By Eliot Higgins
In 2012 I started the Brown Moses Blog, with one of my earliest set of posts being a 5 part interview with Kevin Dawes, who would later go on to disappear in Syria, and now released on April 8th 2016.
The interview covers the time he was in Libya in 2011, and is reprinted in full below. The earlier interview continued additional videos that were removed by Kevin Dawes from his YouTube channel shortly before he entered Syria.
Kevin Dawes, from San Diego, California travelled to Libya in June 2011 as a photojournalist, and almost immediately became involved with assisting rebel medics on the Dafniyah-Misrata frontline, and eventually ended up fighting alongside the rebels in Sirte, where his time in Libya came to a sudden and violent end. He filmed much of what he experienced in Libya, and has uploaded around 300 of those videos onto his Youtube Channel.
What were your initial motivations and aims for your visit to Libya? Was there anything or anyone in particular who inspired you to make the journey?
I wanted to try something different. Believe it, or not, Robert King. A lot of people will probably give me a lot of flak for this but you have to remember that he filmed his growing up period.
How did you get from San Diego to Misrata?
Expedia to Cairo, Egypt where my plan was to locate and hire a fixer. This was an expensive and involved process. I eventually found a tour guide who only coughed up a driver into Libya after putting me through all kinds of ridiculous tourist shit. I got sunburn and spent way too much money in Egypt greasing that guy, greasing the right people to get my armor out of hoc, etc. It was pretty terrible.
It turns out that Malta was a much shorter and cheaper route. I could have spent 10% or less of what I ultimate did. It pays to know people who don’t hate you (ahem) and are willing to pass on travel tips. I get the impression that the first time is the only expensive one.
The drive from Cairo to the border was very long. I was accompanied by one Egyptian police officer and one Egyptian police official. When we arrived at Sallem there were few people crossing from Libya but an almost infinite stream of brand new Hiluxes flowing in, all loaded with fighters and weapons in covered beds. The police officer looked very dismayed and the police official had the most incredible look of smug. I wish I knew what was going on there.
After Sallem I changed drivers and was driven to Benghazi. We stopped in Tobruk on the way there for bread and cheese. There were many checkpoints manned by bored looking fighters and parts of the drive reminded me of photos that I had seen of Afghanistan. Beautiful, lush, grass-carpeted valleys separated by tall rippling stony crests of semi-vegetated desert. It was beautiful, yet foreboding, country. The hulks of burnt out armored vehicles could be seen here and there on the side of the road.
Finally, I arrived at the Alnoran Hotel in Benghazi and discovered the ridiculous prices they were charging. To this point I had been chasing rumors of a free hotel for journalists. There was one- it was just in Misrata. I was in Benghazi for several days before finally arranging passage to Misrata. Much like a fallout game this involved speaking to the other journalists and denizens of the Alnoran hotel and completing various side quests. Benghazi was full of random blasts and gunfire. Also, panicky evacuations from the military base next door.
The first side quest involved getting a cellular telephone SIM card for the rebel cell network. My first attempt resulted in me borrowing and then inadvertently stealing one from some guy due to a breakdown in communications. I apologized after he called me and demanded to know what the fuck I was doing and we tried it again. This second attempt resulted in a successful SIM card purchase. Remember, I had not learnt any Arabic yet at this point on my trip.
Through these same guys I managed to meet a local guide who apparently owned an Egyptian brand money pump of his own. He showed me Benghazi and I learnt about the battles there. He eventually helped me secure my court permissions to travel to Misrata.
One of the guys there was obviously some kind of gangster. He kept trying to get me to leave the hotel with him to see ‘his studio’. I’m pretty sure he wanted to mug me. There were a few other journalists there from various outlets that I never saw again after leaving for Misrata with the exception of one fellow that I met from the New York Times who I ran into again at Kubre Estada where he interviewed me about why I had a rifle and was sitting at a guard post processing refugees.
This is a very common theme for my trip. The first encounter and then the distant second encounter. It happened with doctors I met, seeing them in June as harried medical students pressed into service and then again in October as fire breathing thuwar. It happened with security guys (kids, really, we cooked together sometimes) I knew at the Gostik who I later encountered in Sirte. It even happened with a set of three pairs of Hexarmor cut gloves I brought with me and left at the Gostik. I was there in Sirte and suddenly this column of four kids snaked past me and they were all wearing those gloves. One ‘pair’ was only two left gloves and wouldn’t you know it some of them only had the left glove. It happened with the people I was on the Jaraffa (fishing boat) from Benghazi to Misrata on when they began to show up wounded at the field hospital.
The second appearance is where you suck your breath in.
Theoretically the other journalists sailed there as well- just on a much bigger boat than I did. An older fellow with a bald head whose name I don’t recall- I remember his accent being britaustralish and faint, indicated that they were travelling on one of the missile cruisers. The Times guy was very helpful in explaining how to get started (solicit everybody, etc.) as well as the mechanics behind passage to Misrata.
There was also a Japanese guy there who had a panic attack and literally fled the hotel. I managed to stop him from running screaming into the night and he took the time to interview me. I was trying to reassure him that he’d be fine. It ended with me giving him a tour of my medic bag. I have no idea what happened to this footage. I’m wearing a bathrobe (Boondock Saints style) in it.
There were also some guys I’m pretty confident were NTC spies there to check up on us and make sure we weren’t Qaddafi terrorists. I ran into one of them again later in Misrata. All he did was drive next to me very slowly trying to get me to get into his truck. I ignored him for a block or so (oh god oh god oh god) until he finally just said: ‘HEY! HEY! WE’RE COOL! LOOK! WE ARE COOL!’ before flashing the peace sign and driving off. After that I had no real problems in Libya. Interpret these events however you’d like. It could be a coincidence.
I finished some missing parts of my medic bag here- trading for supplies with Sonia at the Benghazi hospital. I also had the captain of the boat I got passage on see her when his diabetes seemed ‘blinding’ bad. He was in rough shape but he made the voyage. He let me use his cabin to store my things and I had access to the wheelhouse. I spent a lot of time sitting there in the dark while we crossed the Gulf of Sirte listening to NATO’s ‘kill you all’ broadcast on infinite repeat. The vessel itself had twin towed guns on the stern and a load of ammo in the hold. We were so low in the water that we almost sank during a storm and so full of bombs that if the boat caught fire there was no possible way that we could have swum far enough away to avoid getting blast decapitated in the water.
It was very tense. Sitting there in that pitch dark wheelhouse lit only by red light and tracking a GPS heading in absurd seas while listening to a radio warning about how vessels like ours qualified as ‘targets for destruction’- that was a little Nick Danger, yeah. It certainly felt that way. Well, it turns out that this is actually a pretty typical experience for a journalist in areas like these. The scary part was whenever the radio would fuzz out in a loud blast of static. You can hear it on the radio set whenever a search or targeting radar paints the boat.
I did handle the wheel during a particularly rough part of the storm because the wheelman (wheelkid, actually) had his arms get tired. The key to steering a ship like that is slow, long-thinking corrections. Don’t try to chase the sea. You’ll spin in a circle.
I met a lot of amazing people on this boat. It’s true what they say. Facing a common danger binds men together. Even long after our trip we would greet each other very warmly. The stars at night were amazing. We fished a little and saw a JSTARS aircraft turning slow orbits over the gulf of Sirte. We also had two Typhoons buzz our vessel.
I started two IVs on that boat. Three if you count the practice IV I ran in on myself while we were waiting around in Benghazi. Both for dehydration, though after evaluating the guys they didn’t seem all that dehydrated. The part that made it fun was that I had to do it below decks in pitching seas while a NATO frigate investigated us and was presumably deciding if we were a target for destruction. One took two sticks and he got a moderate hematoma from the first which subsided. Deeper veins than I had thought for a skinny fellow. The other I got in one. A liter of saline a piece later and they were right as rain or at least thought they were. Since they were adults and healthy I figured that they could take their bolus and that I should probably humor them. They were bedridden. I was going by saliva production and skin plasticity.
I was badly alarmed by the appearance of the frigate and the fact that the captain was totally ignoring them on the radio as they demanded we identify ourselves. The towed guns were under tarps, but it was only about as effective as a thin white cotton t-shirt on a well endowed women after it has been drenched with water. That and how low we were in the water. Fish aren’t that heavy. Nobody else seemed alarmed. All the captain said to us was: ‘French frigate!’ The meaning of this statement would only become clear later once it was revealed that the French were supplying arms to the rebels.
The frigate circled us once and then left. After this we steamed the remaining 25 miles (I believe it was a 25 mile picket line) into Misrata.
Can you describe the situation in Misrata when you first arrived?
