You are here
Press releases and newsletter
Four days at the mercy of Kadhafi's secret state by Dave Clark
AJDABIYA/SIRTE/TRIPOLI (AFP) -
The first shots rang out as ominous but faint pops while the Libyan army Land Cruiser was still several hundred metres away but, as it roared down upon us, the gunfire built into an insistent volley of sharp, earsplitting cracks.
Hunched over in the front passenger seat of our car, I stared as the supercharged Toyota loomed up in the rear view mirror, effortlessly closing the gap between us even after our driver pushed the Kia saloon to 160 kilometres per hour.
"Yalla, yalla! Drive, drive!" we screamed, as our pursuers flashed their headlights in warning. Underneath the mirror was etched the standard warning: "Objects in the rear view mirror are closer than they appear."
So it proved. As aimed rounds sliced into the bodywork of our utterly outmatched car, we gave up the race, begging our Libyan driver to pull over, hoping that if we surrendered we would not be killed in cold blood.
As we rolled to a stop, the vehicle swerved alongside us and its crew fired two more bursts of automatic fire, shooting out two tires and peppering the engine compartment with 7.62 mm Kalashnikov rounds.
We spilled out onto the roadside, hands above our heads, shouting: "Sahafi, sahafi! Journalists, journalists!"
More 4x4s sped past, each bristling with gunmen in green fatigues. We had become the latest group of foreign journalists to fall into the hands of Moamer Kadhafi's loyalist army.
A well-built, older man with a white moustache and the dramatic headscarf of a desert horseman signalled us to kneel, insisting in English that there was "no problem" even as his men fired at on-coming vehicles.
We were on a desert road: more than 300 kilometres of sand-scoured asphalt through a bare wasteland of rock and shredded truck tyres linking the rebel-held port of Tobruk and the front-line battleground of Ajdabiya.
It was Saturday March 19 and NATO air strikes had yet to begin. Kadhafi's forces were advancing with reckless confidence and this squadron of fast, lightly-armed trucks was spearheading an advance deep into the rebel east. We had hoped to spend the day interviewing refugees and rebels retreating from the fighting around Ajdabiya before falling back to Tobruk ourselves to file our stories and pictures to the world's news desks.
Instead, the three of us - AFP reporter Dave Clark and photographer Roberto Schmidt and Getty Images photographer Joe Raedle - found ourselves taken prisoner by a powerful and unpredictable regime.
We would be transported across Libya from the eastern battlefront, through the disputed oil towns of Brega and Ras Lanuf to Kadhafi's hometown of Sirte and eventually to the heart of his power in the secret prisons of Tripoli.
As some troops grabbed reporting equipment from the boot of the disabled car, others fanned out from the road to set up a defensive cordon. When civilian traffic and a row of ambulances approached, they fired, shattering a truck windscreen.
On our knees by the roadside, our hands on our heads, we watched our equipment pile up in front of us.
Our satellite telephones, laptops and cameras were arrayed alongside a Michelin road map of North Africa that the soldiers seemed to find particularly incriminating. Then came intelligence officers in civilian clothes. One was a sharply dressed, fierce young man in a pressed purple shirt, designer shades and bullet-proof vest. The other was vacant-looking, a slack-jawed, dishevelled man in a cheap anorak with a 9mm pistol dangling from his hand.
Their appearance coincided with the first darkly surreal moment of what was to prove a bizarre and terrifying four-and-a-half day ordeal: The troops searching our car triumphantly dragged out a diver's wetsuit and a spear-gun.
How could journalists explain these? A teenage military recruit who, like most of our pursuers, was a black African rather than an Arab, pointed and said: "Marinas!" It must have been in the car when we boarded it that morning -- perhaps the driver was a reef fisherman? But the suspect diving gear and harpoon joined the booty at our knees and we were photographed and filmed by the elegant spook, who was wielding a pink smartphone.
We were split up and forced into three double-cabbed Toyota Hilux pick-up trucks, recently imported from Thailand on behalf of the "Misurata Veterans' Association." Each of us was in the middle of the rear seat, with African gunmen on either side of us, three more in front and two more on the flatbed rear behind.
A shot rang out behind us and laughing soldiers started singing a victory song. With mounting nausea I assumed our translator or our driver had been killed, my guilt at involving them in our misadventure briefly overwhelming my own fear. Later, however, I would see our two Libyan friends being dragged from the convoy and thrown, still alive, into a makeshift roadside detention centre. Karim Talbi, another AFP reporter hunting for news of our fate would find both our friends had survived and had been freed shortly afterwards, unharmed.
