Sky News Special Correspondent Alex Crawford (with camera operators Garwen McLuckie and Jim Foster, and producer Andy Marsh) beat the world’s media to report bravely on the collapse of Col. Gaddafi’s empire in Tripoli. In this exclusive report, she tells how she secured the scoop: “We felt we were at the heart of a massive story – a Berlin-wall-type moment – powered by Libyan people, albeit helped by Nato jets”
There was a crackle of gunfire – far too close – and the man next to Jim fell down dead, shot through the head. His blood and brains splattered over Jim’s neck and shoulder. Jim was covered so much at first I thought he’d been hit. Some of it sprayed over Garwen’s camera. I was shaking and thought I was going to be sick. But I got out a tissue and wiped Jim’s shoulder and then Garwen’s lens. Incredibly, it wasn’t the worst we’d seen all week. But it was certainly the closest.
It was Tuesday, August 23, and we were outside Gaddafi’s compound watching the fighters pounding the exterior wall. We didn’t know it then but they were just a couple of hours away from breaking it down and entering the heart of the Gaddafi empire.
We stood in the same clothes we had been wearing all week, clothes which seemed to be permanently wet from perspiration. It was baking hot and we were all sweating – through exertion – and, in my case, not a little fear. Garwen was angry. Now this is unusual. Garwen never gets angry. But he was now. “That was so unnecessary,” he said. He had seen it all. One of the fighters with an AK-47 had just run into the street and fired –aimlessly and without care – and one of the bullets had hit the man rubbing shoulders with Jim and just in front of Garwen and me. He had been killed by one of the fighters on his side. We moved further back along the wall together and all caught our breath. No-one said very much. Like so much that happened that week, events were moving so quickly we didn’t have time to dwell. That would come later.
Written by Alex Crawford – Sky News Correspondant
Only Journalists Travelling with the Fighters into the Heart of the Gaddafi empire
A few days earlier we were the only journalists who travelled with the fighters into the heart of Tripoli and Green Square. How did we do it? Why were we the only ones? I have no idea where everyone else was or how it happened. But to us it seemed like the most natural thing in the world. It was still light, we were with people we knew, they were heading forward. There seemed to be little resistance from Gaddafi loyalists or soldiers. Simple. There was no question we wouldn’t go with them. The day (Sunday, 21 August) had begun in Zawiya. I remember thinking as the fighters headed off down the road to Tripoli that we would probably end up sleeping in the car somewhere on that road that night, somewhere along the 30 miles between Zawiya and the capital. I am hopelessly disorganised but I had packed a small backpack with toothbrush, spare clean pants, some make-up and a clean t-shirt. I was rather pleased with myself at my forward planning. But somehow it all got left behind in the scramble when we changed cars. We were reunited with our clothes and toiletries only seven days later. Somehow they are always the things which get forgotten. We never go anywhere without our satellite phones (mine was in the leg pocket of my trousers), passport and ID (back pocket), notebook and pen (flak jacket front pocket) and, of course, this time we carried backpacks with the BGA and camera kits. Quite enough to carry and run around with anyway. We can manage without toothbrushes and clean clothes but it’s all for nothing if we can’t get our material out.
That day was Garwen’s birthday. Halfway between the villages of Judaim and Maia where the fighters and we were hemmed in by Gaddafi snipers ahead, we had taken shelter down an alleyway next to a house. I filmed while the boys hugged each other and we sang happy birthday to Garwen as the shells landed around us. That’s the way with battles: there are often periods when you are just waiting, waiting for the fighters to advance, waiting to see if it’s safe to go on, waiting to work out what you are up against. There was a lot of that that day but it was clear the fighters were buoyant and confident and making far quicker progress than they ever imagined. It took everyone by surprise.
During one such lull, we had pulled back to Zawiya to file a report for the evening bulletin. It was still early and I made the boys scrambled eggs in our safe house while they quickly downloaded the material and Garwen edited. We headed out again and ran into a large convoy of vehicles packed with fighters from Misrata. They had just arrived to bolster the advancing forces. Everyone we spoke to was crazy with excitement. “Today we liberate Tripoli,” they kept saying. We thought they were hopelessly optimistic but we followed them. “Let’s see how far they get,” I thought. When we reached the Khamis Brigade headquarters on the outskirts of Tripoli we found opposition fighters ransacking the building. Some were piling their pickups with chairs and televisions looted from the barracks. This was the HQ of the most feared brigade in all of Libya, run by one of the Colonel Gaddafi’s sons, the one in charge of internal recession. They had taken it over. And they were still moving forward.
Surreal Conversation on the Back of a Truck
We found a fighter from Bournemouth and he invited us to join him on the back of his pick-up. Everyone we spoke to was very welcoming and friendly. What followed on the back of the truck ranks alongside one of the more surreal conversations we had that week. “Bournemouth is lovely. I love England,” said a fighter dressed in combat clothes, holding an AK-47 and demonstrating a beautiful English accent. “The weather is so great in the summer, much nicer than here.”
