NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was one of the first reporters who went across the border to Libya after the eastern part of that country shook loose the rule of Moammar Gadhafi. After returning to Egypt, she spoke with Steve Inskeep about her experiences.
Inskeep: Will you talk about the journey from Benghazi, the rebel capital, across Libya, across the border and back?
Garcia-Navarro: One of the things that's really interesting is the vast distances that you have to cross to get in and out of Libya. And it's sparsely populated, which gives you an idea of the challenges that the rebels are facing right now in their battle with Moammar Gadhafi's forces.
And when I went into Libya, it was a sense of triumph. Everyone was flashing the victory sign. It means, you know, "V" for victory or death. It's victory or death, and they flash it everywhere, at every checkpoint, and it's a real sign of their ebullience.
And as we were leaving, when we were stopped at checkpoints, that ebullience is very much lacking. And instead of flashing the V for victory signs, we'd be stopped and asked: Why isn't the West helping us? Why isn't there a no-fly zone?
The rebels are on the run. They've been pushed out of a number of eastern oil cities, and the capital, Benghazi, is now under threat.
Well, let's talk about what it's like to report in those conditions. You have a fast-changing situation; you have vast distances, as you say; and communications were not so great.
What was extraordinary about going in there at the beginning was: This is a country that no Western reporters had been in for a long time. They hadn't been able to report freely. If they had been in, there were always minders — Gadhafi's men following you, making sure that you were reporting what they wanted you to report.
So all of a sudden, going in there and being able to talk to people freely, it was an incredible experience for the reporter — and for the people that you were speaking to. They sort of didn't know how to talk to you or what to say and what it meant, and they were sort of discovering this freedom of expression for the first time.
At the same time, you really didn't know if what people were telling you was true. All of a sudden, there's a new leadership. Who are they? I have no idea. How are they communicating? Where do they get their information? Usually, you go to a country and there's sources that you've cultivated, or other people have cultivated, that are trusted, that you know. This time, reporters went in there blind. We had no idea what we were dealing with.
And so you basically had to learn journalism again, very basic journalism — of checking, rechecking, talking to different people, as many people as you could, to try and get a sense of what was really happening, not only on the surface but behind the scenes, which is so crucial.
Those of us on the outside have struggled with whether to call this a civil war or not. Is it?
That's a good question. I would say it is at this point. It certainly didn't start out that way. You speak to people in eastern Libya and they're loath to call it a civil war. When you talk to them and you talk to rebel fighters at the front lines, they'll say: We are not fighting Libyans. We are fighting Moammar Gadhafi's mercenaries that he sent in here...
Foreign mercenaries, yes, that have come from Africa. Patriotic Libyans would not be fighting their own people. They really don't want to frame it in that way. But what is essentially happening is that you're having one half of the country fighting the other half of the country. And it's a very brutal, a very bitter battle.
Have there been people who provisionally transferred their loyalty to this rebel government over the past several weeks?
Absolutely, but there are people who are hedging their bets. We were at a hotel in Ajdabiya, and we were looking around in the cupboards — there weren't a lot of people to help us — and then we found these tiny, little green Libyan flags, Moammar Gadhafi's flags, tucked away in a corner. They hadn't been burned; they hadn't been thrown away. They had been simply put away. And I think it's...
So they could be put back on the table later, if necessary.
If necessary. It's hard to know where people's loyalties will come down in the end if Moammar Gadhafi succeeds, but one thing is absolutely clear: If he manages to rout the rebels completely, take over eastern Libya, there will be a massive refugee crisis. There are people who have really invested in this. And they feel that it is a fight to the death. They either have to overthrow him or die.
You mentioned the change in people's attitudes from the beginning of this three-week period to the end of it. How did their attitudes change toward you and reporters like you?
When I first came into eastern Libya, we were literally, the second or third group to cross the border. And we went to a town call Bayda, and we were led in — and we didn't know where we were going — to this massive hall, and we stumble in and all of a sudden, there's this group of people, and they start giving us a standing ovation. People were crying. They were hugging us. It was chaos. They were ecstatic to see us. They thought, "Finally, our story, our voices will be heard." They felt that they'd been laboring in silence because of the news blackout.
Now, three weeks later, you have a lot of Western press in eastern Libya, and the mood is very different. The story is not going their way. This is a story now that shows the rebels are struggling.