The whole place seemed completely empty. We were expecting to land under heavy shellfire and the harbor had already taken several hits. Luckily it was clear when we landed. I made my way to the hotel (the free one) settled in, and made friends with the journalists there. I met some very interesting people including one I only know as ‘The Ghost’ because of his sunken eyes, lack of speech, and ability to only show you gruesome combat footage on his tiny camera in the same way that the guy from Red Dragon showed off his tattoos.
The front line was the city limits. It was a desperate situation. Food was very scarce. Do you remember the story about the journalists becoming trapped in the Rixos Hotel as the war began to come to an end?
They complained about the food in the story. The food they complain about in that story was the best available food we had at the Gostik. I often found myself combining two mostly-eaten cans of tuna, some crackers, and maybe the jam residue from a jar people had given up hope on into a meal. Your stomach is acidic. Your immune system is strong. Mold means safe. Eat or die. While it is true the hotel did very generously provide food for a time this dried up before long. With no functioning banks and a budget that had been sucked nearly dry by horrible fixer experiences which I will *never repeat* I was stuck.
I had made some friends in the city and between these guys and my own geek-like determination to stay fed I came through this part just fine. The Libyans were, and are, the most generous people on the face of the earth. I even had the owner of a burger establishment give me a discounted sandwich. Everybody gets one, he said, by sternly holding up one finger. I never managed to pay him back before leaving the second time around.
When you first arrived in Misrata what did you do?
I took the best shower of my entire life. It was ice cold but I did not care. I was laughing and happier than I had ever been in my entire life.
Where there other foreigners in the city aside from journalists that you noticed when you first arrived?
No, not immediately. Those guys fell out of the woodwork later.
Was there a certain part of Misrata you were staying in?
Yeah, the Gos El Teek (Gostik) hotel. I still have the card in my wallet. It’s near the center of the city.
You’ve mentioned bringing body armour and medical supplies with you, could you tell me what else you brought with you?
Beyond the body armor and medical supplies? Clothing, bug spray, a water filter, multivitamins, sleeping bag and accompanying kit. My multi-tool, which was invaluable, my flashlight, map, paracord, a gas mask, and a GPS that was useless for most of June because of the jamming. I also used my iPhone as a back up camera, that footage is kind of interesting. I also had a ton of malarone with me in case of malaria. Also Zithromax, which I ended up using to treat an upper respiratory infection. I had to do this twice during the trip. Zithromax was highly effective both times. The second time I had to source it locally.
I actually was massively over equipped and spent most of my time reducing my equipment.
Can you tell me how you researched what equipment you would need in Libya?
I asked people who had done it or similar things before. I had a lot of friends in the military, for example, so they were able to give me some idea as to what to expect and what sorts of problems I would face. The key to doing something like this successfully is intricate planning and careful preparation. Little things like getting vaccinations to somewhat larger things like making sure you are in good enough shape to meet the physical demands.
I also did a lot of research specific to the country of Libya. Climate, insects, and so on. Classical Arabic did not work in Libya so all of this turned out to be useless. I had to learn Libyan. By ear.
Diary entry June 9th
Best day of my damn life. A random Libyan donated 200 dinars to me on the street for no reason.
I caught a ride to the front (Daphniya – an aid station) and then to the real front from first a random “Libyan” then a genuine one.
The genuine one was a doctor I met at the aid station. He was the one who drove Tim Hetherington back while he was dying.
I have him most of my medical supplies. I hope he uses them well.
We demonstrated my flash IV caths to the docs at the field hospital (not the med station) and they went home. Tomorrow (today as I am writing this entry late) we will go to the media centre and arrange for a shipment of supplies (including IO drivers from chinook medical through malta.
The choice item is a portable vent, also AED’s.
The rebels also have a killdozer, which they showed me. I met the designer and got inside.
You’ve filmed footage in June of the armoured vehicle constructed by the rebels in Misrata that was later deployed towards the end of the fighting in Sirte, popularly described as the “Libyan Killdozer”. Could you tell us how you came across it?
It happened to be housed at that part of the front. Dr. Tameem and I stopped by while we were driving around. It was well known to other journalists but we were the only ones allowed in.
So once you arrived in Misrata and found a place to stay, what did you do next?
After I arrived I began looking for ways to get to the front line. I first asked the other journalists if I could accompany them as they went out. This resulted in a hearty round of corporate-clean ‘Fuck you kid’-s as they breezed out of the door. It turns out (I was eventually let in on this) that everybody got everywhere by hitchhiking with random Libyans in front of the hotel. I soon adopted this practice after confirming that it wasn’t a bad joke designed to get me killed. Misrata is not Benghazi and wartime is not peacetime.
I eventually met a man who agreed to drive me to the front. He took me as far as Dafniyah and no further as he said it was too dangerous. He dropped me off close to the aid station where I met the head of the Misrata hospital (al Hecma) to whom I presented a whole lot of medical supplies. This is when I met Dr. Tameem. He had me stick him a few times in front of other doctors to both IV qualify me and demonstrate the new equipment I had brought. The most valuable items were the chest seals and chest needles.
The supplies I had brought wouldn’t last long but they did do a little good. The actual front line was not far away at about 10 kilometers. We were within easy bombardment range. The 10 km mark was defined as the line of Qaddafi’s forces. There was a very large no-man’s land that began about 300 meters from the aid station.
After that, everything is captured pretty well in the video series. This would be June 8 and onward. My weapons identification is horrendous at this stage as is my Arabic. Both get better.
I eventually get conscripted and decide to hang around as a medical assistant. This was also filmed.
Diary Entry June 10th
Massive shelling of our aid station. Everybody chanted a prayer while we waited for casualties. I rode back with and treated two of them, started an IV line on one man with a bad head injury who had a blob of brain on his shoulder (probably not his) and wiped the face of another kid with an abdominal injury who was maybe 16. Kept him calm while the other docs worked.
You say you became a medical assistant at the aid station, how long after your arrival was this, and can you describe your duties at the aid station?
It was June 10th. I irrigated wounds, applied betadyne, once started a line, changed IV bottles with only two recorded accidents, took vitals, cut off clothes, held the light, and cleaned. I also served as a mobile instrument rack for the other people there.
You were at the aid station during heavy fighting on the Dafniyah front west of Misrata, can you describe the sort of injuries you were seeing, and the number of casualties the aid station was receiving?
We lost track pretty quickly. We were seeing primarily massive blast traumas. Peppering wounds of the head, chest, and abdomen. Blast dismemberment was common. In a few videos we quote numbers but I do not have reliable statistics available. Lots. One thing to note- we did not see a single gunshot wound.
Was Dr Tameem the only qualified doctor at the aid station? The rest were medical students and volunteers?
No, there were maybe two or three doctors including Dr. Tameem? Dr. Tameem would have better exact numbers. I may have seen an artificially low number given the traffic in and out of the station. The vast majority were medical students. I distinctly recall one trauma that was run entirely by medical students. I saw a kid do a panic venasection and then forget to start a line. He just cut the guy. Didn’t increase the severity of the injuries appreciably, for whatever that’s worth. Real deal panic attack, too. Breathless. The trauma in question was a male with a severe blast injury to his legs. They were covered in quarter sized holes. Many were penetrating. A large chunk of his left foot was missing along the arch. You could see all of the tendons inside of his foot.
He was very dry. No bleeding from any of the holes. They were just blackened and full of sand. I spent my time trying to irrigate them clean with a first year medical student who was bad at using betadyne. Then I saw a little swell of dark red venous blood ooze from the missing chunk on his foot. Then he suddenly moved his feet in two slow little beautiful circles. He activated every muscle. I saw his tendons working inside of his foot. Even with his ridiculous injuries he still had full nerve and blood supply as well as an intact orthopedic infrastructure. This man would keep his legs if the post-injury infections went smoothly. After seeing the incredible toll taken by infection I adopted a personal protocol advocating aggressive and immediate administration of ceftriaxone. At the time of injury if possible. There are other possible antibiotic combinations that work but the ceftriaxone is considered a first option drug that works in the majority of cases and it is really easy to administer.
Based on the pattern of injuries it looked like a mortar had landed directly at his feet. I imagine the blast concussion (it’s really a diffuse axonal injury) had him out of it enough not to be miserable. I never did give anybody a single neurological assessment the whole time I was there. In hindsight he was *very* out of it.
I’m also stupid for not having a stethoscope. Airway guess and check was contingent on me sealing my ear to you.
The injuries were very gruesome. Breakdowns were pretty common for people at the end of the day. The venasection came in while I was spraying 0.9% sodium chloride into one of the man’s sand holes. He said: ‘I have .. I have.. I have to do a venasection. Venasection!’ and he connected two of the holes in the man’s calf with a scalpel blade held tightly between two fingers. The skin pulled apart readily exposing the muscle underneath. It was apparently under a lot of elastic loading from the swelling underneath.
