Reflections On The Arab Spring From Egypt To Libya

From the initial protests in Cairo and the celebrations in Tahrir Square to being one of the first journalists to enter Libya, NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro has been reporting the stories of revolution sweeping North Africa and the Middle East. While on a break from being overseas, she discusses what she's witnessed.

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

All this spring, as we've tracked the news from Libya you've been hearing this voice.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: The crowd gave a standing ovation, quickly followed by cries of freedom, freedom and Libya, Libya.

Unidentified Group: (Chanting) Libya. Libya. Libya.

KELLY: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. Lulu, as we know her. She was one of the first Western journalists to cross the border into Libya, and she was in Cairo when Egypt's President Mubarak was pushed from power.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The sounds that you can hear behind me are the sounds of fireworks bursting over Tahrir Square this evening, a scene of absolute jubilation. People...

KELLY: Well, we wanted to hear the back story on some of that reporting. So we've invited her to sit down and tell us what it's been like to cover the Arab Spring.

Lulu, nice to see you in person.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nice see you, too.

KELLY: How tough was it to cover the revolution in Egypt? I mean, it must've been thrilling to have watched that first hand. It was also a very dangerous story to cover.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was very dangerous story to cover. You know, it's been billed as a very peaceful revolution. And, of course, when you look at what's happened in Syria and Libya since, it was. But hundreds of people were killed and we were targeted. I was mobbed on one particular day. A journalist that I was with was beaten. It's unpleasant. It's difficult, but ultimately, as a reporter, you have to be where the story is. And that's often a place that most people wouldn't want to wander into.

KELLY: Even despite those challenges, Egypt - as you mentioned, known as a peaceful revolution for the most part - when you reported from Libya, it must've been a very different scene altogether.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It was extraordinary, the difference. We had seen in Tunisia, we had seen in Egypt, up until that point, fairly peaceful revolutions. All of a sudden, going into Libya, that was simply not the case. Gadhafi had been using everything at his disposal to fire on these protesters. And so it developed into what is now, as we know, and armed civil war.

KELLY: Well, one of the first challenges you faced was getting into Libya in the first place. How did that happen?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. We went down to the border, and there was a group of Muslim doctors that were trying to get in to give aid into Libya. And the Egyptian army was saying you can't go in. And they basically had a little mini-Tahrir Square right there. They said: Why did we have a revolution if you're going to stop us from doing what we want? And then the Egyptian army said, you know, you're right - go in. And we sort of said: We're with them.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And we got to cross in. We were the second group in. We walked across a border, and what we found surprised us. There were men with guns, plainclothes. And, you know, my experience in Iraq is when you see that, run in the opposite direction. But they were extraordinarily welcoming.

Do not forget, in Libya, they had not seen Western reporters for 42 years. It was this kind of first-contact moment.

KELLY: Talk to me about what it was like reporting from Tripoli. Is it incredibly frustrating trying to verify the stories that you're hearing and not being able to move around?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's one of the most surreal experiences I've ever had as a reporter, in my life. We're corralled in this five-star hotel. We're surrounded by dozens and dozens of minders at all times who were telling us all these things that we know to be actually untrue. And all of a sudden, you actually start to question your sanity...

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...because your eyes are telling you one thing, and yet you're being told all these other things. And so it's very difficult to sort of weed out fact from fiction.

KELLY: Is it tough when you're filing on very fast-moving events, very violent events, you're always telling somebody else's story. At a certain point, you're a person, too. You have to process what you're seeing. How do you - what kind of process do you go through to do that?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There's all sorts of things that you do to ground yourself in the sense of normality: talk to your family, talk to your husband. I have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had a very severe case when I was in Baghdad. I had to stop going to Iraq for a period of 18 months. There is a sense of, like, well, you know, my needs are so insignificant when you look at what's going on around me. But you do have to stop at some point and say: I need to take care of myself. I need to take care of my mental health and my physical health. You need to sort of say, okay, enough right now.

KELLY: All that said, but you're about to go right back.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It's where I live. I mean, I'm not someone who flies into place and then leaves again. I actually live in these areas. I lived in Iraq for four-and-a-half years. You know, I live in Jerusalem. And so it's a different kind of experience.

KELLY: Lulu, thanks very much.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You're welcome.

KELLY: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro-Navarro, talking about her experiences reporting on the revolutions in the Arab world this spring.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.

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