Inside Gaddafi's Libya: The Return

Libyans carry a body bag containing the remains of a loyalist fighter believed to have been killed in a NATO bombing before the capture of Muammar Gaddafi in the Libyan town of Sirte on Oct. 22, 2011.</p>

Libyans carry a body bag containing the remains of a loyalist fighter believed to have been killed in a NATO bombing before the capture of Muammar Gaddafi in the Libyan town of Sirte on Oct. 22, 2011.

GlobalPost correspondent James Foley spent 44 days in captivity inside Muammar Gaddafi's Libya. This is the sixth chapter of his story. For the full series, click here.

SIRTE, Libya — I knew I’d return to Libya. While we were locked up in Tripoli, Clare, Manu and I all vowed we’d come back. I knew I had to do it both personally and professionally. I just didn’t want to tell people right away. I didn’t want people to think I was crazy, and I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t first.

Back at my parent’s house in New Hampshire, sometimes I couldn’t sleep. And sometimes I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. It took me a month to come to terms with the guilt I felt over the decisions we made that led to Anton being shot that day. And it wore on me that we were forced to keep it a secret for some 44 days.

It also took more than a month to thank all the friends and family who had done simply extraordinary things to assist in our release. By thanking them I was able to speak openly about my emotional struggles, and each conversation helped me to process what we’d been through. I’ve always thought that if I hadn’t spoken openly about everything, it would have taken me much longer to forgive myself.

Still, Libya was always on my mind. On the day in late August when I read that the western oil town of Zawiya was about to fall, I had a feeling that the scattered, uncoordinated rebels were somehow about to strike the decisive blow; that the fall of Tripoli was near. Clare had the same feeling. In phone calls we shared our anguish over not being able to get back to see the fall of Tripoli in time.

We had been planning to go immediately following Anton’s memorial on Sept. 9. But Tripoli collapsed in days due to internal revolt throughout the capital’s neighborhoods and a mass abandoning of positions by forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi. The Libyans had again defied expectations — moving quickly when you expected them to inch ahead. I felt sick watching the looting of Baab Al Ziza live from the GlobalPost offices in Boston.

I resolved to get back in as soon as I could. I didn’t even have my new passport ready until the day before I left the States. And then on a dark night with some other reporters, I felt my heart race as we crossed over from Tunisia in a rented van. I was back in Libya, the place that had changed my life and almost cost it. And I just wished I’d returned sooner.

Instead, on Aug. 25 I witnessed the Corinthia, Tripoli’s five-star hotel, saddled by intermittent electricity, no running water and overflowing with journalists, some of whom were camping on couches in the lobby. I met Matthew Van Dyke the first night in the cavernous lobby, still in his black prison clothes and looking as gaunt and traumatized as one of the articles described him when he was first spotted wandering around Tripoli.

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I scrambled around Tripoli to get some stories. Trying to follow up on how many black Africans had been imprisoned in wake of the regime’s collapse. I stumbled upon the prison where Clare, Manu and I had first been held. A rebel guard inside told me that Richard Peters, the voice who had prayed with us through the electrical socket, had escaped days before and was still in the neighborhood. Amazed, I asked the new guard to guide me to Richard.

When I first laid eyes on Richard, he was kind of as I imagined him — big, outgoing, sporting a Fu Manchu moustache, with the muscles of a Navy SEAL warrior even in his 60s. He’d been imprisoned for six months, had been reduced to eating dates and fending off rats coming out of the prison drain. When all the guards fled in late August, he escaped by drop kicking his cell door some 30 times. I wouldn’t have believed it unless I saw the concrete encrusted door laid Lazarus-like beside the cell.

In prison, he told everyone he was trying to leave Libya by driving from Tripoli to Egypt. It never made sense to Clare and I that he would head through the middle of a war zone in order to exit it. The regime clearly suspected Richard of heading East to help train the rebels. It ended up being true.

Richard even told me he had the name of a rebel contact in his belongings when he was arrested trying to leave Tripoli, and managed to crumple the slip of paper and throw it in the dirt before they found it. If they had found it, it most likely would have been the evidence they needed to execute him as an American spy.

Among all the journalists crowded inside the hotel, I waited for Manu. When he appeared shaggy haired and smoking at a table of Spaniards in the grand dining room, we shared a long hug. I hadn’t seen him since we were all separated at the Rixos at the end of May. Like the natural he was, Manu jumped into what was going on in Tripoli and started shooting prison stories with fellow photographers Ricardo and Guiem.

Quickly, it seemed that the rebels were converging to assault the loyalist holdouts of Bani Walid and Sirte. I thirsted to get close to the action. With all that had happened to us, I wanted to prove I could cover combat again without getting captured or killed. But the reality is that yet again the guns and death were like a tractor beam pulling us closer. If more battles were coming, I wanted to be there.