The man’s wounds were very gruesome and shocking. Proper triage gave way to a panicky ‘maximal response’. Everything was stable. He was just covered in horrible wounds that needed to be debrided and closed. Lesson learned.
Was Dr. Tameem a local doctor, or someone who had come from outside the city?
He was a local doctor.
With a lack of medical supplies did you see much improvisation by the medical teams?
Yes, after some digging Dr. Tameem and I agreed on using lengths of heavy gauge electrical wire as tourniquet material when this supply ran out. The practice was very rapidly widely adopted after the advantages became clear. Bare copper is aseptic and after twisting the wire on it tends to remain in place. I still remember walking into the field hospital one day and seeing this glittering curtain of bare copper wires hanging off of a rack next to the IV bags.
Where any other foreigners or journalists at the aid station?
I saw none until much later when Paddy Wells appeared there to film.
Dr Tameem tell you much about his encounter with Tim Hetherington?
Yes, that was actually one of the first things he told me about. He was hesitant about details because the man had died. We discussed the reasons why he died. It was for want of a chest needle.
In Misrata on June 10th Dr Tameem is clearly unhappy that NATO warplanes only appeared 3 or 4 hours after Gaddafi tanks arrived. Did NATO generally take that long to respond to threats like that?
Early in the war, yeah. Later in the war they were a lot more effective but they had a smaller target search area too.
Was the aid station you worked at targeted by Gaddafi troops, and did you hear about any other medical facilities that were targeted by Gaddafi troops?
Yes it was; according to the medical staff this was the situation across all of the facilities. It is why I withheld GPS coordinates for our particular aid station until the front moved. The bulk of the artillery was consistently hitting that small field near the ambulance bays. I did not want the enemy to see my video on Youtube and then correct their fire.
So you worked at the aid station, and then began traveling with the ambulances? Can you tell me what you experienced during that time?
In short we drove up and down the front really fast looking for seriously wounded fighters. We often drove through sections of burning trench and passed fighters with grievous but not mortal wounds looking for more immediate casualties. We didn’t even slow down. It was quite grisly.
Did you come under fire at anytime when working with the medics out in the field?
We were under continuous bombardment. Quiet periods were rare.
Then there was the incident when Gaddafi forces executed an ambulance crew. Can you provide more information on that, and the reaction of the rebels in Misrata?
Everybody was shocked and enraged, basically. At this point they were convinced that they were fighting animals. So people armed themselves and their worlds were rocked. We had spent so much time treating Qaddafi’s wounded and lovingly swaddling Qaddafi’s dead only to be met with this… many people broke.
Did you see a significant change in behaviour towards the Gaddafi wounded by rebel fighters and medics after the incident?
Nope. Still collected and buried properly. People were just rattled and angry.
After the ambulance execution incident did you receive weapons training yourself? Were you provided with a weapon?
I’ve been an avid pistol and rifle marksman since 2000. I’m well versed with the operation of the AK-47 assault rifle, having previously owned one. I was eventually given a Romanian PSL that had been taken from Bab al-Azizia. I regularly stripped and clean this weapon and was otherwise skilled in its maintenance and operation. The controls and mechanics are virtually identical to those of the AK-47. I was already familiar with the style of range finding reticule the scope used. I really do have a lot of firearms experience.
No, I didn’t receive training from these guys. Other way around.
I watched some of them clean their rifles with RAID roach killer, once. This is not their usual thing.
From your discussions with Dr Tameem it seems like the whoever was the most senior person avaliable at the time made any decisions?
Yep. Kinda. There were classes of authority. You’d still see disputes within each tier.
What was the impression you got of the organisation and command structure of the rebels in Misrata?
I noticed in one of the videos filmed on June 9th you have “NATO” written on the top of your helmet?
I was warned to do this the day I arrived ‘or the choppers might get me’. Air strikes are almost a magical force to people on the ground. So I’ll go with: ‘Magic Warding Symbol’. A careful eye will also notice a Rebel gang symbol dating from June scratched on my helmet. On the brow. The blocked X.
Was that widely used in Misrata? Did it represent separate militias or fighting groups?
The gang symbols are from very early in the war. They indicated that you were with the rebellion and changed regularly. I had the last one circulated. People would scrawl them onto vehicles with soap.
You mention an elite unit in Misrata who drive black technicals, can you provide any more information about them?
They were based at the Marina and would go tear-assing to the front to reinforce any weak points. They were awesome. I befriended them while at the Marina, they had great senses of humor.
You also mention a Misratan who defended his apartment building with petrol bombs and salvaged MAT-120 submuntions, could you expand on that?
Yeah, prior to these guys assaulting and taking the air force academy there were no guns. Seeing how they fought anyway was neat. I now know of at least a dozen ways to take out tanks with basically nothing. This particular guy collected and refuzed UXOs. That’s pretty dedicated, right there. I was filled with respect and admiration. He also drove an ambulance around.
We suspected that he might be Zorro, and lots of rumors were flying around about Zorro back then (regarding just what he did), but after some checking it turned out that Zorro was just some chubby kid who blew up a building with an SPG by way of lucky shot. There were some rumors that Zorro was a vigilante bomber taking out targets inside of the rebel structure that he felt were Qaddafi-loyal. This is untrue. It grew out of his original story.
Can you tell me a bit more about “Zorro”?
Very nice guy. Tea with him was lovely and I think his friends are all very nice too. He made a great shot with an SPG from the shoulder. It took courage. His boldness was rewarded, too, as he felled a building with his shot. From this he became a legend. Kinda neat.
From what you were told did it appear that early on in the conflict the Misratan rebels got most of their military equipment by capturing it from Gaddafi soldiers?
No, it was all swords and spearguns and other crap for a while and then there was the pivotal battle of the airforce academy where huge supplies of weapons were secured. After that, they had guns. Before that, they’d take out 14.5 MM gunners with fishing supplies and the standard weapon was the molotov cocktail.
Where the rebels you encountered generally civilians who took up arms? Did you encounter or hear of any defected Gaddafi soldiers fighting on the side of the rebels?
Yeah, and a few that I heard of. They usually didn’t speak up or occupied a command position or something. Nobody distinguished one from the other in any way.
Did you encounter any other foreigners fighting with the rebels?
Yeah. Egypt and Syria, believe it or not. The Syria connection was the most fascinating to me. Did he mean Syria the country or is there a ‘Sooria, Libya’ somewhere? Any time I discussed Syria with other people they would pronounce it ‘Sooria’ so who knows. Ahmed got some footage of a white guy who said: ‘Oh, if I told you who I worked for mate I’d have to kill you’ but I happen to know this one. He was staying at the Baraka hotel (with the big name news teams) and was a security guy mocking a kid.
There were other westerners there. Americans, Finns, etc. The Americans trained fighters and mostly hung out in Benghazi with occassional trips to Misrata. No combat activities. The Finns worked at a field hospital near mine that didn’t get as much business. They had older generation helmets and Raybans. Didn’t encounter any French or British special forces teams all dressed up like Libyan country bumpkins hauling around a two way satellite transceiver and a ton of James Bond quality gear in the trunk of their ghettomobile while still inexplicably rocking awesome sunglasses, if that’s what you’re hoping for. The only SF team I am aware of, by reputation only, got arrested and yelled at by a totally different group of rebels and I believe sent home. The British diplomatic mission?
There was also that Matthew Van Dyke guy. I snapped this photo at the Benghazi courthouse before heading out to Misrata. We never met in person.
Did you see any evidence of any religious radicals fighting with the rebels?
Nope. During Ramadan they told me to relax and not to worry about the fast. I still was invited to the dinners and so on. They thought it would be silly for a non-Muslim to go through all of the motions. Libya is not Saudi.
CJ Chivers reported rumours that the remains of Gaddafi fighters were being dumped at sea, did you hear or see anything to support that?
I did not.
Once Gaddafi fighters were treated do you know what happened to them?
They were shuttled away. I do not know what happened to them.
Could you describe any of the Gaddafi fighters that were treated as being mercenaries or foreigners, or where they described to you by rebels as such?
They were often described as mercenaries though I saw no physical evidence to support this. All were uniformed.
Did you hear anything about Tawergha, or the behaviour of Tawerghans when they attacked Misrata from the south?
I went there with a guy looking for his television but otherwise no, I didn’t. He didn’t find his television as the place had also been looted. It was a battle ruined ghost town. When I left it was being repopulated by people from Sirte.
Did you spend most of your time in Misrata with the same group of people?
Could you give some more details of the people you spent time with in Misrata?
Not really. Nothing interesting, at any rate. They were regular Libyan people / journalists staying at the Gostik.
