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Under fire from Gaddafi’s tanks, we said goodbye to our families

There was a crackle of fire from an AK-47 and the rebel next to us fell down. He had been shot through the head and was dead before he hit the ground. So much of his blood and brains had sprayed over our cameraman Jim Foster that, at first, I thought he had been hit.

There was brain matter all over the other cameraman's lens, so I wiped it with a tissue. The dead man hadn't even been armed. He was in Tripoli, like so many others, to lend support, to witness history, to be a "war tourist". He had paid for his curiosity with his life - and worse, it was one of his own side who had fired the weapon that killed him.

This is just a snapshot of the chaos, tragedy and raw horror of the war on the streets of Libya's capital in the last days of August. As the rebel fighters carried on trying to batter down Muammar al-Gaddafi's walls and we carried on reporting it - stunned, sickened and pretty scared - we were aware that this was a tidal wave of people power and anger that could not, would not, be held back.

When we entered Gaddafi's compound, it was a seminal moment in the fall of the dictator. Only 12 hours earlier, on 23 August, his son Saif had turned up at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli, gathered up the journalists held hostage there and carted them to the same compound to show that the family was still in control.

The road to Tripoli

We moved inside the compound with what seemed like hundreds of others. Many were carrying black gun cases and other weapons looted from the compound. There was a heady excitement, with cheering and chanting. I saw fighters I knew. They were coming up to us and hugging us. "We did it, we did it!" they cried. They were desperate to get on television.

“I want my mum to see me," said one Libyan with a very American accent. "Where are you now, Gaddafi? Come on! Where have you gone to?" he shouted into the camera lens.

They were firing their guns repeatedly in the air and I found myself telling them to quieten down or no one would be able to hear us. Amazingly, they did - just for a bit.

Less than a week earlier, on 17 August, I had arrived in Zawiya, some 30 miles away, with my colleagues Garwen McLuckie, Jim Foster and the producer Andy Marsh. It was a town under siege, hemmed in by Gaddafi's troops, with the road to Tripoli blocked by the regime's soldiers and military machinery.

By the end of that week, the fighters in Zawiya had not only reclaimed the town's Martyrs' Square but had also pushed through the eastern gate and taken the nearby areas of Judaim and al-Maya, as well as Tripoli's western gate 27 and the Khamis Brigade headquarters, home to Gaddafi's loyalist special forces.

The man in charge of the rebels in the western region, Juma Ibrahim, told me on 15 August that he would take Tripoli by the end of Rama­dan. I thought he was hopelessly deluded at the time. It turns out he'd underestimated his men and their determination.


Arriving in Zawiya in August felt very different from when I was last there, in March. The town was being bombarded by Gaddafi's tanks and heavy artillery; my colleagues Martin Smith and Tim Miller and I ended up trapped in the town, witnesses to the brutal violence that Gaddafi used to try to suppress the uprising.

There was nothing like it. We mentally said goodbye to our families.

I remember thinking that if we were going to die, I would at least make sure that the world knew what was happening, so I gave half-hourly live reports from inside the mosque where we were sheltering as the tanks pounded outside. The injuries were horrendous. People were crying and reading the Quran. We could hear the deafening noise of battle outside on the other side of the wall. Everyone was terrified.

Now, five months on, the town was rising up again. There was a new spirit. I saw many of the same people and had an emotional reunion with one of the doctors who had helped us escape. "I never thought I would see you again," he said to me. We were both emotional.

This was an angrier, more defiant Zawiya - and a significantly stronger one. The residents had received training; they had been supplied with weapons by friendly countries; they had been bolstered with extra fighters from the Nafusa Mountains and Zintan. I was told that there were approximately 3,000 extra fighters. They took back their town, street by street - smoking out snipers, shelling the regime's soldiers with mortars.

By dusk on 19 August, we were broadcasting live from Martyrs' Square in Zawiya as the rebels whooped around. "Don't be alarmed by the gunfire," I told the viewers. "This is celebratory gunfire."

Kindness of strangers

We were continually stunned by the generosity of Libyan people, who handed over their homes for our crew to sleep and live in - and took exceptional risks to make sure that we were at the centre of the action. Time and time again, the residents refused payment.

In Tripoli, as food shortages took hold and the city struggled to function because of power cuts and water shortages, we discovered a shop that had opened briefly for business. We started piling tins of food and bottles of fizzy drink into the car of a resident who was helping us transport everything back to our safe house. We filled the boot and back seat, only to be told by the shopowner that he would accept no
payment at all. There must have been several hundred pounds' worth of his stock in our car. An argument ensued. "No, no, no," he cried. "In our culture, we cannot accept your money. This is war and you are sahafi [journalists]. We will not accept any money."

Eventually, we persuaded him to accept some money for the town's poor. Amid such austerity, such terror and such insecurity, the kindness of those who did not know us was a revelation and an inspiration.

Alex Crawford is a special correspondent for Sky News, based in South Africa

This article first appeared in the 05 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, 9/11