The unrest in Libya began in mid-February and quickly escalated into a people’s revolt that left thousands dead. During the February fighting, protestors looted most of Gaddafi’s military bases in the east of the country. Although some of what was happening was obviously inspired by Egypt, the fact that so many young men carried Kalashnikov rifles and wore mismatched military garb made the scene uniquely Libyan.
I arrived in Libya on February 24th. As a member of the press, I had never received such a warm and kind welcome in my life. Whether it came from a sophisticated understanding of the importance of having media on their side, or genuine gratitude of our presence, it was the type of hospitality you might receive in a family’s home but on a citywide scale. One had to be careful not to allow every offer of kindness and hospitality come to fruition. People were willing to give everything they had, and to take it all would be greedy.
Over time this eager hospitality transformed, and by the end of my time in Libya I found it often times to be frustrating, dangerous and in the end, deadly. In the beginning however, the revolutionaries made Benghazi feel safe. In fact, they made it feel more than safe; it really did feel free.
PART II: THE REBEL EAST
Over the course of my first week in Libya members of the military defected to join the revolution, and youth joined the rebels. The areas south of Benghazi were still no-go zones; Gaddafi forces locked the major highways that led west to Tripoli.
It was clear that the rebels were beginning to advance; the momentum of the opposition was growing. Young men started to arrive in the hospitals with fresh injuries.
It was announced on March 8 that the strategic oil town Brega had been taken over by the rebel army—a newly formed rag tag coalition of defected soldiers and volunteer fighters. Some later admitted to me they had never held a weapon in their hands until now.
For the next four days, I would leave Benghazi in the morning to work mostly around the rebel checkpoints and hospitals in Ajdabiya and Brega, photographing the fighters and the injured. At the checkpoints, the mood would shift from an almost psychotic energy before the fight to showboating and firing off weapons for the media; from fearful panic of an incoming air strike, to sorrow and defeat after a retreat. News of a victory would become news of a defeat only to become news of a victory once again over the course of minutes.
This was the Libya that I saw in late February and early March; when life had just been turned upside down, optimism reigned, and history was changing by the minute. Men and boys were dying every day, but from Benghazi to Brega the people of eastern Libya believed they were going to win. It was not a question of if, but when, Gaddafi was going to fall.
PART III: RETURN TO LIBYA
When I arrived in Libya, it was a revolution. When I left it was a civil war.
I heard from colleagues on the ground that after I left, the time of possibility and hopeful defiance that I experienced was shifting. Access to the front lines was becoming difficult, and understanding whom the Libyan rebels really were was murky at best.
I never imagined NATO would actually intervene, and found myself sitting at home glued to news reports of an imminent attack on Benghazi. Then, for the first time in my adult life, I actually cheered as I watched CNN’s coverage of air strikes on the TV screen in my mother’s bedroom. I was both jubilant for the Libyan people, and selfishly disappointed. I thought, I may have just missed the end of a war I saw begin first-hand. As time went on, NATO deliberated, the US took a back seat to the intervention, and Gaddafi would not back down. I realized the war was far from over.
In late March, I returned to Libya. The situation was becoming more dangerous by the day. In the beginning, I did a lot of work far away from the front lines; mostly feature stories for Le Monde with the writer Nicholas Bourcier, and personal work on women in Libya as part of a larger look at the rebel east. However, I wanted to cover the fighting; although it was by no means the only story in Libya, it was an important part of the larger story.
However, at the same time, I didn’t want to go out there without the company of someone more experienced than myself. It worked out that I was able to do just that, and not just with any two photographers with more experience than myself, but with two of my favorite photographers, two legendary men who I have admired for years: Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington.
PART IV: CHRIS AND TIM
I have known Chris since 2006, from meeting at the Eddie Adams Workshop, photographing news in New York, going to his parties in Dumbo, and working and staying together during the earthquake in Haiti. Tim, I had met only once. All I really knew about him was that his work was brilliant and he was famous. On my first ride out to Ajdabiyah, the eastern front-line at the time, Tim asked me, “So, how did you become a photographer?” I think it was a gentlemanly, polite and Tim-like way of asking, “Who are you? Should I really be in a car with you right now?” It is only fair to let someone know exactly with whom he or she is riding to the front line of a war. So, I told Tim that I was 27, got my start covering the conflict in Oaxaca in 2006, and most of my photographic experience included covering news in New York, natural disasters for NGOs, Central American migration and the drug war in Mexico. I told him that Libya was my very first war.
