Reporting On Arab Spring Can Be A Dangerous Job

As protest, revolution and civil war swept North Africa and the Middle East, NPR foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and NPR senior producer JJ Sutherland traveled to Cairo, Tripoli and Benghazi to report the story. It's been an important, though dangerous, assignment for many journalists.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Tunisia, where the Arab spring began, and in Egypt, where it continued, preparations continue for new elections amid fears that seemingly profound changes may yet prove cosmetic.

Bahrain, with the help of Saudi troops, appears to have crushed its protest movement, while the outcome remains undecided in Yemen, in Syria and in Libya, where street protests escalated to civil war.

Over the past two months, NPR correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and produce JJ Sutherland have reported from several parts of the North African front of the Arab spring, from Cairo, from Tripoli and Benghazi and Misrata, often on confusing stories that moved quickly and involve risk.

Two Western photojournalists died in shell fire on the job in Misrata. Several journalists have been captured in Libya. CBS correspondent Lara Logan suffered sexual assault at the hands of a mob in Egypt.

If you've been following the Arab spring, what questions do you have about covering these events? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the Opinion Page focusing on two very different sex cases involving powerful men, but both raise questions about coercion and consent.

But first, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, whom you've heard from protests in Tahrir Square to the shelling in Misrata, alongside senior producer JJ Sutherland. Both are just back from Libya and Egypt and join us here in Studio 3A. And welcome home to you both.

JJ SUTHERLAND: Thanks, Neal

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you.

CONAN: And there is - Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, let me begin with you. And I guess this story starts in Cairo, for you, and it's - we often hear about the Facebook revolution. How much did social media play a part in your coverage? Were you logging on Facebook and Twitter every day?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, by the time I got to Egypt, actually, the Internet had been shut off, so effectively, no. When you hear about the social media revolution, it was the run-up, really, that affected that.

And so when I got there, basically the entire city had been shut down, and everyone was very - you know, didn't know what was going to happen. And so instead of actually using social media, there were coming out onto the streets.

And they said that was a really effective moment for their movement because people were coming out and saying: Hey, what's going on? We can't actually use Twitter. We can't use Facebook. We can't send emails. You know, let me just go ask my neighbor. Let me see what's going on in the next neighborhood down the street.

And that actually forced people to come out to Tahrir Square in those huge numbers that we saw. So by the time I actually got there, you know, basically Mubarak had shut off the entire social media experiment.

CONAN: And JJ, those crowds, we sometimes heard, were rapturous and sometimes maybe a little less so.

SUTHERLAND: They were both rapturous and at times dangerous. I mean, as Lulu was in Tahrir Square during the infamous camel charge, when the riders from the Giza from the Pyramid camel rides, they charged into the crowd, and there was rock-throwing and all of that kind of stuff.

But on the same time, I really experienced Tahrir Square as a place where people were rapturous, were just unbelievable that they could actually gather, and that they could have a voice, that they could say what they think.

I mean, over and over, people would say, you know, I've been quiet for decades, and now finally I feel like I can speak here in Tahrir Square. So it was quite a remarkable place, really one of the most amazing stories I've ever covered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely, and having covered the Middle East for so many years, I think it took us all by surprise. I mean, I think, you know, there was a sense that something was going to happen, but we didn't really understand the scale of it.

And what was so amazing was as you were covering these events, and things kept on happening one after the other, you know, this momentum kept on building and building where all of a sudden the people were like wow, I think we might do it.

And that was as shocking to them as it was to us covering it. And so it was a real sense of joy and expectation, you know, tempered of course by some very fierce stuff that was happening on the ground.

I mean, you know, even though now Tahrir Square is billed - in the light of what happened in Syria, in light of what happened in Libya - as this very peaceful demonstration and the triumph of the peaceful revolution, you know, they really did have to face quite a bit of their own oppression during this period.

CONAN: And we cannot ignore the violence that happened there, the hundreds killed in Egypt. We cannot ignore the importance of what happened there. Yet there are those moments of absurdity, those camels who are featured in a million, you know, tourist pictures and videos.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was on the phone to my editor, and I was like: Wait, is that a camel? And is that another camel? And it was just - you had to - even though it was so serious.

I mean, people had been brutally flinging rocks at each other, and they were injured, and there was a sense of desperation that they were trying to take the square from them. And yet in the midst of this, all of a sudden a camel charge with - and they were in the full regalia, and it just seemed completely absurd in the midst of all this.