By now it is dark and we are in a huge convoy. The vehicles are gridlocked as we enter the main road into the capital. We are edging along, hardly moving at all. Everyone is a bit tense because no-one knows what is ahead. Then, as the vehicles start moving again, people start coming out of their homes onto the road to greet us. They are carrying children in their arms and they are applauding the convoy as it makes its way into the city. Women are whooping and making a trilling noise with their tongue. More and more people come out until every vehicle is surrounded. Men are crying in relief and thanking the fighters over and over again. They are hugged and kissed like heroes. We are even thanked as if somehow we have been a part of it. The fighters start firing their guns into the air, which attracts more people onto the streets. What started out as a few dozen greeters quickly turns into hundreds. I ring into the office and go on air but it’s clear there’s an element of doubt in London as to what I am describing. “So who are these people, Alex?” my colleague, Steve Dixon, asks. “Where is the Gaddafi support?” I tell him I will try to get pictures for him so he can see for himself. Producer Andy Marsh has heard the conversation and agrees only pictures will demonstrate what we are witnessing. He suggests trying to power up the BGAN, the kit which will connect with the satellite and beam the pictures back to London while we are on the pick-up. Now anyone in television will tell you how incredibly hit-and-miss working a BGAN can be.
You can be in the most stable of circumstances, with no wind, a perfect signal, stationary and safe and it still won’t work – for no fathomable reason other than it is having an off day. I thought that – like the fighters – Andy must be hopelessly deluded. But it was worth a shot. He plonked the BGAN on the driver’s cab next to his laptop and attached the BGAN to a charger which plugged into the car’s cigarette lighter. Great. No power issues. Problem one solved. Then he found the satellite signal. Problem two sorted. The BGAN emits a noise when it hits the satellite so he knew he was on the right track. Then as we edged our way along the road he gently moved the BGAN so it maintained sight with the satellite. Problem three nailed (coping with movement). Genius and so simple. Sometimes the dice just has to roll your way and that night it did with double sixes. Soon we were transmitting pictures live back to London and the world. (Later my editor told me one of the newspaper headlines read: “Sky scoops the world with a cigarette lighter!)
Everyone Was Watching our Pictures as Incredulity Spread Around the World
I could barely hear myself talk over the cacophony of gunfire and shouting but I could still make out the sound of jaws dropping in the studio gallery in Osterley. I could sense the excitement in Sky presenter Steve’s voice and soon afterwards realised everyone was watching our pictures as the incredulity spread around the world….first reaction from the US State Department, Downing Street, the UN…it went on. We realised our pictures were having an impact but never anticipated the scale of it. We had no internet, no mobile phone connectivity, no television, minimal contact with the outside world.
It was Ramadan – and Muslims don’t touch alcohol anyway – but the crowd was drunk on excitement, relief and joy. We were pretty heady too. We carried on broadcasting hour after hour until it was well into the early hours. When we finally finished we hugged and kissed Andy. “You beauty,” said Garwen. “I don’t know how you did that. You were Cat Sat.” The nickname will probably stick for some time to come: the man who managed the satellite like an agile cat on the hot tin roof of a fighter’s pick-up. It was far too late to ring home. I found out later the family had missed it all. It was Sunday night after all and there was school the next morning.
Mostly, my family are far too busy to spend hours or even minutes watching me on television and I battle against not only delirious fighters with guns but also the even more potent personalities of Hannah Montana and Selena Gomez. No contest. But later my youngest child, Flo, apparently watched with my husband Richard and asked him if they were real bullets. “I’m afraid they are baby,” he told her. “But she’s okay with her bullet-proof vest on isn’t she Dad?” she asked. He reassures her and switches channels. He tells me later Flo believes the bullet-proof vest is akin to the invisible cloak which Harry Potter wears – it’s all encompassing and gets the boy wizard through many a scrape. Oh for one of those in Libya.
For the Sky team, there was still a lot more to come. We headed into the city and passed by the hospital. An ambulance was just pulling up and Garwen and Andy jumped off to film it. Jim and I stayed outside with the pick-up, which, by now, was our only transport and we didn’t want to lose it.
Within minutes there was shooting outside the hospital. A man was shot in front of us as he was trying to run away. We ran inside the hospital. The pick-up truck disappeared and we were inside our new home – at least home for the next few days.
The Generosity of the Libyan People
Everywhere we went in Libya it struck us just how generous and selfless people were towards us. There was no power in the city, no running water, with rubbish piling up on the streets, fuel and food shortages, but people still gave up what little they had for us. But for the generosity of some Libyans we would have had nowhere to sleep, nothing to eat and drink and no transport. We were taken to one shop by a Tripoli resident who drove us in his car. It had opened briefly, its shutters still half down. “Take what you need,” the owner said. We liberally stacked up the car with tins of tuna, dried pasta, bottles of fizzy drink and water. The boot was soon filled, as was the back seat. We were quicker than looters. When we came to pay, he refused. “No, no, no,” he said, “This is not right. You are sahafi (journalists), we need you.’ A row ensued until we literally begged him to take our dollars and give it to his mosque if it so suited him. He finally relented.
