Photographer's Libya Ordeal: 'You're Going To Die' : The Two-Way New York Times photographer Lynsey Addario's attempt to document the retreat of Libyan rebels near Benghazi left her in the custody of Moammar Gadhafi's soldiers, who abused her and three colleagues for days, before their release on March 21.
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Photographer's Libya Ordeal: 'You're Going To Die'

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Photographer's Libya Ordeal: 'You're Going To Die'

Photographer's Libya Ordeal: 'You're Going To Die'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Photographer Lynsey Addario had been covering the fighting in Libya for three weeks when she and her New York Times colleagues became the story. In an embattled city about 100 miles outside the rebel capital of Benghazi, the journalists were captured by troops loyal to Moammar Gadhafi. At one point a Libyan soldier said he was going to kill them until another soldier said you can't, they're Americans.

After six days, the four were released with the help of Turkish diplomats. Photographer Lynsey Addario joined us from our New York bureau. Good morning.

Ms. LYNSEY ADDARIO (Photographer, New York Times): Good morning.

HANSEN: I want to start with the basics here. How did it happen exactly that you were captured?

Ms. ADDARIO: Photographer Tyler Hicks and I had spent the night in Ajdabiya, and on the western edge of the city there were very strong attacks going on, fighting between rebels and Gadhafi troops. So we were looking for residents fleeing, we went to the hospital, we were looking for injured, we were trying to get sort of the collateral damage of the fighting.

We met up with correspondent Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell at the hospital. And at some point we decided we were going to pull back to Benghazi or at least take that road east and just sort of reassess the situation on the ground. And as we were heading out of the city, there was what looked like traffic on the road, and that's a sight that was not very common at all. And my first instinct was, oh my God, it's Gadhafi's troops. And basically by the time we ran into them, it was too late to turn around.

MONTAGNE: That was in fact the beginning of days of brutality, this capture.


MONTAGNE: How exactly did these Libyan government troops treat you?

Ms. ADDARIO: I've been covering conflict for 11 years now, and I've worked in the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, sort of all over. And it was surprising to me how aggressive the Libyan troops were. When our car was stopped, we all got sort of ripped out of the car. And at that moment the rebels started firing upon Gadhafi troops. And so we were in the middle of crossfire.

And at the same time, you know, I had a soldier grabbing at my cameras and my waist pack. And instinctively, which is totally stupid, I just kept clenching my cameras. Eventually I looked over and Tyler was the only one who had the wherewithal to try and find cover. And there was a one-room building off to the side. And he started running towards that building.

And once we got behind that building, then it was basically us and the troops, and they were incredibly aggressive and angry and mean and screaming at us and grabbing at us and made us lie face down in the dirt and tied us up. And then they started taking everything out of our pockets, and for me that meant groping - the groping began. Every man who basically came in contact with me felt the need to grope and grab my entire body. It's a form of psychological abuse.

You know, for them, they want to ascertain their power, and they will beat you and grab you and then 15 minutes later they sort of, that's it, they're giving us juice and dates. So every time we were with a group of soldiers, the initial sort of 15, 20 minutes was horrible, and then it mellowed out a bit.

MONTAGNE: You did fear that you would be raped.

Ms. ADDARIO: Yes, of course. That was my number one fear.

MONTAGNE: They taunted you all with threats that you would die, which must have been very unnerving.

Ms. ADDARIO: For me it was sort of a blessing, not speaking Arabic. I understand some Arabic, but I don't speak it and I don't understand it fully. So there was a night when I was blindfolded and my hands were tied behind my back.

And there was one of - one of the troops was sitting in the passenger seat, I guess, and leaning back, and he just kept caressing my hair in this sort of sick way, like a mother would a son or like a lover would, and touching my cheekbones and touching my eye and repeated - saying this phrase over and over and over in like a very calm, affectionate voice. And I finally said to Anthony, what is he saying? And Anthony said, You're going to die tonight.

MONTAGNE: And then there's a certain point it was - that sort of treatment was over and then there were long stretches of boredom, where I gather you ended up, what, you had a couple of books?

Ms. ADDARIO: Well, you can imagine four New York Times correspondents and photographers who are all working all the time, on our BlackBerries, on our computers, working long days, and all of the sudden we've been stripped of everything. We were brought to Tripoli and put under house arrest, where essentially we spent four days and we had nothing but four Shakespeare books and a lot of coffee, basically.

And they brought us three meals a day and they sent someone to go buy groceries, and they came back with, like, 15 shopping bags full of food and we all looked at each other and we were like, we're never going home. We just said, oh my God, there are three kilos of Corn Flakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ADDARIO: And we thought, OK, definitely we're here for six months.

MONTAGNE: You all emerged safe but there was a fifth person involved in this...

Ms. ADDARIO: There was.

MONTAGNE: ...this captivity, and that was your Libyan driver.

Ms. ADDARIO: Correct.

MONTAGNE: What happened with him?

Ms. ADDARIO: His name was Mohammed and when we approached the checkpoint, when we were finally stopped, he jumped out of the car and announced to Gadhafi's troops that we were journalists, and that was the last time I saw Mohammed alive. No one has seen him since then. We don't know if he's alive or dead but the New York Times is working very hard to find out.

MONTAGNE: Did this experience change anything you think you will do? I mean, does this make you want to take a break or are you just going to plunge back in?

Ms. ADDARIO: Well, I think certainly I'll take a break for a little while. I'll take some time to be with my family and my husband and loved ones. And I think the hardest part about this job is what you do to the people who love you. When something like this happens to me, I can get through it. But you know, it's traumatic for my parents, for my husband, for my sisters. It's, you know, it's something, it's a selfish profession.

Unfortunately, I'm very committed to what I do. This is what I've done for 15 years. I believe very strongly that the world needs to see what's happening. I try and approach every story with caution and I try to make very calculated risks. I would like to say, you know, I'll never do this again, but I, you know, I will do it and I will try as best as I know how to be cautious and to not let this happen again. But am I going to stop being a photojournalist? No.

MONTAGNE: Lynsey, thank you for sharing your story with us.

Ms. ADDARIO: Thank you so much for having me.

MONTAGNE: Lynsey Addario is a photojournalist for the New York Times. She was held captive in Libya for six days with her three colleagues, Anthony Shadid, Stephen Farrell and Tyler Hicks.

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