Afterwards, I was so excited because I got to ask him a million questions.
Tim and I talked about how he worked for a newspaper in England, his first project documenting the homeless there, how he got started in Liberia and how much he loved living there. He talked about investigative reporting in West Africa, making Restrepo, his best friend Sebastian, his partner Idil, and living in Brooklyn. He shared with me how there is one photo of a rebel he took on his first trip to Libya that made him come back. It was always that way for him, he explained. He would see something special in a single photo and that would inspire him to delve into a story. I remember how when Tim went out to do his last day of work in Misurata, there was a way he moved, a look of excitement and purpose in his eyes that makes me think he had made that photo. He had found his story.
At first, I was nervous to work with them. I was so much younger than they were and didn’t want to feel like a tag along or a burden. I also didn’t want to slow them down if I was scared. Yet Tim and Chris always made me feel welcomed and included. Over time, Tim became my friend, and Chris and I became closer friends. I learned so much from both of them in different ways.
PART V: THE ROCKET PHOTO
Over the next few days, we drove from Benghazi to the front line in Ajdabiyah, nearly every morning, along with other journalists. The day I remember most vividly was April 14th, when Chris made his famous rocket photo. We had been told that the rebels were going to fire the rockets soon and were waiting all day for it to happen under the scorching hot sun.
I remember thinking, “Wow things are so slow out here maybe I should start a portrait series. Maybe a fashion portrait series, because the sneakers some of these guys have on, combined with their mismatched military garb and wild curly hair, is out of control.” Minutes felt like hours. I would think about where we were going to get dinner and how I was going to do my laundry. Then I remember looking over at Chris and Tim in their t-shirts and wishing I was a man and did not have to wear long sleeves in Libya.
Chris eventually interrupted these deep thoughts and waved me over. The rebels were finally going to fire the rockets. Tim was there too, but further away, on the opposite side. Chris motioned me towards a spot where I could place myself safely and out of his frame. So, I crouched about fifteen feet away from him, continuous shutter ready, cigarette filters in my ears, eyes on the prize. “Yea let’s do this!” I thought. “I am going to get a rocket shot!” And then in 2 seconds it was over. I had a photo of some smoke puttering out of a tube [image #38]. Meanwhile, Chris took what may be the most epic photograph of the war in Libya. Tim was shooting film, so I don’t know what he made, but I can’t wait to see the image.
For the first half hour of the car ride back to Benghazi that evening Tim and I ooh-ed and aaah-ed over the photo on Chris’s LCD screen. I joked around that I was too busy shaking from fear to get the shot. Chris laughed and said “No. That’s not true. You just have that fancy camera with the video,” referring to the amount of frames per second my camera can take as opposed to his. The conversation moved on. The guys took a nap. I was wide-awake, beaming the whole car ride home.
Chris had no idea how excited I was to have been standing next to him when he made that picture. He pretended not be impressed with the image, but we all knew it was going to be on the front page of every newspaper the next day—and it was. Chris also had no idea how much it meant to me that he said I could have made the same photo as him. He also didn’t know that almost ten years ago, his photos from the early years of the Iraq war, which I would look at on the front page of the New York Times while sitting at the breakfast table before school, are the reason I became a photojournalist.
Chris was a mentor to me and many other young photographers without ever formally acknowledging it. He helped, guided and taught so many of us; it just came naturally to him. Working in New York City he always used to call me kiddo. When we started working together in Libya he stopped. One day, after a pretty intense day of shooting, we had a long conversation about life and love and his fiancé Christina. I felt so much closer to him at this point, and I said, “You know Chris, you can’t call me kiddo anymore.” He replied “No. I can always call you that.”
