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WE’D RECEIVED reports of heavy fighting in the port city 20 miles up the road from retreating rebels who’d been streaming our way overnight. I had spoken with one of them, a boy, he couldn’t have been more than 16, who told me of the government troops’ methodical advance through the city to weed out the opposition. There were a few of us who’d been waiting there on the outskirts for a real story to break and this was it.
What had begun a few weeks earlier as a half assed rebellion was now igniting into a real civil war. I hadn’t been in the middle of a firefight for over a year. I was on assignment for the New York Times and had been holed up with Tom McQuarry of the Chicago Tribune, Ralph Isodorro, a freelancer based out of Paris, and Isaac Basil of the Times of London. The four of us had bonded over the last 24 hours as we tried to find a way into the besieged city ahead of everyone else instead of sitting on the sidelines while the news was breaking. It was Ralph who finally managed to secure passage aboard a fishing vessel whose captain was willing to take the risk of landing four foreign journalists into port for a fee that would likely cover his wages for more than a year.
Once ashore, we got our gear organized and headed up the side streets toward the pop-pop sound of small arms fire up the avenue. We had on our white vests with big, bold TV letters on them to ward off interest from possible snipers. We made contact with rebel forces as we reached the top of Avenue Dupont.
A heavy set man with a greying beard whistled to us from behind an improvised bunker erected in front of the lobby of the Hilton. He introduced himself as Mohammed saying he was a local but my guess was he was a mercenary. He seemed too at ease with all this chaos and uncertainty. He told us that the government troops had been squeezing them into the downtown core so that their backs would be to the sea with no chance of escape. He told us that the government troops would be in for a big surprise once they came in closer but did not want to elaborate on what this surprise might be. I felt he was a waste of time, too coy, an attention seeker, so I moved upstairs to gain a better vantage point on the encroaching forces.
Tom joined me but Ralph and Isaac were taken with the big rebel and thought he himself might make a good story, or at least his take on what was happening. Ralph’s photography was noted for its raw frontline energy. He had a knack for capturing war’s ugly truth in all its carnage. Isaac was a print journalist who had been shortlisted for practically every journalism award there was. We called him “The Machine” since he could crank out a story faster than we could even think of it. He had us in stitches one night reporting the story of the cockroach crawling across our table while we sat for dinner in a dank basement that passed for a restaurant.
From the roof, I managed to dispatch 200 words back to the desk on the off chance that it might make the web edition. It wasn’t until after 2 PM that afternoon that the real story began to take hold. To our surprise, the rumours were true, the government forces began to push forward aggressively rather than falling back. The rebels were obviously outgunned as the shelling began to land and they struggled to hold their positions. Tom and I were racing around the roof trying to get good shots of anything that moved. A pitched gun battle had broken out down the avenue and was slowly making its way toward the hotel as the rebels retreated from the onslaught. The sound of the violent exchange had my heart racing. I thought if sound could have teeth, this was it. We had to take cover after hearing a few rounds whizz by. Someone had mistaken us for snipers — our cameras for guns.
Then the shelling began. The government troops began laying down mortar rounds about one hundred yards ahead of its advancing troops. Tom and I managed to find a good vantage point from a fourth floor balcony. We had full view of the avenue where we could observe the rebels giving it everything they had before being forced to fall back. It was probably no more than 10 minutes before we felt and heard the mortar round strike the building. Glass shattered all around us and it felt like an earthquake as the building swayed for a moment. Black plumes of smoke began to rise and engulf us. We staggered back inside and made our way down the stairs, through the smoke, to the lobby.
We stepped into a scene of carnage. The mortar had found its mark. The bunker that had been erected was now nothing more than a mass of sandbags strewn in all directions. And blood. The blood was everywhere. Through the smoke, I could see the dark pools of it on the marble floor. I did a double take when I saw a cleanly severed forearm at my feet with a digital watch around the wrist. It was 2:53 PM by the watch. There was a pause as the survivors looked around to process what had just happened. That moment’s stillness was gone almost as quickly as it had arrived.
Chaos then took hold. Tom was the first to spot Isaac. He was face down in the far corner of the lobby. Tom turned him over to reveal that half of his skull was missing. He felt for a pulse but there was none. Tom hurriedly gathered up Isaac’s notes and stuffed them into his bag. I went looking for Ralph and found him on the sidewalk. There was already a paramedic at his side frantically trying to stem the flow of blood from the chest wounds. A white pick up truck with a cross on the door made with red electrical tape screeched to a halt beside us. Two men stepped out as the medic told them; “He needs to get to the hospital if he’s going to make it.” I felt lightheaded for a moment and stepped back as the men loaded Ralph into the bed of the pick up truck.
I ran back inside where Tom and I carried Isaac out to the truck as well. There was Ralph, Isaac, and three wounded rebels lying on the cold, bloodied steel bed of the truck as we sped toward the hospital. Only it wasn’t a real hospital. It was simply a large tent set up in a vacant lot a mile up the road. We helped bring the men inside where the sole doctor on duty began to examine the fresh casualties. The inside of the tent was a brilliant, blinding white except for the brown dirt floor. It took the doctor no more than five seconds to look over Ralph and Isaac before moving on to the other wounded men. He told the rebels to bring in their men but that “those two are gone,” he said nodding in the direction of my colleagues.
The rebels took their casualties into the triage area leaving Tom and I looking down on the bodies of Ralph and Isaac. I sat down in the dirt at their feet. I had that salty saliva feeling I get when I feel I’m going to vomit. I took out my iPhone and tweeted to the world: “Confirmed. Journalists Ralph Isodorro, freelance, and Isaac Basil, T of L, killed in mortar attack downtown Tripoli.” I looked up to see Tom staring at me. The look of dismay on his face will stay with me forever. I needed something to distract me.
There was a large sheet of plastic bunched up in the corner of the tent. Tom helped me unfurl it. I sliced it in half down the middle with my Swiss army knife. We picked up Ralph and laid him down on the sheet and wrapped him in it. We then did the same for Isaac. When the rebels returned, they saw the care we had taken with our comrades. They helped us load them into the truck again. The truck’s bed was wet. Someone had already rinsed away the blood. My iPhone was vibrating on my hip. I didn’t look at it. I knew it was my editor likely asking how soon I could get him 500 words on what had happened.
Again we sped through the streets but this time it was for the docks. The rebels left us there with the bodies. We waited for the fishing boat to return to ferry us back to safety. I didn’t feel like we were out of danger until we were well out to sea and the vastness around us made me feel like nothing could touch me. The plastic bundles were at our feet. The plastic was thick. I examined the bulging veins in my forearms and let the nausea come and go as it pleased.
How different things now felt as we made our way back only a few hours after having landed. In minutes, everything had changed. I felt the breeze and the salt water spray on my face. None of it seemed real. I caught a glimpse of the captain looking back from his steering wheel at the dead men on the floor behind him. I was about to reassure him that he would still get paid but couldn’t find the will to say a word.