SUTHERLAND: But I think it is important to remember. I mean, it's easier now, but at the moment, that revolution seemed very fragile, and they could have lost Tahrir Square. Certainly it became apparent that the Egyptian army would not go in large numbers, in force, the way that they have in, you know, Libya and Syria.

And - but it was sort of a sense of fragility there, and then as Lulu was saying, as each of that happened, there sort of - there became this momentum that built night after night.

And I remember the night Mubarak came out and said: Okay, we'll life the emergency law, and we'll do all this kind of stuff. And if he'd done that weeks before, it would have been revolutionary. But by then, it was just - it wasn't enough.

CONAN: I have to tell JJ, stay on-mic, and I can yell at him because he's my oldest sister's youngest son. So it's a family thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: As this thing developed, though, clearly you were then sent to the border where - when something started to happen in Libya.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that was - you know, it was a bizarre confluence of events. I was one of the first journalists to go into Libya. And the reason that actually happened, CNN had gone in, and then we went down there to sort of see what was going on.

And there was a group of Muslims Without Borders - doctors that were going in to provide humanitarian aid, and the army said: No, we're not letting anyone in. And they had...

SUTHERLAND: The Egyptian army.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Egyptian army. And they had a mini-Tahrir Square. They started: How could we have had this revolution if you are not allowing us to go? We have to see our brothers in Libya. And we were like: We're with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that's how we got in so fast. I mean, it took everyone else quite a bit of time to get into Libya, and we got in extremely quickly, and it was - and that was extraordinary, totally different experience.

People had never - most of the people I had seen had never seen a Western journalist in their life, before, and we were greeted rapturously. People felt that finally their story was going to be told.

They had been struggling in silence. There had been a media blackout there, as well. Nobody knew their stories. And then all of a sudden, the international press was there, and we were able to get their voices to the world.

CONAN: And this is - when you first get into a place like Libya, clearly you don't know what's happening there.

SUTHERLAND: Yeah, I mean, I was not in Libya right at the beginning, as Lulu was, but - as, you know, she said many times, and I was just there, is I remember we were just driving around, and all of a sudden we saw a group of people in front of a burned-out police station, a couple hundred men, and Lulu said stop the car, stop the car.

And so we walked over, and it was the Benghazi police force, which had been driven out of their building, and they didn't have any weapons left. And they were trying to reorganize themselves and get the faith of the people.

And what was fascinating is we sort of sidled up to this group that was getting orders from, you know, one of their commanders who said: Well, everyone else is better armed than we are now. So if you see someone taking a car, ask them politely not to.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Really? Ask them politely?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, which I didn't think they used to do. They were a particularly loathed institution. They were sort of seen as the fist of Gadhafi. And so yeah, and so what I always say about this is it's journalism 101 when you go into these places for the first time.

Usually, when you're covering things, you know, Egypt, there are voices that you know of. There are obviously sources that you've cultivated. There is a long history of journalists who hare there.

Going into a place like Libya, there was none of that. We didn't know who anyone was. Most people didn't know who anyone was. So it was difficult.

CONAN: Okay, but as you're going through that situation, you have to play it by ear, and these are things that are happening very, very quickly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Very quickly. I mean, that's the most astounding thing. What you report in the morning two hours is completely - you know, we were sitting in a minivan just driving through the country, and everywhere we went, people were telling us their stories, and no one had heard these stories before.

We were taken into this building, and we didn't know where we were going. And all of a sudden, we come in, and there's this massive meeting. And it's literally the birth of the new government.

That's when the guy who's now the head of the council was being elected. And we walked in, and they gave us a standing ovation. People started crying. People were cheering. This - and you basically saw history being born. You bore witness in a way that is very rare in journalism.

I've been doing this for a long time, and I've never had the experience where I actually got to see this.

CONAN: We're talking with Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR foreign correspondent; and with JJ Sutherland, NPR senior producer, just back from Libya and from Cairo. And let's see if we can get some callers on the line. If you have questions about the coverage of the Arab spring, at least in the North African part, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Michael's(ph) on the line. Michael, go ahead please.

MICHAEL (Caller): Yeah, we're hearing a lot of negative reports about the reaction of the Egyptians to America and its whole role in this Arab spring. What is your opinion, from the boots on the ground, so to speak, that you were there, of Egypt's attitude towards Israel? How is that going to change, if at all?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, I am the Jerusalem correspondent, and I think it's a fundamental shift that we're witnessing, and I think it's one of the things that we have to keep our eye on very, very closely.