The soldiers had, however, shot an onlooker in the head. Wounded, the victim spent a night hiding in the desert with his brother before hitching a lift back to Tobruk for surgery. He survived.
Our three jeeps left the rest of the force to continue its lighning advance into the desert and turned back to take we three captives towards Ajdabiya.
The last time I had seen the town, five days earlier, it had been defended by an out-gunned but determined force of rebel volunteers. As Grad rockets slammed into the outskirts of town, untrained guerrillas had been setting up machine guns on street corners.
But now Kadhafi's army was firmly in control of all the town's access roads and was refuelling its vehicles at the western gate on a roadside that had been a famous battlefield during the weeks before.
As journalists based in the rebel-held east of Libya, we had arrived through the main Egyptian border post without visas or press accreditation from the Kadhafi regime and had never come face to face with the regime's forces.
Rebel propagandists had painted a picture of a demoralised and exploited force. The previous Sunday, a rebel commander had told reporters Kadhafi's men were sent into battle "handcuffed to their tanks" to prevent them from defecting. He and other regime opponents had repeatedly accused the regime of relying on brutal and indisciplined foreign-born black African mercenaries — and hundreds of innocent African migrants had been forced to fear racist attacks in the rebel east. Most of the troops in the unit that captured us were indeed black and some of them spoke French with the accents of Paris' former west African colonies in Chad, Mali or Niger.
But they mostly spoke Arabic among themselves and said they fought as Libyan soldiers and adopted Libyan citizens.
An older warrior told me in French they had been gravely offended by reports they were bloodthirsty mercenaries. To us, it seemed their morale was high, and they were better armed, supplied and disciplined than the rag-tag rebel volunteers drawn up against them.
We passsed quickly by Ajdabiya and continued on the coast road towards Sirte. When members of the pro-Kadhafi civilian militia manning check-points on the road west tried to assault or insult us, our guards protected us and they shared food and drink with their captives on the long drive.
The journey took us along the coast road which was, and is, the most visible measure of the rising and falling fortunes of the two sides in the conflict.
Rebel vehicles lay burnt out by the roadside, alongside dead donkeys and camels, and huge convoys of government reinforcements and fuel were arriving from the west.
Entire brigades - our captors called these units "katiba" - of pro-Kadhafi infantry were coming foward in fleets of civilian cars - identical white Hyundai sedans, rolling in convoy with headlights on main beam and rear hazard-warning lights flashing.
The troops were not entirely sure of their welcome in the east.
After refuelling in the village of Aquyla, which had been rebel-held only days before, they fired in the air to intimidate onlookers. But as we headed west, Kadhafi's green banner was more and more in evidence.
There were amusing moments as we struggled to communicate with our captors. One soldier, after searching my wallet, brandished a card triumphantly declaring: "He's American!" Another laughed, and said: "That's 'American Express' - it's like Visa" "But he has no visa." "No, not a passport visa, a card for money."
But as we arrived on the outskirts of Kadhafi's hometown the mood darkened sharply.
We saw the unlit check point at the last minute. Grey shapes flapped their arms desperately as we suddenly bore down upon them at speed.
As we squealed to a halt, agitated voices ordered our drivers to turn their headlights off. I understand very little Arabic, but some phrases are unmistakeable: "F-16! F-16!" - the identification code for the US strike fighter, the deadly tip of the West's spear.
We had been out of touch with the world beyond our convoy for more than seven hours, but even before we had set out from our Tobruk hotel that morning it was clear that the Allies were gearing up to unleash air strikes.
France's hawkish president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had held emergency talks with NATO and Arab allies in Paris that day, warning of action "within hours". Sirte, a regime bastion, could expect to find itself on the target list.
At each checkpoint we passed, some no more than a few hundred metres apart, hysteria was mounting. Armed civilians with faces contorted with rage and fear tried to reach into the vehicles to slap at us.
Some drivers, including ours, switched off their lights in a bid to foil the eyes in the sky. Careering through the dark, we saw crowds pointlessly loosing volleys of AK-47 fire skywards, as much in bravado as in the hope of hitting the unseen threat.