During your time in Misrata did you encounter anyone you’d describe as working for any foreign governments and assisting the rebels?
Did you encounter any other individuals acting as independent journalists in Misrata?
There were a LOT of freelancers in Misrata. Most of the people at the Gostik. Usually, they just name whoever their most recent / most regular customer is as their employer.
Were you told any stories about the start of the uprising in Libya? Did they talk about peaceful protests being attacked with live ammunition?
Yep. Dr. Tameem, mainly. They are filmed.
What role did the women you encounter play in Misrata?
Nurses at the central hospital, mainly. I did not see a lot of women in Misrata, actually. This wasn’t a women’s rights thing, either, it was more of a ‘Wow, Qaddafi’s soldiers seem to really be rapetastic. We should send our women and daughters to the rear.’ thing. It changed once the front lines got pushed back.
The ones in Benghazi carried AK’s.
You mention rape by Gaddafi forces, can you give me any details of what you heard about it? Did you hear any specific claims, or was it just a general view of the Gaddafi forces held by the rebels?
I was shown a video of some Qaddafi guys interrogating some captured rebels making crude remarks about their women. Nothing beyond that. It could have just been to rattle people. Then again, there was that truckload of seized rape supplies. Who knows.
Did you get the impression the rebels were using the term mercenaries for anyone who fought for Gaddafi, or did they use it for specific groups of fighters, for example black fighters?
It seemed overused but the sample group just wasn’t large enough for me to say
How long did you spend with the ambulance crew? Did you spend your time in Misrata with them until you returned to America?
The month of June, and yes, yes I did. More like forward medical faculty. Not ‘ambulance crew’
So after June you returned to America. Did you take the same route out of the country?
Nope, I left by way of Malta aboard the Al Entisar.
Names of journalists have been changed.
Diary entry 25/08/11
When we arrived in Misrata I was not allowed to debark the boat. My passport was retained and I was stranded aboard the Al Entisar.
Ahmed Alamine hadn’t shown up on time and with a ride I had no immediate ability to contact my friends in the region. The IMC people helped, or tried, by getting me a spot in their guesthouse and attempting to negotiate for my release. The last thing they said to me was :”Don’t worry – we’ll get you out of this.” But though they tried very, very, very hard the Libyan port authority would not budge.
A bit later they large hatch covering the hold was removed and a team of Libyan dockworkers, just kids, began to unload the vessel with a crane, kitted out with straps, and a number of wooden palettes in a very poor state of repair.
After watching them upload for a time I climbed down into the hold myself to help.
The work was very difficult. The deck of the hold kept breaking under the weight of the palette jack and we had to both hand-unload several palettes and make use of large steel sheets to cover holes in the deck.
The first cargo was a load of expired German milk – probably 90 or so palettes. Many cartons broke, which guarantees that the hold of the Al Entisar will smell like complete shit for decades to come.
The next cargo were several palettes of medjed dates from Jordan.
Even though the English was very limited the crew quickly accepted me and in almost no time we were working as an efficient team.
A cargo avalanche, a crane failure or simply falling through the deck while carrying a load of dates (every palette was badly overloaded) were all very real risks. The pallets would often crack and shed lumber as they were being lifted.
We shared food during breaks. They decided to nickname me “Obama” after finding out where I hailed from.
After many hours of difficult labor Ahmed finally arrived and we departed.
So, in July you returned to the US via Malta, and returned to Libya around mid August?
Yes. I travelled on the Al Entisar both times. The company was always interesting.
You mention a Medtrade CELOX study, can you expand on that?
Sure. CELOX was being very widely used in Libya on traumas. This is the first time that I am aware of where such a large scale use of this hemostatic agent has ever taken place. The idea was to collect usage data so that Medtrade could produce better versions of CELOX. CELOX in a ribbed package, for example, allowing you to throttle the use of one pouch without contaminating the entire thing upon opening it. CELOX compounded with antibiotics was another idea that was floated by a doctor there.
Unfortunately, due to the pace of the war and the state of record keeping this never was achieved. I did see CELOX work. It saved many lives. Notice the central item in this video:
When you arrived in Misrata on the Al Entisar you had your passport retained by the local authorities and you were prevented from debarking, can you explain why this happened?
Nope. I have no idea what the hell happened. I suspect the local media center had set up some kind of Quisling dictatorship. This guy waved some handcuffs at me, said I was told never to return despite having extensive e-mail chains and other conversations to the effect: “For the love of god please hurry up with those medical supplies.” With people way more important than they were… I was irritated. I was initially barred from debarking because no Libyan was there to pick me up.
Anyway, the same guy and I later meet some time later at military police HQ and everything is totally cool. Nobody passed the media center the memo. At various points during this war I had the media center guy randomly appear and verbally dress me down and demand I appear at the media center immediately and that I would be wanted in Misrata, and then I’d have the Misrata king poobah military/civilian police guys grinning and smiling at me. I mean, the chief of the civilian police shook my hand and called me a hero after a UXO recovery thing I was involved with and the military police had basically said: “Fly, my falcon.” so it isn’t truly as bad as it sounds. It’s actually hilarious. I did everything in my power not to make faces because that would mean having to explain things so I’d just smile and nod and then go to Sirte as per usual and engage in brutal warfare. When we’d rarely, luckily only once in practice the second time around, meet by chance I’d still be covered in blood and dirt and he’d stand there in his flawless suit with his perfect coif of hair. There was little to say.
It was also during those days on my second trip that I was walking around smelling about as nice as a reanimated corpse. There just wasn’t time. It was either my rifle or my body that got clean. Not both.
It was so surreal. Everybody else, except for that guy, thought (based on my performance and not my reputation- this had to be earned.) that I was a critical asset and demanded my presence and attention as such.
Flash back to June for a moment-
He and I (the fellow I suspect caused the trouble) had met several times in June and some animosity did form. He immediately accused me of publishing a story that he didn’t like and told me to go, a day or two after arriving. I told him that I had done no such thing and that he was mistaken. After this, well, the stage had been set. I found him somewhat bullying and demanding in an unfair way. At various points he’d told me to flee the country under pain of various punishments and nothing ever happened. I learned to completely ignore him then and the policy seemed to hold nicely all throughout the rest of my time in Libya. He once said to me: ‘My boss tells me that there is a boat in the harbor tonight. You should be on it!’ and I said to him: ‘Tell your boss: Hello.’ and walked away. He looked confused, smirked, and walked off. It was awesome.
No, he didn’t come back. That was the last time that I saw him in June. In hindsight, he might have been partially responsible for the temporary impoundment of my camera with no explanation. It was either that or that bastard journalist Richard accusing me of being a CIA agent in front of as many people as possible. That was a barrel of laughs. Shit went completely haywire after that. My favorite post-Richard-being-a-shit encounter I had was this elderly Libyan security official going: ‘BOY I THINK YOU ARE SPY!’ and I said ‘If you think that then you are retarded.’ and he became gorilla pissed and then I said: ‘A na asif.’ and he replied: ‘A TA ASIF!’ and stomped away. Being assertive is the way to go in this culture, believe it or not. Assertive but strictly not threatening.
During this period I was just using my iPhone to film. I actually got impounded myself at the Gostik for a while with a guy named Tareq who was accused of being a spy. Tareq and I also got hauled off to police headquarters (military police headquarters) and questioned. We were later released. I also saw one of the other photographers there except he was making a big scene. No idea what happened to that guy. I think maybe another one Richard accused of being a spy.
Anyway, after that I set sail. Ahmed told me to just get a spare camera next time, the local security chief asked me to stay in touch, and everybody was amicable and also fully aware that I was returning in two weeks. At no point was I ever asked to never return. The missing camera was explained to me as being for my own safety which I never actually fully understood. Who knows what strange crap really happened during this time. When I visited the Gostik before leaving the second time around everybody was really very happy to see me. So it wasn’t them. I really can’t say. Probably fallout from Richard’s fatal pronouncement. He may as well have shot me.
Now back to the second time I was in Libya-
I eventually got my passport back a few days before ultimately leaving the country. After meeting with a guy working with the Misrata military police very early in my second trip he gave Dr. Tameem and I a shrug and nod. He retained my passport so I couldn’t just boogie if I misbehaved. So we were off. Other than a security guy wagging his finger at me after another guy wouldn’t let me debark for lack of a ride- Ahmed being late, nothing material happened at the docks. I debarked and made it to the katiba without incident. At no point did I have any trouble with the actual authorities. They quite liked me. Checked in with the various police HQs, had the katiba boss do his thing… yeah. Everything was fine.
I also met my friends in the Black Trucks as I was leaving the dock. It was very good to see them again. These were the fast reaction guys that reinforced thin spots in the Dafniyah line. One drove me around and gave me an Arabic lesson, once. They were very friendly extremely badass people.
