Young people rally and block a major road in Tripoli in support of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on March 28. Impromptu rallies like this have been common in Tripoli in recent weeks.
Young people rally and block a major road in Tripoli in support of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi on March 28. Impromptu rallies like this have been common in Tripoli in recent weeks. Jonathan Blakley/NPR
While waiting at the Tunisian/Libyan border with my colleague Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and about 12 other Western journalists headed to Tripoli, one reporter from the Ukranian television channel TVI turned to me and said: "For all the mistakes you've made in life, this is your punishment."
He was referring to the bizarre world that journalists based in Tripoli are dealing with on a daily basis.
That was a little more than a week ago.
It has been a long week.
The ride into Tripoli foreshadowed what was ahead. We piled our gear and ourselves into four vans, for a dicey, high-speed, three-hour drive — our government minders at the wheel.
On the way in, we spotted anti-aircraft batteries under highway overpasses, between buildings or behind foliage and, sometimes, just out in the open.
Some towns we zipped through along the coast showed signs of battle — broken windows, damaged buildings and shuttered storefronts. In other towns, there were signs of normalcy; we spotted schoolchildren holding hands walking out of one building.
There were many checkpoints — each with rough-looking military officers, sometimes with green ribbons or small green flags tied around the working end of their automatic rifles.
Many of the cars we passed sported pictures of a smiling Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi emblazoned on their rear windows.
This is my first visit to Tripoli and, at first glance, it looks like most other major cities: a few skyscrapers, some well-designed freeways, major roads and roundabouts. But it was clear before even stepping out of our van that the city was tense and unsettled.
Only a few shops were open. There weren't many people milling around in the streets. And at every gas station — long, long lines of cars and people with Jerricans waiting for gas.
At the hotel where the media are based, it gets a bit weirder.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim at a press conference in Tripoli, Libya.
Government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim at a press conference in Tripoli, Libya. Jonathan Blakley/NPR
The hotel is swarming with government minders and interpreters. Most are fairly friendly, but all of them are sticking to the script — that is, that Libya was fine before the airstrikes started, and now the country is well on its way to becoming another Iraq.
Journalists can't just go out into the street to talk to folks. The minders take us to places they want us to go and then bring us right back. If we want to go check out another neighborhood — a part of town that is, say, not sticking to the script, we are firmly denied.
But between the press conferences, the government does offer to take the journalists on pre-planned, highly controlled trips. Usually we're given little warning before a trip takes place. And we're taken to places that almost always have scores of supporters waiting for us, waving huge green Libyan flags, large banners of Gadhafi and, inevitably, lots of automatic gunfire sprayed up in the air.
A week ago, journalists were taken to what was supposed to be a rally at Gadhafi's huge compound. But nothing really materialized there and we weren't let in. The minders then literally went driving around through the streets until we "found" the rally.
It was a pretty boisterous scene, with mainly scores of young people, mostly young women. They were in dozens of cars in the middle of a highway, blocking traffic, screaming pro-Gadhafi slogans. They all waved green flags and pro-Gadhafi posters. And, of course, there was more gunfire into the air.
The minders allowed us to go out to interview and take pictures of the demonstration. Then we followed the caravan to the United Nations headquarters in Tripoli. The crowd had thinned out by then, but there was a small demonstration in front of the U.N.
On the way back to the hotel, it appeared the minders needed to get gas. They pulled their van up to the front of a very long line at a gas station not far from our hotel. I and two other journalists attempted to take pictures. At that point, three of the people in the gas line approached the van, angrily started beating on it and flung open its side doors. Then, the minders calmly but quickly drove us away. That was the first real emotion I'd seen on the streets of Tripoli that day.
A pro-Gadhafi supporter in Mizdah, Libya.
A pro-Gadhafi supporter in Mizdah, Libya. Jonathan Blakley/NPR
On Tuesday, about 40 or so journalists were bused to a town called Mizdah, about two hours south of Tripoli. There, we saw damage at a hospital and a house, which was apparently caused by shrapnel and flying debris from an airstrike at a nearby ammunition depot at a military base. But we weren't allowed to see the military base.
There was an impromptu rally in front of the house — with plenty more shooting into the air.
We were also shown two small camps where the minders said people from the town had fled because of the airstrikes. At one camp, as if on cue, we were greeted by children chanting pro-Gadhafi slogans. We were also greeted by automatic gunfire into the sky, but this time the person behind the trigger didn't want reporters around. At the second camp, the people were much friendlier.
At the end of the day when we returned to the hotel, we were greeted by more protesters. This time they were blocking the entrance of the hotel. The youngest among them sat at the front gate.
Many of these protesters were the same young women I'd seen the day before at the U.N. building.
We acknowledged each other with a nod.