More serious anti-aircraft fire could be seen snaking upwards in trails of glowing red as we approached our captors' initial planned destination, a fortified compound that appeared to be some kind of barracks.
But the gates were shut and the base in security lockdown so the convoy changed course.
Then the first explosion rocked the town: A flash, a dull boom, a faint shockwave and then a ball of fire erupting from the horizon.
All on board the jeep were convinced this was the threatened French air raid, but we would later learn that air defence systems around Sirte had been targeted by a salvo of cruise missiles from US and British warships.
Minutes before, it would have been hard to imagine how our situation could have been more helpless.
We were already prisoners of a paranoid, isolated regime - citizens of "enemy states", captured on the battlefield and taken into custody without having being able to alert our employers, governments or loved ones about our fate.
Already, I had begun a mental countdown until the hour I had estimated that my wife would begin to worry she had not had a call. I wondered how long AFP would wait before warning her that I had not checked in nor filed a story.
Now, a bleak situation had become desperate. Leaving aside the risk that we would ourselves be killed in the Allied bombardment, we were now the only Western targets in Sirte against whom Libyans could plausibly retaliate.
If our captors decided not to execute us themselves, they just needed to let their guard down for a moment and we would be doomed. The streets of the town were full of anti-Western protesters, potential lynch mobs on the hunt for spies or downed aircrew.
Then, our convoy pulled into a walled compound of modern low-rise office and accommodation blocks in white painted concrete. The fury in the streets began to recede.
* * * * *
When we came to look back on our time as prisoners of Kadhafi's regime, we would see the three days we spent in Sirte detained at some kind of military intelligence headquarters as the easiest and safest portion of the trip.
But when we arrived, the omens did not look good. Glowering intelligence officers warned us that entering Libya without visas had put us in a "difficult position" and we were again photographed with the cursed mystery wetsuit.
But compared to what was to come, the interrogations were relatively easy-going and the accommodation comfortable — especially in comparison to that of the Libyan detainees we glimpsed standing blindfold, heads bowed and hands bound in the detention centre opposite.
Roberto, Joe and I spent the bulk of our time on the floor of an ordinary conference room, sleeping under fuzzy acrylic blankets on thin mattresses under a heavy boardroom table or lounging on leather office furniture. Our jokes and camaraderie kept our spirits up -- so much so that I began to worry our captors would hear us laughing.
At least three times per day crowds would pass outside, firing in the air and shouting praise for Kadhafi. From inside the detention centre it was hard to judge how large they were, but the protests added to a mood of barely-contained hysteria.
Luckily, for all they could be fierce, our jailers were a source of grim amusement. On the first night we were questioned by an officer with impeccable English whose sly intelligence and perceptive, insistent questioning would have been intimidating had he not been trying so clownishly hard to resemble his hero Kadhafi.
Over his military-style khaki parka, he wore his dark hair in long curls like the Libyan leader, and his top lip had an almost identical wide but thinly-thatched moustache.
He attempted to extract from me the names and cellphone numbers of our Libyan rebel contacts, but was thwarted by the earlier actions of his army colleagues, who had stolen my Thuraya satphone and burned our car with my notebook in it.
Another officer adopted a menacing air to match his dark beard and darker eyes — grimly stopping by occasionally to inform us we had a "big problem" — but undercut the menace by wearing boots with long, pointed, curled-up toes like a fairy-tale goblin.
But the best value visitor of all was an older, veiled lady we took to be a cleaner — the only female we saw in four-and-a-half days inside the Libyan prison system. She stopped by on our last day to perform an elaborate mime which we eventually, as if in a game of charades, came to understand as the sad tale of five French pilots shot from the skies and stamped on by a giant in the form of the proud Libyan people.
Our captors appeared to believe the regime's propaganda that its air defences were taking a terrible toll on Allied aviation — claims we suspected were largely false but dared not dispute, believing ourselves safer when they were happier. We were fed on arrival and later that night, then largely forgotten about for two days. We were rarely separated, and built a strong friendship together based on moments of humour, tales of home and a flick football game with a water bottle top for a ball.
Then we were transferred to a different group of plain-clothes agents for the final leg of our trip to Tripoli, and our situation took a dramatic turn for the worse.
Security was almost careless when we left our first prison. Unbound, unblindfolded, we were put in the back seat of a single pick-up together.
Our escort had an assault rifle, but he sat in the front seat, with his back to us as we drove through town.