Were it not for Ahmed being late none of these encounters would have happened. Hopefully now it is a bit more clear as to why those NGOs sprang to my aid. My plan was, in the event of being deported on the spot, to elect a courier to move the IO drivers and other medical supplies to Dr. Tameem from the dock. Call it a mission success and go home. Fortunately, reality reasserted itself a few hours later when Ahmed showed up. Lodging, etc, etc. was in place as we had arranged. I debarked and we were off. I still remember him sticking his head out over the lip of the cargo hatch.
I actually remember this incident very fondly. The NGO people are very nice and I got to find out what it is like to be a dockworker.
Remember, I was NOT a fighter at this point.
You mention an incident with UXO recovery that earned you a good reputation?
Yeah, it was luck. I was in an area that I knew was risky which was stupid and managed to step on a hand grenade that had no pin and a bent but still attached spoon. Luckily for me I didn’t ignite the fuze. There were also a lot of undetonated MAT-120 cluster munitions laying around but these are infinitely safer to handle. Much to my surprise and happiness a UXO team arrived very rapidly, closed the streets, and removed the ordnance after I pointed it out to a local. A month or two earlier and nobody would have come at all. This is one of my really close calls. I don’t like to think about it very much.
Can you tell me about your friend Ahmed?
Good guy, affiliated with Human Rights Watch (how we first met- he was walking up and down the front at Dafniyah), later became a fighter… other biographical details are really up to him.
You arrived in Libya around the time Tripoli had been captured, and just as Ramadan was starting. What was the mood among the people of Misrata after such an important victory for the NTC forces?
The air was electric. People dreamed of the future. Ramadan was great. I had a dinner invitation every night with a friend of mine in town. Fantastic guy, lovely family.
You then began to travel with the General Mohammed Schuety personal mechanized division, and he seemed to leave a very good impression with you?
Diary entry 25/08/11
The only outing that I have been on so far has been to Al Hyesha with the unit.
It was during this outing that the general really impress me.
The was no battle. The leap-frogging line of technicals pushing into the region only found two refugees.
It was what happened afterwards that impressed me. We found six bodies, perhaps a day old, on the side of the road. They were dressed in civilian clothes. Four were in a line and two were some meters distant.
The had been bound, their shoes taken, and executed. The General’s Lieutenant told me to stop filming. I did, though I continued to investigate. The General took great pains to film the entire crime scene. The four in a line had been neatly shot in the head and then the ropes cut off after they had died.
The two that ran died very slowly from gunshot injuries to the trunk – one drowning in his own vomit. At least, I presume they tried to run.
The one that drown was just a boy. The others had looks of terror frozen on their faces – the boy had one as though he had been cheated of something. I will never forget this. Afterwards, the general told me that I can’t listen to people who tell me to stop filming and that I should have continued.
Hopefully they capture this war criminal who killed these six men. All six were prisoners of war. Judging by the hasty feel of the scene it could not have been the work of more than one of two men.
Were the prisoner executions done by one side in particular, or did you see evidence that both sides were doing it?
There were many reports of executions by Qaddafi’s side during the war. I only saw physical evidence of this single grave but I assure you that many others have done their documentary work well.
In one of your videos you come across what appears to be a group of executed prisoners, can you tell me more about that?
Not really. Everything is captured in the subtitles I attached to the video. It really hurt my knees and back to jump down off of the truck like that, and you shouldn’t do that while wearing so much gear.
Did you travel with General Mohammed Schuety’s division to Sirte?
Yep. Filmed it, too, but have yet to upload the videos. It was like the traffic jam scene from ‘Field of Dreams’. An incredible river of technicals. I also filmed the taking of the main gate on the western front. A kid with a G-36 used a few of his precious 5.56 rounds to shoot the flags off of the structure.
At what point and under what circumstances did you begin to fight alongside the rebels?
The first day of the invasion of Sirte in terms of being armed. Only as part of an intense assault effort after meeting up with Dr. Tameem.
You met up with Dr Tameem again near Sirte?
Yes I did. We halted our convoy for the day. Forward elements had met some light resistance so the ambulance units had stopped and I found Dr. Tameem there. I snapped the attached photo when I found him. I also shot some video.
Everybody was exhausted. Among other things they had yanked most of the tail section of an RPG out of somebody. These were used as a cheap mortar system when fired in batteries. I was very tired as well. On the way there we had driven through a roadblock that had been hit by a NATO bomb.
Everything was a little charred and the ground was still smoking. There were sandbag fortifications. Very neat and orderly. Almost like a LEGO fort as you’d build as a kid. All of the people had died right in place. Pitched forward over sandbag walls, smashed into their heavy machinegun yet still prone, etc. Neat and orderly at their stations. They died in a position of vigilance, completely unaware.
The bodies themselves were all mangled to various degrees. They looked like a giant had stepped on them and rubbed his foot back and forth just a little before lifting it off. Things crushed. Pieces missing. A lot was hidden as many of the bodies had already been draped by rebels. Using their own uniform blouse to do this was popular but the ones at this checkpoint were draped with sections of Toyota Hilux body panelling. The only thing missing was a huge stone sculpture of the word ‘Iconic’.
Anyway, I climbed into his ambulance in the only space that was available. There was a body in back but also no choices. I rode most of the way back to Misrata on top of a still hot corpse zipped into a flimsy body bag. I felt him go tepid as we approached the city.
I was really hungry. I ate there, too. A snack cake Dr. Tameem had very generously given me. He saw me eyeballing it. In the video I filmed I’m half-leaning on top of a corpse. You can’t see that part. I made sure not to pan down. I had to go with him then or risk not being able to find him later. Period.
I remember pulling into the main hospital, newly relocated across the street from the Gostik, with him to unload the deceased. The people gathered there began chanting ‘Allah Hu Ackbar’ as they opened the rear of the ambulance. I could see them easily through the windows but because the interior was dark they couldn’t see me. I was ignored totally. They hauled the body out of the ambulance as I carefully scuttled out of the way and took it inside.
The feeling was like being at my own funeral. Not truly foreboding but certainly one of those moments. Just strange.
Was that the first time you had seen him since you had returned to Libya, or did you meet him in Misrata before he went to Tripoli?
Yes, that was the first time.
At that point did you leave General Mohammed Schuetys division and travel with Dr Tameem?
Immediately, though I never disconnected from their supply line. They kept Dr. Tameem, Tofeek, Mohommed the Demo Guy, and myself supplied with ammunition and other necessary supplies to keep operating as well as providing me with a billet and machine shop that I could use to maintain my weapons. They knew I would be joining their front line units in battle and they were fine with this. I was allowed to operate in whatever way I felt was most effective.
So you spent some time travelling back and forth between the outskirts of Sirte and Misrata with Dr. Tameem?
Yeah. We were commuters. We didn’t have the equipment to continue operating at night.
It was reported at the time that it was very difficult to enter Misrata without the correct permissions, did you experience this?
No. I knew all the right people and all of the right people thought pretty highly of me. Most folks helped me out whenever they could.
How did you get involved with the final advance into Sirte?
With Dr. Tameem and the rest of our team, ultimately, though I made the decision somewhat earlier. It was like being the smallest Katiba in the Kataeb. We had been granted total autonomy by Misrata and so we fought. I quickly gained the respect of the commanders on the western front as well as the fighters there by way of my prowess in combat and bravery. Together we closed in on our ‘Mystery VIP possibly Qaddafi’. When we began to encounter very well trained resistance I concluded that we definitely had a VIP bottled up in the city. I just didn’t know who exactly but I had my suspicions.
With regard to the how and the why of the decision? I felt it was a just cause. That my participation would ultimately do some good. I have a video interview with the New York Times floating around somewhere that never saw the light of day where I explain myself a bit better. I talk about artillery versus a marksman to silence a heavy machinegun while I’m handing out water to Sirte refugees at Kubre Estada. If you can figure out where this footage went that would be huge. There’s also the Japanese newsguy footage from Benghazi.
Credit where credit is due. Without the logistical support of my hosting Katiba none of this would have been possible. It’s really hard to talk about any kind of hierarchical organization because it was a collective war effort. I had their blessing as well. I’d run into them in Sirte now and again. They were first class front line units. So while I was operating with Dr. Tameem, ultimately, it was only by virtue of having the full logistical support of the Katiba. They rocked. So to be clear the Katiba was still supplying me with food, bullets, and a billet until the very end even though I was operating with Dr. Tameem and his crew as a small, fast unit instead of with the Katiba as part of a slower and less maneuverable heavy attack unit. I think they felt I was more effective in this role.
How did you acquire your sniper rifle?
A black guy gave it to me. I know this sounds like a flip response but it’s actually true. A black guy I met only once or twice gave it to me.