We thought the Green Square moment was a turning point. Maybe it was but there were a few more corners to go around yet. Monday night was another twist. Saif Gaddafi turned up at the Rixos Hotel that night, bold as brass, saying the Gaddafis were still in control. It seemed to fill the opposition fighters with fresh impetus and from then on the Bab al Azizaya compound was their focus. They spent Tuesday (23 August) pounding at the exterior walls of the Colonel’s vast compound from a number of different directions. It was outside the south gate where we witnessed the poor man mentioned earlier being shot through the head by a fellow “rebel”.
Sections of the city were still terribly insecure. A road might be safe to travel down one minute, but return 15 minutes later and there would be firing. When the fighters told us they had broken down the north gate, frankly I didn’t believe them. We had to see for ourselves. We raced round there, chaperoned by an English-speaking fighter who insisted he took us every step of the way. He continually stopped and asked the risks ahead? Who is there? Where are they? Is it safe? I think being a woman makes those who are helping us extra cautious. In the Arab culture, if anything happens to you while you are in their care, it is a terrible dishonour – and more so if the person you are looking after is female. We made our way toward’s Gaddafi’s giant model of a fist crunching an American fighter jet. Tents were already on fire and people seemed to be running in all directions. We set up the BGAN just in time for the top of the Six O’Clock News. I could hear the executive producer Jamie Woods talking to me down my earpiece saying: “Hi Crawf, good to see you. We’re coming to you soon. Ramsay (Sky News’ Chief Correspondent Stuart Ramsay) is also in the compound.”
No-one else around the world had live pictures inside Gaddafi’s compound and Sky News had two reporters in different areas giving a unique perspective. I felt a surge of pride. Sky News is still the baby of the British TV news industry, tiny in comparison to the giant BBC, with all its staff and all its money, and small compared with the powerful ITV. It’s partly this smallness which, I like to think, makes us more agile and quick on our feet. But there’s also a feeling we have to run faster, run longer, run harder than the others.
Criticisms that we were Gung-Ho or Reckless: All Rubbish
I have heard the subtle criticisms which hint at us being gung-ho or reckless. All rubbish. In my team alone, we are all parents. We have 11 children between the four of us whom we love very much. We spent our time in Libya snatching calls with them by satellite phone, telling stories down the phone to them, promising we’d be back soon. They replied that that was all well and good but Hannah Montana was still on. The idea that we would take unnecessary risks when we have so much to live for is utterly ridiculous.
The criticisms emanate from people who clearly haven’t been at the end of the phone line to John Ryley (Sky Head of News) or Sarah Whitehead (Sky Foreign Editor) when they are going through our tactics and operations and exit-plans. Sky has some of the toughest safety procedures in the business and instigated many of them way ahead of our counterparts.
But as well as safety being on our minds (how can it not when you are surrounded by men firing guns) we felt we were at the heart of a massive story – a Berlin-wall-type moment – powered by Libyan people, albeit helped by Nato jets. But not on this day. Time and again the fighters asked us – as if we had a direct line to Nato – “Where is Nato? We need them to bomb the gates.”
The fighters around us were deranged with excitement. They had done it and they had done it themselves. Around 16 hours after Gaddafi’s son had shown reporters round this same complex and boasted of the family’s enduring power, his empire was literally being trampled on by hundreds of opposition fighters and civilians. I spotted a man wearing a Gaddafistyle hat, a gold chain around his neck and carrying an elaborate flyswatter. He looked, walked and acted a bit like a Libyan Kenny Everett. I asked him where he got the hat. “Oh my god,” he said, “I was in Gaddafi’s room!” My children tell me later there’s a rap song on YouTube where that conversation is set to music and edited very amusingly. It’s doing the rounds at their school and suddenly I am not quite so embarrassing to them. It won’t last.
Note on the author
Alex Crawford is a Sky News Special Correspondent based in South Africa. She is the current holder of the Royal Television Society’s Journalist of the Year, an award she also won three years ago. Last year she was nominated for a BAFTA for her coverage in Pakistan and has been recognised at the Foreign Press Association awards for three years running for her work in India, Afghanistan and Pakistan. She won a Golden Nymph at the Monte Carlo Film Festival for her coverage of the Mumbai terror attacks in 2008. She has been also been recognised in the Bayeaux War Correspondents awards. She has covered wars, conflicts and hostile environments in Iraq, Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma as well as Africa and Europe including Northern Ireland. She has been embedded with the British, American, Sri Lankan and Pakistani militaries but usually operates in a small team independently.