PART VI: OUT AT SEA
Across eastern Libya, revolutionaries continued to organize and demonstrate, young men continued to join the rebel army, and the interim government and military command structure continued to be a complete mess. It had been two months since the uprising began, and one month since NATO intervened. It was clear that at this point NATO was not going to fight the war for the Libyan rebels, and the eastern Libyan rebels were not going to win a ground war against Gaddafi forces.
There was only one city left outside of the east that remained in rebel hands: Misurata, the last anti-Gaddafi stronghold in western Libya.
The time came for us to go to Misurata. The stories and rumors coming out of there were horrific. The city had been under siege for more than a month and the death toll was said to be over 1,000. Isolated by enemy forces, Misurata was reachable only by sea. For days we tried to get there, but there were no boats. Eventually, we embarked on the Ionian Spirit, a cruise ship being used by the IOM to evacuate refugees. The ship was on its way back and they agreed to take a few dozen journalists with them. Photographers Michael Christopher Brown, Guy Martin and Guillermo Cervera were also on that boat along with Chris, Tim and I. From that point on, the six of us stayed together.
On the boat Mike, Guy, Guillermo and Tim spent a lot of time talking about photography and looking at each other’s photos. Chris was reading some crazy book about Lenin, Stalin and Hitler. I was nervous, seasick and kept to myself. I felt anxious because I had a magazine assignment, and only 24 hours until deadline. It had taken the boat so long to leave the Benghazi port. Honestly though, I was scared.
Chris could tell that something was wrong and started talking to me later that night. He cheered me up right away, gushing about his fiancé Christina and their wedding plans. At one point I asked him, “Are you scared?” He replied, in that matter-of-fact Hondros way, “You’re going to be fine kiddo.”
PART VII: MISURATA
Many people don’t know I was there with Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros on the day we lost them. I wasn’t physically injured—not a scratch. I think the journalists at the hospital all made the decision to take my name out of their stories, because one of the things I blurted out when I returned to the hospital was that my parents didn’t know I was there. I thought maybe they would never have to know; maybe no one would.
I stayed in Misurata for the rest of the week after that day against everyone’s wishes, hunkering down in the care of the other journalists still there and watching over Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown who were injured. I didn’t sleep or eat, not because I wasn’t hungry or tired, but because it helped to keep everything surreal. The hospital in Misurata was a living nightmare; I can’t imagine a place in this world closer to hell. I wanted to stay in that nightmare precisely because it didn’t seem real. I thought that maybe this way when I returned home, it could be like it never happened.
I began to lose all recognition of myself, of the woman who had lived through this tragedy. She was not even a woman, she was just a girl, and that girl was gone. I watched her float away on the way back to the hospital after the attack. I saw her reach so high into the sky that she arrived at the sun, and exploded, like the dust from the blast on Tripoli Street. She remains there to this day. She doesn’t get to be with Tim and Chris. She is alone, floating in space. Some of her particles made it back down to the Misurata pavement, others reached the Mediterranean Sea, but the pieces can never come back together.
PART VIII: MOVING FORWARD
It has been more than two months since the day we lost them. I lived, I survived whatever that means, and I am grateful for it. Yet it is hard, because I feel like I am starting over. It is the opposite of birth: I am beginning with death and destruction and moving backward to go forward.
The girl I used to be is gone, and most of the time I think good riddance. That girl was filled with innocent beauty, but she was so foolish, that she took all of her beauty, all of the love and compassion and energy and empathy that created that beauty, and brought it to Misurata. So now all that is left of her are particles floating in outer space next to the burning hot sun, dust stuck in the filthy rubble of Tripoli Street, and specs of sand on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea.
I wish I had never gone to Misurata. I wish Tim and Chris had never gone to Misurata so much more. But they did. So did I. What happened on their last day in Libya plays in my mind like a movie in slow motion, non-stop, all the time. No matter where I am, or what I am doing, I can find myself back on Tripoli Street. Deep down I know that these thoughts lead to nowhere. They only bring me anguish, and sharing them brings me fear of transferring that pain onto others. So instead, I try to think about Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros; to honor, remember and treasure every moment that I was fortunate enough to share with them.
I hope that one day the beauty of these memories will overcome everything else.