Was it unusual to find rebels armed with sniper rifles?
There was actually a small squad of them I ran around with while in the Sirte agricultural outskirts for a while. The commander (sniper commander, Sheikh a da Hornas) spoke great English and always provided good target intel.
Did you have any specific responsibilities when you were fighting with the rebels?
Neutralize all emergent threats. Snipers, machinegunners, and heavy weapons.
Did you see much evidence of NATO activity around Sirte?
At that point in the conflict how did the rebels feel about NATO?
Magical unseen sky giants that would sometimes smash things on the ground. NATO was treated like a force of nature. Even among the English speakers with good mastery of pronouns it was always ‘*the* NATO’ in conversation. Like ‘the rain’ or ‘the wind’. This was ‘the NATO’.
Did you get a sense that the rebels had more direct contact with NATO during the fighting in Sirte?
No. A NATO airstrike radio would have helped enormously. I could have directed accurate bomb strikes on enemy positions and spared a lot of bloodshed.
Did you see any evidence that NATO had killed civilians in Sirte, or elsewhere?
Nope. The only dead I saw were uniformed other than those I saw at Al Hyesha.
How did the rebels feel about the people coming out of Sirte? Did they regard them as Gaddafi loyalist?
Some regarded them with a lot of suspicion. Others were a lot more magnanimous. A simple ‘Hallas’, bottle of water, and a snack cake as well as a finger pointing to the next checkpoint.
While clearing structures in Sirte the rebels I was with were very humane. Civilians were questioned and not molested. Many were allowed to walk off free. One is captured on film doing just this. I also didn’t see any looting of non-military items from homes.
We only had one problem and that was a house that contained an extended family. An old man, some women, and a kid in his late teens or early twenties who looked terrified and pale. He was probably involved with Qaddafi’s guys before his folks pulled him out. They initially just screamed at us and slammed the gate.
Given what we had found in the other homes I thought we were about to get lit up. I handed my grenade to the squad leader and he just looked at me, smiled, shook his head, and said: ‘No.’ before pounding on the gate again. They spoke more, the kid was taken away for about ten minutes to be questioned before being returned, and then we left them in their home as we moved on down the block.
I didn’t fork over my grenade wholesale. I offered it to him. I understand how screwed up this seems given who was there but I didn’t want the scared kid to pop out of an upper window with a PKT. Everybody there was capable of handling a weapon. Doesn’t take a lot. Most homes we had so far searched were chock full of guns.
It seemed like opening a grenade attack option up to the squad leader was prudent. We had a few RPG guys but those don’t work as well in tight quarters. You eat your own blast nearer than 40 meters.
How do you think the rebels felt having to attack Sirte? Did they expect strong resistance?
Euphoria. The end was in sight. It’s like when the allies were finally driving in on Berlin during WW II.
What did the rebels think of the Gaddafi forces they were fighting in Sirte?
Everybody was just tired. People surrendering were sort of listlessly taken into custody. The atmosphere was about as hopeless as you’d find in Starship Troopers as were the scales of engagement.
Did many people believe Gaddafi or any regime members were hiding in Sirte?
No. People had their money on Bani Walid. I said Sirte because of the man’s personality. I know of some of his stuff rebroadcast on NPR and I’m familiar with his peculiar auxiliary appetites pertaining to his superman complex as well as his legendary legacy-oriented vanity. Based on this I guessed ‘grand last stand somewhere personally symbolic’ and chose Sirte. The ocean access also afforded a possible surrender/escape route so it seemed logical.
Did you see the mood of the rebel fighters change as the fighting went on?
Yeah. It’s pretty clear in my videos, actually. Everybody eventually got into this ‘We are all going to die here’ attitude while we were still fighting through the agricultural outskirts. It was very brutal combat.
How was the advanced organised? Were you part of a specific group, or did you just join other rebels heading in the same direction?
Several rebel units heading in the same direction. I never got an accurate count of commanders. I spent some time running around with a bunch of snipers and all of the commanders basically treated me like another commander with respect to passing along target intelligence and responding to fire mission requests. I often found myself literally leading the assault. As in pointman for everything. This wasn’t really the intention but it sure did work out well because wherever I went territory got captured.
So tactically and strategically I was basically like ‘Liberty Prime’ from Fallout 3. At least until we got into the urban environments. This was only possible because I had a much greater engagement range than the guys I was fighting. I could stand up to their fire and aim my shots.
In some videos you appear to also be directing artillery, is that correct?
Yeah. I’m trying to put fire on a building that we’re taking SPG fire from.
How co-ordinated were the rebel artillery attacks?
They were guided by a loose sense of civic pride and common ideas.
Even with months of experience in their operation I’d imagine the various vehicles with rocket pods welded onto them weren’t very accurate?
Not really. The grad rockets were pretty damn decent. There was one guy who could hit targets accurately from almost the maximum range of the rocket system. Generally speaking, though, they were all attacking an area target. Most people didn’t have the training required (or stable enough firing platforms) to hit far targets with these systems.
I didn’t observe any traffic from a forward observer to these guys. In fact, I’d say the artillery was more of a community pot-luck event. My favorite technical was a taxi-cab minivan that somebody had put a single rocket pod rocket tube on top of. Right on the roof over the driver’s side. Anyway, this guy hops out, and with a huge grin he fires his one rocket in the general direction of Sirte, and then leaves.
Grads, the full sized grads, would often hit the near wall rather than continue into Sirte. I even saw one puke out onto the ground only ten meters ahead of the launcher. It vanished in a huge cloud of dirt. It’s probably still buried there. I looked around and it was just gone. I didn’t really explore because I didn’t want to step on it but I could not see it. It burrowed.
The worst rocket artillery accident happened inside of Sirte itself. The day Dr. Tameem and I first arrived there. Same day I got blown up by that RPG on the roof and got blast concussion.
Tofeek and I were in this alley near the burning tire store (green building) when suddenly this ball of orange fire went rocketing, roaring actually, by at street level. As in on the street. A huge amount of smoke and debris accompanied it. Newspapers and all kinds of crap. Then another. And then another. They were grads.
They were puking the grads out of the tubes so low that they were hitting concrete and taking off at ankle level down main street in Sirte. I was wondering when one would finally clip a chunk of debris and detonate broadside to our alley and kill all of us when they finally stopped.
There were also crossfire problems between Benghazi and Misrata units later in the battle.
You came across abandoned uniforms, did you you see an increase in these apparent desertions as the conflict went on?
They were literally everywhere. The gas stop just outside of Kubre Estada (traditional on our drive back) was also my primary piss stop. Since there wasn’t a latrine I would just go into this little concrete outbuilding and piss on an old Qaddafi uniform.
Eventually the explanation I was given was that Qaddafi’s guys had such a ridiculous number of uniforms that it was easier for them to discard rather than wash. This seemed consistent with the uniforms I saw on dead Qaddafi troops. They appeared to still have their packaging creases.
I’ve seen a lot of clips of rebels firing RPGs into the far distance, was that an effective tactic?
Not really, no. Unless you’re directly in front of the path of the RPG or the RPG detonates within a few meters you will be uninjured. Did you see the little black poof of smoke with the yellow smoke cone sticking out of one side whenever an RPG would pop? That’s how you can tell how they were oriented. The yellow smoke indicates which way the shaped charge blew the copper forming cone.
RPGs are way more effective if you aim or can effectively sabotage the self destruct mechanism. The only times I ever saw these things do damage is when they managed to hit the ground again. When they hit they hit about as hard as a 60 MM HE mortar, based on feel. I’ve been blown up by both. From about the same distance, too. I got blast peppering wounds and a mild blast concussion but nothing else.
There were reports of some groups of rebels looting homes of suspected Gaddafi supporters in and around Sirte, did you see or hear anything like that?
Yeah, but only the weapons. I saw no theft of jewelry or other personal effects (and let me tell you something, digging through people’s lives is weird. It was like Pripyat.) though I did see a couple of very young kids attempting to steal a car from Sirte.
Apparently it was their goal during this war as they were young and, well, first car. They were encircled and shamed by other fighters pretty rapidly. So no, I saw nothing like that from the Misrata brigades. Didn’t fight directly alongside the Benghazi guys much. The major difference seemed to be equipment quality. Benghazi’s military hardware was massively superior to the jury rigged shit that Misrata was fighting with. It is a credit to them that they fought so well anyway.
The Doostang Heavy Industries power plant was very heavily damaged by rebel occupation. It was an extremely convenient staging and barracks facility near Sirte. Koreans also know how to live. These guys were running crab pots off the coast, we found this rocky point that had a couple of very nice hardwood deck chairs set up on it, and all along the beach you’d find empty bottles of booze. 55 gallon drum barbecue grills were plentiful. There was also a driving range in addition to the beautiful stretch of beach they had.