We were dropped at a prison, less comfortable than our former boardroom home, but still with bedding and blankets. There was no food, and toilet visits were rationed, but we were not questioned nor mistreated.
Early the next morning our new jailers appeared and hand-cuffed our hands painfully behind our backs for the first time. We were blindfolded and taken to another pick up. The day quickly turned to agony.
Packed across the narrow back seat, struggling to flex our limbs, we soon found the cuffs tightened like ratchets. Each bump in the road was agony as our bodies stiffened and the steel cut into our wrists.
We had not bathed or changed in four days, sleeping in our clothes. The foul odour of our bodies mounted as the truck cabin heated up in the desert sun. Every couple of hours our escorts would spray us with sickly, sweet-smelling perfume. At breakneck speed we clattered across western Libya to the capital, a journey of more than seven hours. As I type this almost a week later I can still see bruises and cuts on my wrist. I seem to have lost sensation in the back of my left hand.
The agony did not end when we arrived at a prisoner transfer depot. The jeep was parked in direct sunlight and abandoned for what seemed like an age. One jailer kindly gave us mouthfuls of water, but another sadistically rolled shut the window and left us to bake.
"If you're happy and you know it clap your hands," sang Roberto, fully aware that none of us could move our hands at all. "I spy, with my little eye, something beginning with 'B'," I countered. "Blindfold!"
Eventually, one-by-one, we were led weakened and dehydrated into a converted shipping container that served as a roadside office.
There, my blindfold was pulled up slightly and I was asked to identify my possessions as I was signed in to custody.
At every stop along the way more of our things had gone missing. Starting with satellite phones and cash, passing through cellphones and credit cards, as agents of each new level of security bureaucracy took their cut of the booty.
But we were in no position to argue. My sole rebellion was to steal a swift glimpse at the latest English-speaking interrogator as my blindfold was refitted.
I was stupidly pleased to see he looked like a Hollywood villain: shaven bullet-head, hook nose, cruel sneer — like "The Hood" in the children's puppet series "Thunderbirds".
The cuffs came off, but only to be replaced with tight plastic cord bindings that were scarcely more comfortable. We were loaded into a steel sided box, too small to stand up in, on the back of a police van.
The van rattled away. In the roasting oven of the steel box we were at least separated from our jailers and free to swear and moan and speculate about our fate. None of the signs looked good, except that we calculated that we must by now be in Tripoli.
Whether we were to be freed, jailed long-term or executed, we reckoned that a decision would have to come from the top — from Kadhafi's inner circle -- so we had to pass through Tripoli one way or another.
When we were eventually pulled out, we were completely disoriented. As I was led up a concrete stairwell to a new cell block I began to imagine I was being led over sand to a seaside clifftop.
Of course, like the old fool Gloucester in Shakespeare's King Lear, I was wrong. Only later would we realise we were in a non-descript apartment-style block in downtown Tripoli, that the "ocean swell" I thought I could hear was traffic and the "sea breeze" a persistent chill draft from an uncovered sky-light.
The blindfolds came off — although I remained half-blind without my prescription glasses. We were photographed and locked in behind a stout steel door, proof against any escape attempt, but not against the chill wind that whistled around its frame.
The clang had a depressing ring of finality about it. The cell-block was not a comandeered boardroom, it was built for purpose. The beds were grey-painted steel sheets, freezing to the touch. We began to assume we would spend months in this cell.
Sleep was impossible on the steel frames, but eventually blankets and filthy mattresses were brought by a fashionable young man in designer glasses and shirt, who could could have been a London advertsing trainee — and by two silent young Africans.
Before we could get to sleep however, they split us up, our great fear. First I was taken for interrogation, once more blindfolded. Then Joe was taken for a parallel but separate questioning. Roberto was left alone in the stark cell.
If the handcuffs had been the hardest physical torment, this final interrogation was the toughest psychological assault.
For an hour and a half I struggled to build a rapport with my unseen interrogator, who opened proceedings with insults, threats and a couple of mild slaps, but eventually turned insincere "good cop" when he felt he had enough material for my "confession".
"You are a good man, David," he said patting my shoulder as he departed, leaving me to eat a few mouthfuls of greasy rice before a French-speaking man with an African accent felt up my breasts and made sexual jokes for his unseen comrades. Then a younger, English-speaking "bad cop" stormed in and began asking me the same questions all over again in a more angry tone. He clearly supposed he was the elite of Kadhafi's spy services, but his questions revealed an amateurish ignorance.