Bani Walid was frustrating. The usual variety of rebel groups under chaotic mastheads converged on the mountainous tribal area, which reminded me of a miniature Afghanistan. But the rebels were all united in the idea that they didn’t want journalists close to the frontlines. Manu and I tried to sneak in with groups driving toward the front a few times, and rebel commanders yelled at us like we were criminals. After almost two weeks of trying to get close to the action from two different sides, I was offered a ride and left Bani Walid for Sirte.

We’d heard all kinds of rumors about Sirte — from rebel uprisings brutally suppressed, to a ring of loyalist tanks disguised in animal skins. Sirte was an artificial, almost fantastical Gaddafi-land filled with soon-to-be-destroyed posh hotels and bungalows with seaside views. Africans who’d been granted Libyan citizenship decades ago lived next to families from loyalist tribes that owned nice Toyotas and hung Gaddafi posters in their kids’ rooms. For being so loyal to Gaddafi, they enjoyed one of the best standards of living in Libya.

Manu, Clare and I had been held in Sirte for three days — we’d arrived bound and blindfolded with blood still on our faces — and held in the basement cells of the internal security building before being moved to Tripoli. I had no idea what Sirte actually looked like. But I would after covering the battle for more than a month. There was little doubt Sirte was going to be taken by the famous black-truck Misrata brigades, which would certainly be anxious to avenge the thousands that were killed by Gaddafi forces in their own city.

More from GlobalPost: Libya: Rebels push into central Sirte

The second day I arrived in Misrata with a team from the AFP. We followed some Misratan brigades on a desert convoy south and straight into battle with a loyalist town called Wadi Bey. The trucks inched to the edge of the town and then stopped. We waited. Then seemingly prompted by the delay in negotiations, the trucks flew forward, ours caught in the middle, as the rebels blasted straight at Wadi Bey with heavy guns. We managed to get our driver and truck behind cover and followed far back from the young guys in flip-flops running to launch rocket-propelled grenades.

Andrea, an AFP video reporter and myself made some excursions ahead, and the risk of it felt real. I was doing what I felt I’d come back to Libya to do — recapture the feeling and importance of reporting from the front lines. The next day the battle for Sirte began in earnest. It was to be much more of a beast than even the Misrata fighters expected, and the reasons are now known worldwide.

We were there from the beginning. With Andrea and Dominique, an AFP writer, commuting the two and a half hours between Sirte and Misrata every evening. The battle looked particularly vicious even from the start. The outskirts were defended with invisible sniper fire and rockets. After Andrea and I had taken some risks to get closer one afternoon, we returned to the field hospital to see Oliver, a French colleague who had been severely wounded. He was moaning on the bloodied tile.

A rocket-propelled grenade at close range had hit him. It shocked the hell out of us to see him there about to die from doing the same thing we had just been doing — trying to get up-close combat footage. It all felt very foolish of us. His wife, an on-air reporter, was there and had to be held back from seeing him at first, while Libyan doctors seemed to save his life several times.

Two days after Oliver was stabilized, we had an accident as we were fleeing Sirte. Gaddafi’s long-distance missiles pounded closer and as we retreated in the late afternoon, our 18-year old driver wasn’t able to avoid a rebel truck that had turned into our lane. I had a moment to see it, but Andrea and Francisco, another AFP photographer, did not.

We smashed hard into the rebel truck. Andrea’s leg appeared broken and Francisco had a serious gash to his forehead. They had to be rushed back to the field hospital at an abandoned gas station. But as more loyalist rockets began to target the hospital, we were forced to flee with the evacuating doctors.

The injuries to friends were especially sobering after what had happened to Oliver. Sirte seemed unpredictably dangerous. Even so, I could only tell myself to step back, not actually do it. Manu had arrived with the Spanish photographers and they were constantly pushing ahead. When Clare showed up two weeks later, it seemed fateful. We had been waiting and wondering about her.

Misrata had begun its revenge against Sirte. The rebels would make unpredictable pauses in the assault to apparently allow Sirte families a chance to flee. Then they’d begin shelling again.

Matthew Van Dyke emerged when the Benghazi brigades arrived and penetrated into Sirte from the eastern front a few weeks later. He looked 10 times better and more confident now in full rebel regalia and behind a mounted machine gun turret. He spoke of close calls at a rebel-occupied hotel and also of not wanting to fire randomly like other rebels. It seemed he wanted to be a principled soldier in the western sense but also to be a hero in the Libyan sense.

As Misrata and Benghazi fighters blew into the concentric Sirte defenses, it began to get more and more dangerous. John, a charming British photographer, who stayed with a Katiba in a commandeered house, had had an eardrum blown out when an RPG skirted through his legs on an earlier assault. When the rebels tried a frontal assault on a huge governmental complex known as Ougadugo, snipers on two sides of a defensive wall pinned them down for days. Clare and I saw a man shot in the head not 15 feet away from us. Later that afternoon I was running across the gate and a mortar hit. When I couldn’t find her, I had a terrible feeling that Clare had been thrown in the ambulance that roared away. Manu and I found her minutes later, and we all jumped in a stripped down jeep as gunfire spurted across our path and the rebel driver floored it straight ahead, with us ducked down hugging the stripped metal siding.