One group of kids began walking around with golf clubs. The power station complex was so large that various parts were occupied by different Katibas. One day this group of golfers showed up on a quest of exploration, complete with goggle eyes. It was like ‘The Warriors’.
You have a number of videos where you visit ammo dumps near Sirte. Was there any evidence that the ammo and weapons stored there had been looted by people other than the rebels, for example, so they could be sold?
I have no idea. Nobody leaves receipts.
Was anyone guarding any of the ammo dumps you came across?
What sort of equipment did you come across in the ammo dumps?
It was mostly mortars, rockets, 106 MM ammunition, and other common items but you’d sometimes find exotic stuff like that stubby seemingly wire guided missile. I believe somebody identified that but I’d have to look at the video comments. There was a lot of unidentifiable stuff and everything was always available there in huge quantity.
Were there any particular dangers in an urban environment like Sirte City Centre you didn’t face elsewhere?
Yes. Extensive backblast hazards. Nobody ever checked their backblast area before firing an RPG or recoiless and there was shattered glass everywhere. I also had a rebel trip and almost waste me with his AK-47. This was on video. Luckily his trigger discipline was good. He was backing up and stumbled.
From the above video of a Gaddafi billboard being destroyed at this location it looks like you managed to get quite close to the area where Gaddafi was hiding in Sirte, did you manage to get much further into the city after that?
No. Dr. Tameem got taken out by a heavy machinegunner we were challenging as we pushed into Sector 2. He’s still recovering. Severe leg wound. The kind with a recovery measured in years.
Can you explain what happened after Dr. Tameem was injured?
Well, Dr. Tameem and I were advancing up the main street. We were at this location. We were crossing the street to get a shot on a machine gunner that had us pinned down. We met with the commander there and he briefed us on the target and told us that rebels on the other side of the street could see him. Every so often a modified sedan, windshield punched out and PKT on the dashboard, would race up the street firing before rapidly reversing away. They were more wieldy than the trucks in these tight quarters.
There was a photojournalist there by the name of Frank. We’d met once before, briefly. The team and I were getting ready to begin our attack when he fucking jumps into our truck and demands a ride. We’re kinda in the middle of something so whatever, we drive. We’re going to dismount anyway.
Except then he starts giving us orders. Telling us to wait for more trucks (you know, bunch up in an artillery field so the mortars can kill us better) and other shit like that. I told him how dumb that was and that we were already going. He got out at the last gate after becoming scared like a small child.
So, back to that street in Sirte. There he is again taking pictures. Okay, fine.
Dr. Tameem takes off across the street. I wait a bit so we’re not in a clump and am about to go when suddenly he pitches over face forward. I thought he’d tripped but he’d been shot. Tofeek and I hauled him back to the curb. I started to cut his pants off with my paramedic shears when Frank decided to push me aside to take pictures of the leg. Then Frank started telling me to “GET OUT OF HERE” and that I wasn’t helping and a lot of other shit.
So Tofeek and I are trying to work on Dr. Tameem and this shithead is making trouble. I ignored him, kinda shouldered him out of the way and kept cutting. I got Dr. Tameem’s pants off. Tofeek had panicked and put a tourniquet on without evaluating the bleeding. I was replacing it with one of my much better tourniquets (he was using an ace wrap) when I saw that the bleeding had stopped spontaneously so I just removed all of them so as not to cost Dr. Tameem a leg. I examined his leg and saw that his tibia was in three pieces. He had a complicated compound fracture. We were safe behind cover and I didn’t want to move him. I was about to get Tofeek to head to the truck with me to get a litter and a SAM-E splint when Frank the douchebag grabbed Dr. Tameem by his floppy mangled leg and started screaming: “GO! GO! GO!”
The Benghazi fighters who were with him immediately lept to and grabbed the screaming Dr. Tameem by whatever chunks of flesh or shirt or pants were handy and began to rush him away even though he wasn’t critical and all they were doing was grinding around his bone fragments which is probably why he has such bad nerve damage today.
Every time we got to an alley or were about to leave cover I’d pause to evaluate for threats. I tried, anyway. Frank is a pusher. He shoved me from behind basically all the way back to the trucks. So he could feel important. Like a big man. Every time I wondered if I was about to die. I got a burn on my left arm this way from one of the buildings he insisted we hustle past.
We got Dr. Tameem to some ambulances and loaded him, leg unsplinted. I’d put some Celox on the wound in case bleeding resumed and Tofeek and I managed to wrap it before Frank’s hero tantrum. The last thing I said to him in Sirte was: “do you want morphine!?” which he said yes to and which we fixed up for him, Tofeek and I, before sending him on his way.
I had a brief conference with the others. Tofeek and Mohommed the Demo guy were staying to fight. Heitham was bugging out with Dr. Tameem.
I was going to go have a chat with a photographer. So, I marched right back up that street and when Frank saw me the first thing he did was panic. He pointed at me and said: “AMERICANSKI MUSHKARA!” followed by some more complicated Arabic that I couldn’t follow. This was upon spotting me. I hadn’t said or done anything yet. Not even a mean look. I didn’t want to lose the initiative. The rebels he yelled this at just ignored him. They had somewhat shocked looks on their faces.
I thought about blowing his fucking brains out. Kicking him hard and knocking him into the street and letting the PKT gunner do it. It would have been so damn easy and I was so angry. I was there to do a job with my team, the one I had fucking fought and bled with to get to that place, and he fucked everything he possibly could for me. He fucked with my spotter. You don’t do that. After the rebels failed to remove me, or even pay attention to him, he said: “Hey, why don’t you get the fuck out of here and fight? That’s why you’re here, right? Go fight, go fight over there!” and pointed at the killzone of that PKT gunner.
I took a breath and the red mist passed. That’s when I decided to just fuck up his ability to take pictures and force him to leave. I thought about throwing his camera out into the street but he might have gone after it and I had already decided not to grease this shit despite the fact that he had 1) involved himself in combat and 2) did shit that I can only imagine would have been done by one of Qaddafi’s spies.
So I’d slap his camera whenever he tried to aim. Smacked him a few times. He was such a little bitch.
That’s when about a half dozen Benghazi guys jumped me and began pounding me with their weapons. The armor worked well. I was minimally injured. The humiliating part was when they held my arms to give Frank a few licks. He bashed me over the head with his camera a couple of times before finally scoring a hit on my head through the little ‘shooter’s cut’ gap in the back.
After the Benghazi guys grabbed me my main concern was controlling my weapons. Making sure my rifle didn’t get grabbed by Frank, making sure nobody yanked the pin on my grenade, that kind of thing. Sucks just having to stand there and get your ass kicked before getting hauled off to a POW camp.
The best part was when Frank stole my headlamp as a parting gesture. He and the other photographer he was up there with gave me mean little kid smiles as I was dragged into an alley.
This guy is very, very fucking dangerous. I’m pretty sure he would have killed me if he thought he could get away with it. Hopefully he pisses off the wrong people in his next warzone and somebody takes that opportunity to orphan his children. They’d be doing them a favor. Think about how he handled Dr. Tameem. If I see him again I anticipate he might try to shoot me or otherwise kill me. He was pretty unambiguous on Facebook.
Anyway, there I was without my walking talking passport Dr. Tameem facing down… Benghazi guys. Fucking fantastic. None of these guys know me.
So, there I am in the alley and this guy says: “Give me your fighter card right now or I will send you to the jail!” except I was still a bit dazed and only managed a weak smile. I explained about Dr. Tameem and he sent me off with two fighters to a vehicle. Before they shut the door another rebel, one I knew from the advance, a guy I’d ridden with before, walked up to the window and fixed me with a hard glare. He then drew his finger slowly across his throat.
A lot of thoughts went through my head at that moment. I faced my own death well. No crying or begging or any of that shit. About ten seconds later he grinned widely and laughed at me. Then left.
Shortly after the truck I was in immediately began to get shot up by the same PKT gunner.
I still had my armor on and my escorts didn’t. I remember thinking as I heard those rounds pinging off of the engine block: “Okay, if these guys get killed and I don’t I’m just going to walk back to where Heitham and the others last were and catch a ride back. Misrata can deal with this shit. I’m done.” except they didn’t die so… I know how bad this sounds but please try to understand where my head was.
I ended up at a small FOB on the Benghazi side where my sniper credentials got gut checked. They had me fire on a few stationary targets before examining my trigger finger and determining that I was indeed the real deal. I’ve fired a lot of rounds through a lot of platforms. Do that for long enough and you get a calloused up finger. He smiled when he felt it.
