Fred Pavey has a rubber chicken. His wife gave it to him. Fred is a British explosive ordnance disposal technician, and when he gets to a place where he has to deal with landmines or bombs or other things that are just lying around waiting to go bang, he inflates the chicken and leaves its head sticking out of his backpack. It’s a loving reminder to be . . . safe.
Fred works with an ACT Alliance humanitarian mine action team from DanChurchAid. I’m here in Misrata, Libya, covering the team’s work. I flew from the U.S. to Malta, arriving after midnight to catch a 7 am UN Humanitarian Air Service flight to Benghazi, the de facto capital of the Libyan rebels. The UN flight is the only plane allowed to cross the no-fly zone. I was supposed to rush from the Benghazi airport to the city’s port, where a Turkish ferry had been chartered by the International Organization for Migration. The ferry was traveling to Misrata to bring in humanitarian supplies and bring out the injured and African migrant workers fleeing the violence. But the rebels running the airport were trying hard to make it seem like a functioning place, so they insisted that arriving baggage be x-rayed. Yet they couldn’t get the x-ray machine working. Several times we dozen or so passengers tried to make a rush for the door, only to have the rebels patiently insist we put the bags back on the x-ray belt. After a couple of minutes of watching them fool with the dials, we’d grab our bags and head for the door again. Repeat this several times, and we finally wore them down. Then a furious taxi ride to the port, thinking I’d miss the boat’s sailing by minutes. But I made it with a couple of hours to spare.
The 24-hour boat ride to Misrata was pleasant enough. I’ve always wanted to go on a Mediterranean cruise. Never thought I’d have to sail through a picket line of NATO warships to do so. Yet we finally made it safely into Misrata harbor, which NATO has been trying to keep from being mined by government forces. The Libyan Red Crescent picked us up and we got to work. The first couple of nights we stayed in a field hospital for injured soldiers. Then we moved to what was obviously once a pretty fancy hotel before it was bombed and shot up. Yet there’s one wing that’s not too badly damaged, and I have a bed and there’s some kind of water in the sink. Who can ask for more? Well, me. There’s no internet connection. I can connect over the team’s satellite modem, but sending photos that way is extremely expensive. So the other day when I had a bunch of images to send I went across town to the rebels’ media center to use their uplink. It was Friday morning, a religious day, which is quiet. Our driver had the morning off, so I hitched a ride with a guy out in front of the hotel. He refused to take any money for the trip. Coming back later was the same story. A car stopped on its own, I told them where I was going, and they motioned for me to get in the back. I opened the door, shoved the piles of ammunition over, and hopped in. When they dropped me off, they also refused payment. (Full disclosure: I’m here as a humanitarian worker, and riding in vehicles with weapons is against the rules. But it was a long walk, and I didn’t know the way.)
After the months of fighting they’ve been through here, there’s a sense of common purpose that’s remarkable. The opposition forces here weren’t well organized at first, and one guy told me how the men and boys in his neighborhood would just form what he called “a gang” and head for the sound of the fighting. They’d fight against Gadhafi’s troops until they were worn out, then come home and rest a bit. Then repeat. Unlike Benghazi or other areas where whole units of the army came over to the opposition, here the rebels had to make up in spirit what they lacked in experience. And what they achieved in the weeks of fighting is amazing. The front line is now 20 minutes away, and the resistance has meanwhile taken a more organized form. They even have a training school.
Many of the fighters here are academics, professionals–not the poorer classes that are usually sent to do the world’s fighting. Libya is a wealthy country; with lots of oil and few people, it has the highest Human Development Index rating in Africa. And the people have done remarkably well for themselves, improvising weapons, using Google Earth to plot firing ranges, but they’ve continued to pay a heavy price for keeping the better equipped and better trained pro-Gadhafi troops at bay. The dead and injured continue to pile up, and on Friday their enemy pushed close enough to the city to shell a neighborhood, killing several civilians. The eastern front is close enough that the harbor and parts of the city are in rocket range, and a Grad rocket hit a livestock yard on Saturday, killing 27 camels. I went by and checked it out afterward, and when I came back to the hotel several people told me that I smelled bad. Go figure.
Even before the escalation of the last few days, it’s been hard to escape the war. During the day there’s an almost constant rumble of artillery coming from three directions, sort of surround sound, with occasional ground-shaking booms when a rocket hits the city. NATO fighters come speeding in from the sea to attack what some here call the “G-men”–Gadhafi’s troops. Frustration with NATO isn’t hard to find; people here would like NATO to more aggressively attack the G-men’s front lines. It seems unlikely they can advance very much without that air support. Conversely, were NATO to remove even the limited support it’s providing the rebels, there’s little doubt that Gadhafi’s forces would soon recover lost territory at a terrible price for the residents of Misrata.
That’s not an argument that the rebels are perfect. There’s a lot of uncertainty here about what awaits this country when and if Gadhafi leaves or dies. This isn’t Tunisia or Egypt, where a state existed before Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, and so there was a sense that you could get rid of the dictator and still have some workable foundation for a government. In Libya’s case, their sense of nationhood is synonymous with Gadhafi’s Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. So breaking that paradigm apart will push a variety of often competing agendas to the fore, including conflicting tribal, geographic, and political understandings. So even if Gadhafi goes away, uncertainty awaits the other side of jubilation. Well, everything is uncertain except the oil concessions which NATO countries will get in exchange for their help. And China, sensing a change in the wind, is all of a sudden the new BFF of the transitional government.