Egypt had always been, under Mubarak, a staunch ally, certainly. They coordinated very closely on intelligence matters, on issues to do with Gaza, also on the peace process. And frankly after this, the popular sentiment is not with Israel in Egypt, and there is...

CONAN: It wasn't the popular...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, the popular sentiment was never, exactly, but what - exactly. The popular sentiment has never been with Israel, and, in fact, the peace treaty is very, very unpopular.

So - but what's happened now, of course, is that this is the birth of a new democracy and, you know, a representative democracy. And so those things will have to be addressed.

And certainly when you talk to people on the streets in Egypt, it's one of their top priorities. They want to see fundamental change in the relationship with Israel.

The very same people that were lauded for being the great democratizers of Tahrir Square, you know, the Google executives and the Twitter users, are the same people that we recently saw protest Israel's, you know, treatment of the Palestinians in Gaza. You know, these two things are not mutually exclusive.

SUTHERLAND: I think that there often is something I hear from people in America, that just because the people in Egypt are now expressing similar ideals of America, of democracy, of freedom, does not mean they agree with our policies. And those are two very different things.

CONAN: Go ahead, Michael.

MICHAEL: Can I ask you just about our policy? We have had a policy of land for peace. We've also had a policy of billions and billions and billions in foreign aid to Egypt. What if we were to translate those billions into actually buying land somewhere there in the Middle East, which has, what, 70 times as much land as Israel - what if we were to buy some of that desert land that the Israelis are so good at making blossom like a rose, what if we were to buy it and start giving it to the Palestinians in that area so that they would have an option that's much bigger than the option that they have now in the West Bank?

CONAN: Land swaps are part of the idea of - well, President Obama's been talking about that. Many, though, want their land back, whatever shape it's in, and want to make it bloom themselves. But Michael, thank you very much for the phone call.

We're talking with Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and JJ Sutherland, back from the Middle East. You're listening to NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Days after massive protests forced Tunisia's president into exile, the streets of Cairo erupted into a second wave of revolution. In the weeks that followed, an Arab Spring spread across North Africa and much of the Middle East.

Covering events from Cairo to Tripoli, NPR foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and NPR senior producer JJ Sutherland, both just back from the region, with us today here in Studio 3A.

If you've been following the Arab Spring, what questions do you have about covering these events? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Evie(ph), Evie with us from Boise in Idaho.

EVIE (Caller): Hi. What changes have you all observed in the status of women since this spring began?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's a good question, and I think certainly, at the very beginning - in Egypt, particularly - there was a sense that this was going to be beneficial to women. You saw women in great numbers in Tahrir Square. They felt, they said, safe in Tahrir Square.

Egypt is a particularly interesting country. There is a lot of history of sexual harassment there. After what happened to Lara Logan, you know, I investigated it, and really, Egyptian women suffer from that very, very heavily because of various cultural factors.

I think the - talking to feminists in the region, there is a sense that perhaps the issue of women might have been lost in the shuffle, though, that possibly because there's other priorities to do with simply, you know, political organization, what happens next, that issues particularly related to women might not be taken to the forefront.

And one of the, of course, big concerns is, of course, the rise of the Islamists. If there is a sense that, you know, the Muslim Brotherhood, for example, comes into power, how will that affect the laws and the customs of Egypt - is one example of that.

Equally, in Libya, you know, women are not very present in that revolution. It's a bloody, brutal civil war with people fighting with weapons. And women are not - even though they've been the victims of the violence, they're not actively participating in the revolution in that way.

So it remains to be seen how it will really play out for women in the region.

SUTHERLAND: And I would say in Libya, I mean, in Egypt, you see women from - everything from, you know, full veil to jeans and a T-shirt. In Libya, you do not see that. Women - you do not see that many women on the streets. You do not - certainly, they don't speak to men. It's a very different society, and it's a much more conservative society in Libya.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, women want different things. Women want different things. I mean, that's the other thing you have to remember. There's not just one way forward for women.

Some women believe that the hijab and to be veiled is actually, you know, honoring their religion and honoring their family. And other women don't want that. And so, you know, it's a complicated question. And so there's not one way forward for women. It's a question of trying to figure out what will the best way for as many women as possible.