After that I was taken to Benghazi’s operations center where I met with several Sheikhs and was held for several days in pretty good comfort. I was filthy and hurt from battle. Exhausted. No way to clean myself so I just got more and more rancid smelling as the days dragged on. I was told that they couldn’t let me fight because, oh my word, what if I were killed? They seemed to think the US would somehow care about this. They don’t. He said I could stay as a journalist or aid worker but not as a fighter. Since Dr. Tameem was wounded and my team shattered… time to pack it up, I decided.
Ultimately they decided to send me to Benghazi but instead they just drove me to the front line in Sirte and told me to find somebody from my Katiba to drive me back. They dumped me there with no armor on and heavy incoming sniper fire. I’ve never gotten dressed so fast in all of my life. Dick move for such professional soldiers as you see from Benghazi. I ultimately found a guy and hitched out.
I ended up at a FOB (forward operating base) on the Misrata side from which I hitchhiked all the way back to Misrata from a numbered gate that I don’t recall the number of.
I got back to the Katiba, a ton of drama happened that I don’t really understand, the people there were super angry about what had happened to me and wanted Benghazi blood. They swore that they’d get my rifle back. I calmed them down and explained that I didn’t want to see this turn into a second civil war and ended combat operations. I left the katiba (amicably) and spent the remainder of the war staying with a friend in the city.
After a while, as the fighting continued, I began to make plans to try to reunite with Heitham and reconstitute what we could before returning to battle. I even found a replacement PSL, though the safety was broken and the iron sights were bent. The person who bequeathed it to me told me that it shot straight. That’s all you need. Qaddafi was captured not long after this and the war appeared over. I made plans to return home. I was out of cash (again) at this point but luckily one of my friends at the Katiba saw fit to pay for my air fare to Tunisia.
I know people will compare Frank and myself, but I want to point out the big difference between his introduction to medicine and mine.
I was invited. He wasn’t. I followed directions. He bowled over two medics to fuck up a doctor and take some porno shots of a mangled leg. I still have Dr. Tameem’s goddamned blood all over my boots and several pieces of medic kit I can’t afford to replace.
I later ran into him on Facebook. He eventually blocked me but not before spewing some quality hatred about how he would fucking kill me and how he was so close to crushing my skull in and adding a war tourist kill to his belt. Then he blocked me. The comments may still be up if you’re lucky. I was very professional about it and just calmly explained everything he had caused to happen.
Oh yeah, I also made ‘The Tape’ while in POW camp. So fucking embarrassing that I cracked up after so few days in such soft confinement. The situation seemed perfectly salvageable and reasonable, however. Ultimately it was. It’s probably not very fair to call it a POW camp. None of the units present at the operations center were involved in my pummeling and honestly I did totally lie to Sheikh Ahmed about that happening (by saying it didn’t) because I didn’t want any more shit on my plate. For me or for his guys. I guess you had to be on that little corner in Sirte getting shot at to understand.
I need to seriously work on myself. This is not a commentary on my treatment but I may have a SERE deficiency. Hard thing to check, you know? A lot of journalists have done much harder time.
Do you still keep in contact with Dr Tameem and other people you met in Libya?
A few of them. They’re doing good. A few people I don’t know how to reach. Presumably they’re well.
How is Dr Tameem’s recovery going?
Pretty well, all things considering. It was a terrible injury. The wound channel in his leg has become a fistula. They can’t fix it until the braces come off.
What injuries did you receive during your time in Libya?
A lot of blast peppering and a couple of blast concussions. Minor burns and abrasions. I’m retaining some shrapnel. One piece is pretty easy to see stuck in my shoulder. I squeezed it out of my Deltoid muscle while doing military presses at the local gym. It wasn’t visible under the skin before and I think I remember when it expressed itself at the gym. It’s kind of a gnarly shape. This one is from a near miss with a 7.62x54R incoming round. Clipped one of the cement cylinders Dr. Tameem and I fought from for a while and spalled me. Looks like a chunk of bullet and some jacket. I had it figured for gravel initially. It’s somewhat bigger than I thought but looking at the ‘scar hole’… eh.
I haven’t been able to afford to have these investigated, ironically enough. Based on my own assessment and experience with these injuries I’m probably going to be okay. Shoulder is a little stiff sometimes, though. That shrapnel is definitely moving around a little, still. I can feel it burn sometimes. Who knows what other treats I have stuck in my arms.
Where you surprised when Gaddafi was caught inside Sirte?
I figured there was a VIP in the city but maybe not Qaddafi himself. It could have just been a holding action to cover his escape but I had this feeling that somebody so obsessed with symbols and grandiose gestures and the cult of them would probably finish things out with a big symbolic gesture. So Sirte. I also couldn’t imagine an overland escape working out for them. Sirte was seaside.
Did the Libyans you spoke to tell you what they hoped for in a post-Gaddafi Libya?
Almost all the time. Mostly for the things they didn’t have under the regime which I detail in an earlier question.
How do you feel about recent reports about human rights abuses in Misrata and other cities?
Not surprised and now just kinda sick. Jerry Erwin and I passed through an active torture site while I was in Misrata in June. It was an accidental side stop. The place was surreal. The vehicles had ‘CIA’ written in dirt smudge on the running boards (like a ‘wash me’ on a car). I wasn’t sure if some Libyans got together and decided to play CIA or what. I have no idea why somebody would mark their cars like that. Maybe to be really scary.
The screams were pretty loud. Jerry didn’t know what was going on and I’m pretty sure the driver didn’t think it was a big deal to drive us out to this site as he’d only be a moment.
I only got worried when a guy who resembled a “doctor” walked out and began to make for our vehicle.
I’m pretty good at thinking fast. I didn’t want him to think we were human rights guys or journalists or we might end up on the table next. So I hopped out of the vehicle, pulled a scalpel out of my medic bag, and asked him if he needed some help. He looked confused, said ‘La, la.’ and ambled casually back into the building. Screaming resumed. The site was on the beach between Dafnia and Misurata. No geotag or anything. I was in survival mode. Again.
Our driver came back shortly after that and we were off.
Given the US military’s history with torture I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything or judge them.
Using the NGO to keep the interrogation going was a shit move, though. Gee, I wonder if it is because all of the Misurata docs refused in some way as to avoid political fallout? Hmmmmmm. Peculiar.
What are your feelings towards the NTC?
Good luck. If you can keep this democracy from dying in the cradle you’ve made it. You need to address your bonus marchers. If you read US history you’ll understand what I mean by this. My advice is to start issuing educational bonds and other ‘people development’ type things. You can’t be a thewar forever.
Do you think NATO intervention was an essential part of the rebel victory, or do you think they could have won without NATO intervention?
They could have won without but it would have been so much bloodier and messier. The tactical mistake that allowed the rebels to win was not sending troops to occupy Misrata. The port was key. It is said that upon learning that Misrata had fallen Qaddafi turned to his generals and placed a glass of water on the table. He spilled the glass and said to them: ‘Now put all of the water back into the glass. This is Misrata.’
You can’t bomb all of them and they really were going to fight to the last man.
Have you ever received payment from the NTC, foreign governments, or any other groups?
No, I paid out of pocket for everything. I received approximately $80 in donations through my rather short-lived web portal. These funds I mark as having gone towards the huge santa-like bag of medical supplies I brought and distributed. I am honoring refund requests given how the mission changed but so far nobody has made one. I also received donations from truly random Libyans on the street which I found very peculiar. Once I was given several hundred dinars while I was just standing there waiting for a ride to the Dafniyah front line. It really helped. He spoke good English and simply said that he supported what I was doing there.
Would you do it all again?
Yeah. Governments should serve their people’s interests. They shouldn’t make their people serve theirs’. I couldn’t abide the things I saw.
I am not a man who reclines, when things get bad, into a nice comfy chair of shielded ambivalence. People in the US let horrible shit happen because they’re just so comfortable. Seems so far away. Is so far away, much of the time. Even when it happens inside of the US.
Then they go utterly batshit over completely insignificant things when stuff gets slightly uncomfortable. “Fuck you, got mine.” Should replace “In God we Trust.” on the money.
I hope I helped to make a new stable African democracy. My heart is going to break if the nation fails. I hope they capitalize their wealth and trade with the world. You really can create wealth. You’re supposed to do it with your brain in the form of ideas.
In the short term? Maybe if you bust up enough ‘moneypot ant’ dictators on the Med maybe the Eurozone crisis will go away with nobody getting screwed other than people who deserve it. In theory. You have to remember that the United States set up a lot of these guys at one point or another. Nurtured them. Maybe I’m just a garbage man.
People are not a commodity. One day I hope to extinguish this belief from the face of the earth.
Eliot Higgins is the founder of Bellingcat and the Brown Moses Blog. Eliot focuses on the weapons used in the conflict in Syria, and open source investigation tools and techniques.