at the bottom of the 4x4 Land cruiser we have bought with us.

“No paper, no cabin opened”

Was the response from the ship member who we quickly christened Side Show Bob from The Simpson’s, due to his hair.

Martin disappeared down to the bowels and ten minutes later came back brandishing the prize receipt as if it was a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. And cabin doors were opened.

Perhaps saying the place smelt of shit was a bit harsh, and that the sheets pillow and blanket looked they had been rearranged rather than changed. But it is far batter than sleeping on the deck.

Enquiries about when we would depart and met with a shrug and the standard “Inshallah” response. A round of heavy tracer fire lights the sky over Benghazi before I head back to the cabin.

Lying in the dark, I thought to myself this has to be one of the craziest ways to a frontline. Once there, you simply cannot leave when you want. Because the ship is the only way and if they stop running then we will be trapped like every other citizen of Misrata. And we have only bought a one-way ticket.

2:30am, Benghazi. Thru the haze of half sleep I feel the Azzurra slip the berth and head out of harbor. Rolling over, I feel my stomach start to cramp and spasm.

“What a great time to start getting the shit’s”

11:00am “Some where in the Gulf of Sirte, Med Sea”

Shoes lie in piles, men sleep on the floor, under tables, and children run around, as children do on an adventure. Babies cry behind doors and young men watch home made videos of battles against Gadaffi forces on their cell phones. Dreaming of glory and ignorant of the reality of recent rebel losses.

5:30pm “Still some where in the Gulf of Sirte, Med Sea”

Closer but no cigar as they say, the trip is a slow 240 miles, just off the coastline of Libya. Story done, edited all but final piece to camera. Another black coffee and stare out to sea. We are due to dock at 9:39pm, according to the crew; given the state of the ship I have my doubts to the accuracy of their chronometers.

Lying on my bunk, writing this and at the same time realizing that in four hours. I will be in a war zone under potential rocket fire. The handover at the border seems a long time ago.

9:30pm Could be anywhere, pitch black outside but still at sea

You get to a point where you have no bearings or clues as to where you are, ship messages are only in Arabic and feeling the ship slow it is obvious that we are close. Managed to set up the bgan and transmit tonight’s story back to New York whilst still traveling, incredible to consider that in the middle of the med sea you can still transmit.

Strange but have no nerves at the moment, a sense of calm before the storm. Not based on any rationale. Could do with a shower though at least the runs have stopped for the time being.


Misrata 9:39 pm we arrive to the minute as planned, fuck me stranger things have happened in this world. Shouts of Allah Akbar echo around the decks.

Turning to Ken, our security guy,

“Game on”

“To fucking right”

We enter Misrata, one-way ticket, our only escape back via sea.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Handover Libya June 2011

Everyone has excuses and I am no different. But it is time to start writing again, things may be a little different as times have changed. Posts may be late or written after events, the reason is security. Life is not what it was back in the old days now and in the media we find ourselves in more and more inhospitable places, with people who consider the media as another enemy.

I have always kept extensive notes of observations of places and events and they will come forward as I go back read and remember those times.

140 characters is not an option, as I see and bring to life events from good and evil places.

Benghazi Libya
June 15th 2011

Libyan War June 2011 Second Trip

1. The Handover

The Handover is a relatively short affair in conflict zones. The team leaving wants to get out as fast as possible, as freedom and safety is normally a short walk across a border with only your personal bags. For the incoming team, Rick Levanthal, correspondent, Martin Francis, producer and it, myself is the beginning of another rotation in country and the dangers of entering a war zone.

I had been in Libya chasing the rebels a few months back and this was my second foray into this conflict. The handover was planned for the Egypt / Libya border at the Saloume Border Crossing, a seven hour drive from Cairo. Basically head North from Cairo, hit the coast turn west and eventually you will come to Libya. There are no other roads so getting lost is not an issue there are no other roads.

The customs and clearance in Egypt is a matter of being patient, things do not move quickly, it could be fifteen minutes, and it may take two hours. Nothing is checked, you simply sit and wait. All we had was our personal bags, as the kit that the Network has slowly built up and smuggled into Libya over many trips stays in country to avoid problems with Customs, who on a whim will confiscate a Camera or Bgan (the small Satellite Communication dish we carry, slightly bigger than a laptop). Thus creating major issues and problems.

The Cameraman I replacing Rich Harlow, was waiting for me on the Libyan side with all the kit plus body armor.

After watching an Arabic woman in the full black Niqab scream at an Egyptian Boarder Policeman, with such venom that she must have been questioning the hereditary of the man’s mother. Martin came out with our passports cleared for exit, drive to the next gate and then the short walk into Libya a final glance at the passport exit stamp and then you are in a country in full on War.

The other team was next to the cars, as planned. Handshakes and man hugs happen and then its business, they want out and for a few minutes. Each member of the team huddles down with their respective other.

What’ where in what case, What’s happening where, from editorial to money, from logistics to security and it happens in a few short minutes. Questions answered with no bullshit, the stakes are real and everyone knows it. This meeting is not a sit down around a table and discussing options back in New York, but in a car park on the border of a country engaged in civil war under a blazing sun, no subject is taboo. And it happens quickly.

We still have another seven hours drive ahead of us to Benghazi and the other team faces an equally long drive to Cairo. Forget the Hollywood hype of News teams turning up in exotic war zones after a montage over music. Basically getting to war takes time and frustration. You find yourself driving thru inhospitable parts of the planet at hi speed with a driver who normally does not speak the same language, listening to local music on the radio and trying to keep comfortable.

You find relief at the occasional stop for petrol and then realize that the toilet at the Gas Station is also the shower. A shower head limply hangs over the foot print squat toilet and I always find myself re affirming my vow that I will never shit and shower on the same spot, unless I have a pair of flip flops and even then I doubt that I could.

You finally shake hands and man hug again, the final words of a departing team are always the same “Keep Safe and Be Careful” and then they walk off and it’s done.

Standing in the no mans land between Egypt and Libya, a simple road with concrete barriers between the nations on either side. We have Security man with us, a fact of life now in dangerous zones, just like you read about these guys are normally ex SAS or Special Forces who have found a new career in the highly lucrative and dangerous world of the security in global hotspots. They are in fact the fourth member of the team; you do nothing without them and rely on them to make judgment calls for your safety and life.

Safety briefings and situation updates become part of daily life; to ignore them is to place the team at risk. “What blood group are you Mal, and are you allergic to any drugs?” Ken asked. Security guys normally do not swop out at the same time as teams so there is always a reassuring continuity.

We get back in the car and enter Libya. New York wants a live shot in two hours so we will just stop by the side of the road in a town. Benghazi is 7 hours away across the desert.

Ahmed one our local drivers turns on the radio and luck has changed, we must of grown up in the same era, as Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” blares out as we watch stunning sunset engulf us on the horizon. Ahmed even slows down as nightfall’s; camels wandering onto the road at night are a greater threat than Gadaffi’s forces, for the final leg.