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Letter from Libya: To live and lose in Misurata

Times staff writer Ned Parker recalls arriving and covering the fighting in the western Libyan town, within reach of Kadafi's capital — and where two colleagues would be killed before he left again.

May 14, 2011|By Ned Parker, Los Angeles Times
  • Tim Hetherington, left, is helped into a building by a rebel in Misurata, Libya, hours before he was killed. Chris Hondros, right, on assignment in Misurata.
Tim Hetherington, left, is helped into a building by a rebel in Misurata,… (AFP/Getty Images; Associated…)

Reporting from Misurata, Libya — We watched the African refugees wait placidly at the port for the boat to take them out of a city under siege. The day before, one of their own had been killed waiting at the port's entrance, and today, shells were falling nearby. But they still filed quietly in line.

Then again, we were just sitting there too, counting on our reflexes and the advice someone had given us if the bombardment got too close: Make a dash for the thick steel hull of the docked boat. All the time we were uneasily aware that if we were killed, people might shake their heads and say, those idiots were just sitting out in the open, eating chocolate cookies and date rolls.

We ignored the explosions, because really there was nothing else we could do. It didn't matter if we were luckier than most residents and had helmets and flak jackets.

Misurata had taught us that no one was spared here.

Photos: Work by photojournalists killed in Libya

We'd come to Misurata nearly two weeks before because it was the last major rebel-held city in western Libya. Excitement with the story, not to mention restlessness over the stalemate in the fighting in the east, had brought us here to document the city's improbable revolt against Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

From my years as a reporter in Iraq, I knew that if I could keep myself somewhat detached from the violence, it was easier to cover. In Iraq, I cared about the people involved, sometimes too deeply. But as long as I was the outsider, it was simpler.

But now, sitting at the port, we weren't outsiders. We had learned something of what it felt to lose in Misurata.

We — three print colleagues and I — had arrived on the overnight sea voyage from the rebel capital, Benghazi, with the war photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington. That ride went quickly, with sleep, food and talk, and probably more rest than anyone covering the war in the east had had in days.

The boat, a liner called the Ionian Spirit, had been chartered to rescue immigrant laborers from Misurata, and we had spent the final hours making sandwiches for the 1,000 refugees who would get on board when we arrived there. We blew off steam, teasing a friend mercilessly for choosing to read a dour 1950s-era French existentialist as we sailed a cruise ship into war.

No one had known what to expect in this besieged city in reach of Kadafi's capital, where we would stay or what would be waiting for us at the port. We tried satellite phone calls to contacts in the city who might meet us and whisk us out of the bombarded harbor. It would be dark when we got in, and the thought of being stranded in the middle of incoming rockets and rioting migrants left us slightly unnerved, even though we joked about it.

But Misurata's people wanted reporters there. Various community leaders had gathered on the dock, waiting for us, despite the risks of incoming fire, and grabbed the different groups of journalists arriving. Our photographer friends went one direction and we went the other.

On Wednesday, April 20, the four of us had spent the morning and afternoon peering around the front line of Tripoli Street, then Misurata's main battlefield.

Muad, a combat medic for one of the fighting groups on Tripoli Street, drove us in his sedan, speeding through streets in range of Kadafi soldiers.

Muad helped us distinguish the acoustics of the cluster bomb by virtue of its burst and then the crackle of its small bombs like a baby's rattle. The explosions kept coming, and we decided it was better to move. Twelve hours later, a Grad rocket would hit the same corner and kill three fighters.

Muad would turn to me and ask, "How are we going to keep fighting?"

That day I felt a charge from running through the city. We kept touring spots along the edges of Tripoli Street, and then in the afternoon we went to the hospital to find out death tolls and talk with doctors, all of us laughing, running on adrenaline.

Then the rebels' cars careened in with Chris and Tim and their colleagues, Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown, all of them wounded.

There was Tim on a gurney, doctors pumping his chest, trying to force him to breathe, his jaw clamped and eyes squinting, his skin turning grayer and grayer and then tightening like a mask.

There was Guy being rushed into the tent, with a cold-blooded and masterly cool, cracking, "It's a scorcher," unaware of the strand of intestine hanging from his stomach like a pink kerchief.

A nurse handed us a black helmet coated with blood and brain matter. We just didn't know it was Chris' yet

Somehow all of Misurata's deaths were melding together. In the previous days, we had walked into jammed hospitals and seen a teenager with horrific shrapnel wounds in her groin, young children swaddled in white bandages.

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