EVIE: Do you think more choice will be available for women?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think some of the things that are definitely of interest have to do with laws, legislation to do with - you know, that's the bedrock of protecting women in any society: legislation that protects them and that also - and so that there's a society - so that there's repercussions if people step out of line. And so I think that's what women are really looking for in the region right now.

CONAN: Evie, thanks very much.

EVIE: Thank you.

CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is David, and David's with us from Minneapolis.

DAVID (Caller): Yeah, good afternoon. I was just wondering: In the past, the United States government, like '50s and '60s, had supported dictators in different parts of the Arab world because of national interests, which led to ultimately, you know, the Islamic Revolution in Iran and the formation of the Islamic Republic.

And then, in turn, because of that fear, we backed dictators in the Middle East to try to stabilize things in, you know, like Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and we even backed Iraq, you know, with Saddam Hussein.

And so I'm wondering now, as these revolutions come about in the Middle East and these governments are formed with people that have, you know, lived under these dictators for 30, 40 years, what is going to be the long-term reaction of these people to the United States government and the people of the United States? What's their view going to be, long-term?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think it's a very important balancing act. I think there's absolutely no question that the United States has, through its policies, propped up many of these regimes for a number of different reasons, stability being among them.

And so now, what we saw, especially if you remember back, when you had the beginnings of Tahrir Square, you'd have the people come out and say: Look, you see these gas canisters that they're firing at us? Made in the USA. I mean, they'd show this to you, and they'd sort of - and they'd say, you know, it was a product of the billions of dollars of aid that was going to the Mubarak regime.

And there's a great deal of anger in the region. But I do feel that there is also - it is also a new opportunity for the United States to reach out to many of these new communities, to many of these new leaders that are evolving. And I think that, you know, can bear fruit.

But there is a great deal of anti-American sentiment in the region. A recent poll in Egypt said that - that showed that, actually, despite President Obama's overtures and support of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the - his position and that of the United States has not really changed very much.

CONAN: Important to point out, as well as those examples that Lourdes Garcia-Navarro was just talking about and, David, that you mentioned, in the examples of Syria and Libya, the United States did not support those leaders and very frosty relationships for many, many years. And I wonder: Was there a different reaction, JJ, in Libya?

SUTHERLAND: There was a different reaction in Libya. I mean, it's very interesting, even more so than the United States, what you see all over Benghazi are French flags and signs praising President Sarkozy of France for their early intervention in Libya and pushing against Gadhafi.

And in front of the courthouse, in sort of - which is sort of the spiritual center of the revolution, there are flags, including an American flag, which I was surprised to see in a Middle Eastern country, displayed that prominently.

So there is a sense that - but there's still resentment, I think, certainly because of American policies in Israel, as Lulu was mentioning before, that this is an issue that is certainly at the forefront of most Arabs' minds.

CONAN: This email from Anne in Okemos, Michigan: Thanks to NPR for having such extraordinary reporters who are willing to take risks to bring the full stories from all over the world. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro in particular has done an amazing job of humanizing the story. So I mentioned earlier, JJ's my nephew - that, apparently, from your cousin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: This from Francis in Denver: How has witnessing the Arab Spring changed your view of our own democratic procedures or our own country's populace's involvement in political debate?

SUTHERLAND: I'm not sure if it's changed my own view of it. I do - it's very interesting to me, right after the revolution in Tahrir Square, when Mubarak did step down and we started going to these meetings and talking to these people who were forming political parties for the first time and were trying to get together, and part of me - they kept on saying they were having meetings about the groups, and then they'd have another meeting in another town, and they'd elect representatives that have a big congress, and watching people sort of figure a way through. And they were looking back to both the American Revolution, to the French Revolution.

They were trying to take inspiration from the revolutions that, you know, took place in the West a couple hundred years ago, and really, I did feel that as imperfect as all our societies are, that they are taking inspiration from - of some of those same enlightenment thinkers that inspired the American Revolution.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, for me, I think more than anything, it just, it was an incredible sense of excitement. I think when you have established democracies like this one, a lot of apathy, there's a lot of vitriol at times.

And when you see what's happening in places like Egypt, even in places like Libya, where there is a civil war and yet civil society is stepping into the breach, and they're having these exciting discussions, you know, and they're being imaginative, and they're being creative, and they're trying to be inclusive, many of them, and it's an exciting time to see that and to bear witness to it.