"You came by the desert road? How did you find it?" — "We have a map." - "Aha! Who gave you this map? MI6?" he demanded. "Michelin," I replied, to his annoyance.
Initially, the questioning appeared aimed at teasing out some admission that we were foreign intelligence agents, but even Kadhafi's men seemed not really to believe this.
Instead, they ranted and hectored me about international media coverage of the revolt, alleging the UN Security Council had voted to authorise military action solely based on false information provided by the Al-Arabiya and Al-Jazeera satellite channels.
I told them mildly that, as a non-Arabic speaker, I couldn't follow Al Jazeera's coverage but as they'd themselves listened to little else for weeks this got us nowhere.
Then the angry man tried a different tack. "What religion are you?" "I come from a Christian family," I hedged, for some strange reason suddenly coy about denying my atheism, having lied about pretty much everything else. "Christian family, but you are Jewish!" the angry man spat. Spotting my mistake, I back-pedalled. "No, no. I'm Christian. Protestant Christian." "Jewish!" he shouted once more and shortly afterwards his voice disappeared.
Most of the other unseen forms also left and I was left with an apologetic-looking middle-aged man with a cream-coloured outdoor coat and a beard, who pulled up the blindfold and led me through signing and thumb-printing 24 pages of a "confession", entirely in Arabic.
Led back to our cell, I found a fearfully worried Roberto. We were soon joined by Joe, and for the first time the three comrades began to worry our spirits might be broken. The same jokes about farts and wetsuits, mimes and pixie shoes didn't work.
The angry anti-Semite had got to Joe. After disappearing from my interrogation, he had gone next door to tell my friend: "You are a spy. You will go before a military tribunal and you will leave here in a coffin. I am the one in charge and I decide this."
We were shaken up. There was nothing in the interrogation that suggested any prospect of release. We had no idea what we had confessed to but had been told we were the subject of a formal military investigation, so jail or execution seemed likely.
Suddenly, three men burst into the cell and ordered us up from our bunks. For some reason I had the impression that they were new figures, but I suppose they could have been there all along during my blind-folded interrogation.
Our eyes were covered again and we were led back down the stairs that I had earlier thought a cliff-top path above a steep drop into the sea. Once again we were pushed into the rear seat of one of the hated Toyotas.
None of us spoke, but I imagine my comrades had the same thought in their mind: "Here we go: A quick trip to the desert, a bullet in the back of the head, a shallow grave."
Instead, after a drive of only a few minutes. We were told to take our blindfolds off. We were driving along a well-lit, two lane highway in downtown Tripoli. "Do not worry, you are going to the hotel," the man in the passenger seat said.
Wary of some new trick, we did not press him, but sure enough we soon — very soon, we had travelled less than a kilometre — pulled up at the gate of the five star Rixos, the main base in Libya for journalists on regime-approved visas. The liveried gate manager knew our secret police escorts by their first names and they shared hugs and laughter as he gathered our depleted possessions from the rear of the pick up and we walked blinking into the well-lit foyer.
Kadhafi's slick chief spokesman, Moussa Ibrahim, was there in his tailored pinstripes to welcome us and steer media questioning towards our supposed gratitude to "The Guide" for his magnaminity.
We were told we could remain on in Tripoli and report from within the government-sanctioned press corps, or get a bus out of Libya the next day. I told him I have to think about it, but I was already half-way to Tunisia in my head.
Friendly faces — AFP colleagues — emerged among the media pack covering our arrival. At last I held a cellphone in my hand. Calling family, friends and colleagues I quickly learned that our release had been announced three hours previously, Kadhafi himself having responded positively to a letter from AFP chairman Emmanuel Hoog.
So what was the unsettling pantomime at the last detention centre all about? Our final interrogations had begun after our release was announced.
Had the secret police been unaware of the release order until later, and proceeded with a plan to frame us for some unknown wickedness?
Or were they worried that they would be criticised by the regime for having held us and wanted to extract some kind of false confession from us to justify our mistreatment?
More likely, perhaps, they knew we would go free but — unable to take out their frustration on Sarkozy or even on the NATO pilots criss-crossing their skies — decided to make our final hours in Libya as miserable as possible.
We will likely never know. The next day, we crossed the border to Tunisia and freedom.