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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

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Why did the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win this year's Nobel Peace Prize?

Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

It is a fitting that in a tumultuous year for global peacemaking, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to the little-known Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, a coalition made up of the union federation UGTT, the employers’ institute, the Tunisian human rights league and the order of lawyers . Over the past few years, the Quartet has been quietly shepherded in democracy to the country that lit the fuse of the Arab Spring. In part thanks to the efforts of this broad cross-section of civil society, Tunisia has stayed the course in transitioning from an authoritarian past to a democratic future, even in the face of terrorist violence and as other revolutions in the region have faltered.

The award comes at a time of escalating sectarian conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. Islamic State’s campaign of terror has uprooted Iraqis and Syrians alike, driving desperate refugees into small boats to battle the waves of the Mediterranean. They join others fleeing to Europe from political and economic crises in Africa and Asia, forming a stream of humanity symbolising failures in leadership in three continents.

Among all this, it is not hard to identify why the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the world’s most coveted peace prize to the Tunisian Quartet.

First,Tunisia deserves to be celebrated for its momentous achievements in consolidating democracy. Unlike other countries in the region, it has trodden a path that is slow but solid, adopting a comprehensive and consensus-building approach to decision-making.

In this it provides a rare and extremely important example, not only for the region but also for the world. Thanks to Tunisia, it is no longer possible to argue that the Middle East and North Africa are inherently undemocratic or prone to violence.

Civil society steps up

Second, the role of civil society is fundamental for bringing about sustainable peace. Political leadership is important, but the scale of the challenge in transitional societies means that we cannot simply leave things to political leaders to sort out.

At local level especially, peace feels a lot more real when it comes with tangible improvements to quality of life. Citizens want to see the economy motoring again and to have confidence in the state’s institutions. They want to know that they can sleep soundly and safely, without fear of violence, persecution or poverty. Governments often lack the capacity and credibility to deliver these dividends alone. Civil society must step up to the plate – particularly the associations of trade, justice and human rights of which the Quartet is formed.

And third, the Quartet’s work relies heavily on forming constructive relationships across the political spectrum – from secularists to fundamentalists. It has walked a fine line, keeping disparate groups with diverging interests invested in an inclusive national process of dialogue. It has, in the words of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, laid the “groundwork for a national fraternity”.

Politicians are often the most cynical of creatures, yet the Quartet has managed to build a sense of collective endeavour among them. It has encouraged them to put the country’s best interest ahead of personal or sectarian interests, making this the guiding principle for decision-making.

Other bright spots

The transition in Tunisia is a work in progress and there will be more setbacks and successes. The country was left reeling from two terrorist attacks earlier this year, when 22 people were killed at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another 39 people died during an attack on a tourist resort in Sousse. But the message today is clear – Tunisia has made remarkable progress since 2010, despite the odds. This is in large part due to a credible and engaged civil society, a remarkable achievement in a new democracy. The country has forged a path of inclusive national dialogue from which many lessons can be learned.

Elsewhere this year, Myanmar goes to the polls in November – the country’s first free national ballot since 1990. Colombia is closer to lasting peace than ever, ending half a century of war that has taken 220,00 lives and uprooted six million people.

The US restored diplomatic relationships with Cuba, and also struck a landmark agreement with Iran over its nuclear programmes. And the UN has adopted the sustainable development goals, explicitly recognising peaceful and inclusive societies as a development priority for the first time. Behind every step forward there is an individual or institution worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize, but only one can win and the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet is a worthy laureate.

Laura Payne is a Research Fellow and Director of RISING Global Peace Forum, Coventry University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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