And everyone feels like they're on the cusp of history. They're riding a wave of history. Every single person - from the street sweeper to the politician to the, you know, to the historian - all feel that this is something that they can have a stake in, that they belong to in some way. And that is an extremely exciting thing to witness.

SUTHERLAND: And the sense of pride both in Libyans and the Egyptians that, as a people, they are doing something, is remarkable.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And they did it themselves. It didn't come at the, you know, barrel of an American tank. They like to say that a lot.

CONAN: Let's go next to Alan(ph), Alan with us from New Orleans.

ALAN (Caller): Yes. Neal, actually, my question is to your guests, and I appreciate them. They are not saying all the negative things - and there are plenty of negative, and they are positive. But these folks need to be encouraged, as well.

But how do you know - I happen to speak the languages where you are, before. How do you know the translator is telling you - because unless you speak Arabic, you're really going by secondhand opinion or language.

One question, actually, to your guests, Neal, is: With regard to Libya, unless there's - something happened, that China's trying to get in. And there's other elements trying to get in Libya, taking this. I believe the U.S. should be really involved in supervising, seeing Libya succeed in this struggle.

CONAN: Okay, not just interpreters, people who - there's an important role played by people called fixers who are often very helpful local journalists who can help you make arrangements.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The question is twofold. You know, on the one hand, of course, there's a language issue. But on the second hand, there's a local knowledge issue, which is, I think, what Neal was speaking to when he's discussing fixers.

I can - someone can go in and speak the language, but they might now know what's happening in the neighborhood around the corner. For example, we recently went into Benghazi. We had been using someone who is Egyptian. And then we actually hired someone who was from Benghazi, and the first thing he said to me was: Did you know there was an assassination attempt just around the corner? My cousin's going to the funeral.

Now, you know, this is exactly the kind of local knowledge that you want, and which is why you hire people when you get to a place that has that local knowledge. And so that's - that, I would say, is the most important thing about what we do when we work with local journalists.

And then, of course, there's the issue of the translator. You know, in places like Iraq, where we have many translators, you work with one interpreter, and then you come back, and then they type it up. And then another person - another - a second person will go through it to make sure that there's no - nothing is incorrect.

I mean, we are very scrupulous. We are very careful about how we present people's views.

SUTHERLAND: And I think that there comes - having done this for many years now, there becomes a level of trust, and you do have to choose who to trust. And sometimes that trust is betrayed. That's very true. But on other times, I think that that trust - for most of the time, that trust is rewarded. And that is true in the Middle East. Or I was just in Japan, where, of course, we were working with translators there. And you have to. You have to be able to - but having that local knowledge and being able to speak to people about their place is very important.

CONAN: But how do you - yes, there's the funeral going around the corner, but the other funeral three blocks further from that of somebody else who was involved on the other side, they may not tell you about that. I mean, they have agendas, too, sometimes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Sometimes. Absolutely. You have to be very - I mean, that certainly became an issue in a place like Iraq, where sectarianism became, you know, such an important part of the story, and it was something that you really had to be aware of and had to navigate. And that comes with time and knowing the place, and, you know, and often having, you know, two different types of translators, for example, you know, because they would have access to two different types of stories.

But I think as a journalist, and what we're trained to do - I mean, this is - I've been - something I've been doing for years, is you do go into a place, and you are aware of that. I'm not going in there because this is my first time, and I'm, you know, naively wandering in and going, oh, isn't it lovely, the revolution?

You know, you have to - you do ask tough questions. You do have to look at things with a very kind of hard eye, often. And so I think that's what foreign journalists bring to the table, is that knowledge.

I've been to so many different countries and been exposed to so many different types of stories, that I really do have a sense, you know, of where these things are going and what questions need to be asked.

SUTHERLAND: And I started out my journalistic career covering Boston City Hall and the city council there, and there was no language barrier, but there's certainly was a deception and their own point of view, shall we say.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Alan, thanks very much for the phone call.

JJ Sutherland, NPR's senior producer, and NPR correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro with us, back from Libya and Cairo.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

An email from a listener who may have been an editor at one point: What's the difference between rebels, opposition forces and protesters?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, I wish my editor were here to have this discussion. We had it very often in the early days of this. Freedom fighters was absolutely verboten. We weren't allowed to use that, under any circumstances, because no one - and you quite rightly pointed out -we don't know what they're fighting for right now. It could be any number of different things.

