Journalists sit it out in a hallway as gun battles continue around the Rixos… (Dario Lopez-Mills / Associated…)
Reporting from Tripoli, Libya — Behind his aviator shades, the driver of the silver sedan had that hired-killer stare as he pulled up alongside our minibus. He kept pace as the bus, ferrying 13 journalists away from Libya's crazed capital in June, lurched toward the sanity of post-revolutionary Tunisia. He pointed his rifle directly at us.
We dived for the floor or crouched down in a pathetic bid for cover, but there was no escape: The Kalashnikov rounds would penetrate the bus' skin like hot arrows tearing through papier-mache.
The moment was both sinister and ridiculous, like so much in Moammar Kadafi's Libya.
We'd just gotten our release papers from the Rixos al Nasr Hotel, a pseudo five-star compound where all foreign press visiting Libya's capital were obliged to stay.
Photos: Battle for Kadafi's compound
In the waning days of Kadafi's reign, "Planet Rixos" was the surreal stage for a daily drama pitting edgy journalists against a cadre of regime information managers, some true believers, others just hired hands.
The minders' singular sales job involved depicting Kadafi's Libya as a kind of egalitarian haven and Brother Leader himself as nothing more than a beloved figurehead, somewhat like the queen of England, eager to preside over Libya's transformation into a European-style social democracy. In this narrative, anti-Kadafi rebels were traitorous, bloodthirsty fanatics, the foreign press corps a pack of liars and spies, and the NATO bombing campaign an imperialist, Strangelovian assault on Libya's people.
The Rixos boasted emerald lawns, a gym-sauna complex, serviceable Internet and an expansive deck where, each evening, guests dragged on cigarettes and shisha pipes while sipping coffee and tea in this agonizingly dry nation. But a palpable hint of menace lay beneath the veneer of gentility. Conversation tended toward the conspiratorial.
I was still a Rixos novice when I was approached by a Brit of beefy countenance and heavily tattooed arms. He worked as a "sound man" for a British television network, one of several martial blokes accompanying TV crews, and he bore a message of solidarity.
"Look here, we're all in this together: I know your room number," the chap confided in hushed tones. "At the end of the day, we're all Westerners."
He then outlined, unsolicited, a plan should our hosts move to take us hostage: We would all scamper out back, hurdle a wall or two, carjack a few vehicles, make our way to the port two miles away, commandeer a vessel and sail off into the Mediterranean — where we would find refuge on a NATO warship.
"It should work," he said. "Keep a small bag packed and ready to go."
"Attention, all journalists!"
The disembodied call to coverage piped into rooms at the Rixos soon became a tonal embodiment of journalistic frustration.
Journalists leaped from their beds at the sound of the Orwellian directive, inevitably issued after midnight, rushed out half-groggy to a waiting blue Mercedes bus —of the type normally associated with coach tours of Devon —and were soon hurtling toward an event approved for coverage. On my first night at the Rixos, we were taken to a pair of government buildings engulfed in flames after a bombing by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Officials swiftly acknowledged that one site (the Ministry of Fear, I dubbed it) was a security headquarters, seemingly a legitimate target for NATO and its charge to protect civilians. But the other structure was, according to the government, something else: an anticorruption bureau where fraud was tirelessly investigated.
Why had such a laudable institution (I thought of it as the Ministry of Truth) been targeted for annihilation? To conceal financial skulduggery by ex-ministers who had defected to the rebel side, Libyan officials explained. This seemed a stretch: Had NATO really been duped by insurgents into bombing a ministry to obliterate evidence of corruption?
A few days later, we were bused back to the site, where a supposed anticorruption czar pointed to salvaged boxes of files detailing ministerial wrongdoing. Given the apparently vast scope of graft, I asked whether any investigations were targeting members of the Kadafi clan, some noted for their extravagant spending.
The bureaucrat's gaze was that normally reserved for a naive child. "I can assure you," he responded, "that no one from the leader's family has ever stolen."
A renewed uprising in Tripoli is imminent: That was the whispered buzz from clandestine conversations in smoke-shrouded cafes amid the patter of songbirds — Libyans fancy the caged creatures. As in Benghazi, the rebel capital to the east, entrepreneurs and Web-savvy youths seemed to be at the forefront of dissent. "It's happening soon," one businessman assured a colleague and me over tea, his eyes inspecting other patrons who might be eavesdropping. "Don't leave Tripoli yet."