Block after block of the city center, especially along Tripoli Street where the fighting was heaviest, is in ruins today, the result of a methodical campaign to reduce Misrata to rubble. It’s a dramatic case of urbicide, a word coined by the former mayor of Belgrade, Bogdan Bogdanovic, to describe a process that, not unlike genocide, implies premeditation and planning. Gadhafi’s troops set out to murder this city, and to a certain degree they succeeded.
Misrata was a prosperous trading center a few months ago, yet today many of the shops that aren’t destroyed remain closed. All around town, men at check points keep an eye out for pro-government spies, and shipping containers full of sand block the streets (they make a great obstacle to stand behind if you’re fighting people with big guns). Burned tanks litter the roadside, though those are slowly being recycled into armored pickups with heavy machine guns mounted on the back. There’s a booming local industry in equipping Toyota pickups with some heavy armor in order to make rather effective fighting machines.
Unfortunately, there’s also an incredible amount of unexploded ordnance (UXO) lying about. Fred and Johnny Thomsen, the Danish member of the team, have been quite busy, and I’ve tagged along to photograph them inspecting missile sites blown up by NATO as well as dealing with the mundanely dangerous, like an improvised explosive device that they efficiently disabled along a road at the edge of town. (See next image.) I’ve got a problem with photographing them, however. When these guys start working on something dangerous, they start smiling. They obviously enjoy their work. That’s fine, but the smile seems almost incongruous when they’re squeezed into the frame with something hideously lethal. In selecting images, I had to keep throwing away all the grinning ones. I guess it’s nice to have work you can enjoy. They claim that strictly following the rules reduces the risk of something going horribly wrong to almost nothing, and then you can enjoy yourself. I wish photography were so simple.
As I’ve discussed with colleagues in Geneva how to cover the team’s work, one theme I’ve been asked to shoot is what they’ve dubbed the “Museums of Mass Destruction.” As the fighting finally moved out of town, people have gathered the artifacts of war into little displays in front of their homes and other public places. It’s a display of pride, in many ways, of all they’ve done to get rid of who one Red Crescent colleague constantly refers to as that Bloody Shit Gadhafi. At the street museums and in the entrances to hospitals and many public buildings, there’s usually a rug with Gadhafi’s image strategically placed so visitors can express their contempt by wiping their feet on the dictator’s face. While people love stomping on the dictator and admiring the bombs and war paraphernalia, the street museums have some UXO which is incredibly dangerous, and the team will soon spend some time surveying the museums and marking some of the items for removal. Otherwise, tragedy will inevitably strike. In one place we visited, there are piles of fused anti-tank mines and other things that go boom all stacked together. An explosion could easily propagate into a rather big bang, and there’s a large mosque right next door.
A lot of UXO has already gone off, and it’s children who are the usual victims. They’re the curious ones who pick something up thinking it would make a great toy. Meet 15-year old Mohammed.
I spent a lot of time chasing after child victims of UXO, getting names from the hospital then walking around looking for the families, only to find that most of the kids have been sent off to Tunisia for treatment. Some remain hospitalized, such as this girl who had a wall–weakened by mortar attacks–fall on her. Meet 3-year old Aya.
And then there’s the normal victims of war, like Malake Ashama, this beautiful five-year old who was playing in her bedroom with toys when a mortar hit. A brother and sister were killed.
The mine action team is one of the first groups of humanitarian workers to come in here. No one from the United Nations is here physically yet, conditions not being secure enough for the people with the big salaries. (Disclosure: some of us work with agencies that cooperate with some part of the UN; I have a fancy United Nations letter in my pocket stating that I work with a partner of the UN Mine Action Service.) There are only a handful of NGOs present, and a score or so of journalists. Compared with many recent conflicts, this one presents relatively easy access to the front line, so the Nikons and Canons get charged every night at the hotel. For some reason that must be obvious to everyone but me, all the photographers who’ve come here to cover the front line action are considerably younger than me. Not to be outdone, I did head to the western front one day, promising myself I would remain only a brief while. I haven’t shot open combat since the late 80s, and I didn’t bring any body armor. Whatever my excuses, a lot of what happens to you on the front line is luck. With the other side firing unguided rockets and mortars, if you’re standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, you’re dead. Remembering the four photographers who have been killed here this year, I promised I’d reduce the bad luck factor by staying only briefly. But the morning I went, it turned out, there was a momentary lull in the fighting. Nothing to see. I was disappointed and relieved at the same time. Remembering Fred’s chicken, I quickly turned around and came back, not waiting to see if my luck changed.
I’m about to take the slow boat back to Benghazi and from there hopefully fly to Malta to catch my flights back home. I won’t be the only one leaving here. Each ship out is filled with African migrant workers and their families, people from Ghana and Niger and Sudan who’ve come here to work. They are also victims, as they’ve lost their relatively better paid jobs in Libya and must return home. War in one place has a snowball effect in others. No one benefits, except for those who manufacture the weapons that so efficiently kill and maim.