And so you basically try and use the term that is descriptive, as opposed to what they're actually doing. These are armed - in Libya's -you know, when we're talking about Libya, these are armed men who are fighting, and so therefore - and they're in an active rebellion against the state. So that is clearly a pretty accurate description of what they are, and it's not ascribing them as sort of poetic...

CONAN: Romantic terms.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...romantic terms.

CONAN: Yeah. Yeah. All right. Here's - let's go next to - this is Allen(ph), Allen with us from Charleston.

ALLEN (Caller): Hi. Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ALLEN: I was just wanted to kind of ask about the process of actually getting into Libya with the borders being closed, you know, you being a female Western journalist who didn't know - you know, I assume there's got to be some people in the inside to kind of help out with that. But if you could just talk a little bit about that, I'd appreciate it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Well, because the phones had all been cut off, we kind of knew people on the inside, but we had no way of getting in touch with them. So I wish I could say that there was something that - I had people waiting for me, and they whisked me in, and all of a sudden, everything was great.

We, basically - as often happens in journalism, you make a decision with your editors, and you - we walked across that border, and then we didn't know exactly what we're going to find on the other side. All of a sudden, I saw a - I was with a number of other journalists. We had chosen to travel together. These are people that I trust. I always choose to travel with people in dangerous situations whom I trust. I can't overestimate the importance of that, because you want to be sure how people will react if things go wrong.

And we walked to the other side, and all of a sudden, everyone was armed, and they weren't in a uniform. And that, for me, from my Iraq days, was like, oh, no, no, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is going to get really bad. But they were incredibly welcoming, and they just couldn't believe that we were foreign journalists walking across the border. They just didn't know what to do with themselves, and they were incredibly helpful. They gave us a car. They set up everything. They took us to a hotel, and all of -because they were very anxious that we were able to tell their stories, we were able to know exactly what was going on.

CONAN: Later, entry into Tripoli involved a more normal process, a visa, correct?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Absolutely. Getting a visa into Tripoli is not easy. I will have you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...but it is a normal process. You apply, and then, they - you are taken into Tripoli, and that is a very different thing. And then what's fascinating about Tripoli, having been on both sides now, as you saw what they were fighting against, you know, in their minds. And it is - you know, it is a culture based around fear. Everywhere you see are Gadhafi's posters. And we were practically incarcerated in a five-star, very luxurious hotel.

It was a very surreal experience. You know, I interviewed Imam al-Obeidi, who was a woman who had - said that she had been gang-raped by Gadhafi - pro-Gadhafi loyalists. And going to see her involved subterfuge, risking her life, risking my life, taxi rides, you know, changing cabs. It felt like I was in a spy thriller. And so we - there's all sorts of different things, depending on the environment, that we have to do to get at the story.

CONAN: And then Misrata, where you're going into a city that's under siege.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes. I mean, I went into Misrata with the government, and that was crazy.

CONAN: With - first, with the...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With the...

CONAN: ...Gadhafi government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: With the Gadhafi government. They took us in in a minibus. And they sort of stopped there and said, look. We have the city. And all of a sudden...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...there was an enormous firefight going on, and it was completely insane. They had bused in some pro-Gadhafi supporters who were chanting, saying, you know, we love Gadhafi. This is our city. And then they all had to run away. In fact, they - the bus peeled away so fast, that it left a BBC correspondent behind while he was doing...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Was he doing a standup?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...doing a standup, because the bus driver was terrified, you know, because they'd taken us to this city where there's - you know, and the worst part of it, Tripoli Street, which was just, like, you know, real bloody gun battles, and they'd driven us up in a minibus, as if we were on a daytrip.

CONAN: It's not funny, was not funny at the time.

SUTHERLAND: Right.

CONAN: It's funny now. It's the perils of doing a standup. We could listen to these stories all day long, but thank you so much for coming in to talk with us.

By the way, Allen, thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

ALLEN: Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks to everybody who called and wrote in. But Lourdes Garcia-Navarro is just back from Libya and Egypt, and JJ Sutherland, NPR senior producer, with us both here in Studio 3A. We thank them very much for their time.

SUTHERLAND: Thank you, Neal.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Thank you.

CONAN: Coming up on the Opinion Page, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, two very different cases, both, though, involve powerful men and both raised questions about the line between power and consent. What should we learn from these two cases? 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. It's The Opinion Page, coming up on TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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