More form GlobalPost: Civilians flee besieged Sirte

We should have been thinking about why Sirte was so well defended. The rebels insisted it was because Motassim Gaddafi, Gaddafi’s third son, was still inside Sirte. Lutfi, an intense, Misrata fighter, who mostly worked alone, insisted others had heard Mottasim commanding troops on the loyalist radio channels. We believed it initially.

Of course when Gaddafi himself was captured later that day, in that wild orgy of blood and celebration, I was shocked. I didn’t really believe it until I saw the first ghastly picture of him on Arab TV, after seeing his golden gun in the hands of a man at the field hospital and interviewing another who claimed he’d ridden in the ambulance with the dying dictator. Lutfi said he wouldn’t have believed it unless he saw Gaddafi dragged onto the hood of a Misrata truck by a seething, jubilant crowd with his own eyes.

Our sometimes driver, Adam, said he joyously kicked Gaddafi as revenge for the three cousins who had been killed and a brother who’d lost his arm. Manu and I actually saw Mottassim dead in the back of a truck at the field hospital after all the other reporters had headed to Misrata. The rebels said we couldn’t take pictures, while Libyans snapped as many as they wanted and rejoiced. Manu suggested we had to head back to Misrata immediately to see where they were holding Gaddafi’s body. He felt burned that he didn’t have a picture of him yet.

Around midnight, Clare managed to sneak into a house where some kind of commander was hosting a viewing of Gaddafi’s corpse. She looked satisfied when she returned to those of us hadn’t managed to get in. The body was then moved around Misrata like a prized trophy. With each move, Gaddafi’s battered, executed corpse looked more presentable and the atmosphere more resembled a state funeral.

I wouldn’t see Gaddafi’s body until three days later, waiting with all the media and TV crews and Libyan women and children outside that Misrata meat locker for a peak. And still I felt a twinge of satisfaction. As wax museum as it now appeared, seeing his body assuaged some deep regret of having not being on the scene of his capture after all the time we’d spent in Sirte. I’d come to believe Sirte was meaningless after more than a month in its trenches. The drudgery of wading through the dirty water, the ringing in your ears from the gun fire and shelling, punctuated by random deaths, seemingly had dulled my mind’s perceptions, even an ability to ask the right questions.

The massacre of Gaddafi’s final convoy of supporters, which was investigated by Human Rights Watch, projected Sirte’s meaning beyond the end of Gaddafi. That some rebel factions committed the frenzy of revenge on any loyalist within range using the same point blank execution methods Gaddafi would have used, gave a hard look behind the doors of what was happening in the now rebel-controlled prisons.

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Hundreds of bloated, blackened bodies stunk for days as people of Sirte returned to their shattered houses, and slowly collected their dead, fitting them into donated body bags and laying them side by side in a trench to be covered over by a back hoe. They spoke with hatred at what the rebels had done to their city.

We now silently mourned the end of the battle. But Clare and I now had a deeper, more difficult mission to accomplish. We had to go to the place where we believe we were captured and Anton Hammerl fell. We didn’t expect to find his body. There were more than 1,100 missing in eastern Libya alone.

But a week later we were there, at the crest of the tree-lined hill where the two pickup trucks had rolled over firing down at us. The scenery was there but the terrain seemed different — chewed up and filled with random mounds, under which Anton could have been buried. It ate at us to be on that ground and not be 100 percent sure of anything.

Most of the Libyans who we told our story to seemed to understand the feeling. Almost all had lost friends and family. Most volunteered to help us look for Anton. The deputy director of the missing persons office, who had no resources to speak of, also met with us for an hour and promised to dispatch a team to look for Anton as soon as he had one.

Back in Tripoli, I finally saw Mamoud — the Libyan who’s friendship had most gotten me through those days in the cramped cell of Al Jdaida prison, when I thought I’d been left behind deliberately. On the third phone number I tried for Mamoud over a period of many weeks, he finally answered.

On my second to last day in Libya, I met him for coffee. The former petroleum engineer now sported a thick beard and khaki and green military clothes, but the same mischievous smile. Mamoud’s modified Toyota Camry had been bombed in a NATO strike. He now rolled around Tripoli in a pick up with an anti-aircraft gun mounted in back like so many other rebels we’d met.

Mamoud was released from prison two months after me, and told how he’d found his calling as a revolutionary. He went straight to the front lines of Zawiya, then Tripoli, then Bani Walid. I couldn’t blame him. But now Mamoud said he wanted to get married and have babies.

“I’m tired of this work,” Mamoud said. I didn’t quite believe him.

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