The first time I went to Libya, in 2010, I was arrested just two days into my trip. Filming a documentary for VICE, I was detained for shooting where the authorities thought I shouldn’t, and thus began endless rounds of questions, emphatic yelling, and head-shaking incredulity at my claims of innocence—and, of course, the requisite implications that I was a spy. When I was finally released, I swore I would never return to the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya (official name). But that promise was quickly broken, and I found myself back in the country almost exactly a year later, in the midst of a chaotic and violent revolution.
Very rarely is one given the chance to live history, to experience revolution firsthand in all its ugly glory. And it is ugly. Sporadic, disordered communications; crumbling and damaged infrastructure that inhibits movement; intermittent electricity; infrequent meals; and the thumping bass of faraway artillery and the treble of nearby machine-gun fire ensures dialed-up adrenaline. It is, at its best, organized chaos and, at its worst, anarchic chaos. But what a wonderful chaos it is. Watching the push for freedom against one of recent history’s most tyrannical dictators has to be one of the most inspiring moments of my life.
Not many people saw the Arab Spring coming. I’ve spent a lot of time in the Middle East and would have bet large sums of money that widespread upheaval would never happen in the region, so when rebellion erupted earlier this year—in Tunisia and Egypt—I was still doubtful that it could ever spread to Libya. Gaddafi had too much power, control, and money for the people to effectively challenge him. Again, I was wrong. As I write this, rebel forces have entered Tripoli, overrun Gaddafi’s compound, and are hunting for the colonel so that he can be tried for crimes against humanity—or offered safe passage to exile.
My second trip to Libya consisted of two weeks of traveling from the Egyptian border to Benghazi and then onto the front lines in Misrata, embedding with a few different rebel groups along the way. I was shocked by how young many of them were. Barely past puberty and fighting with whatever they could find (one guy had a spear gun), they displayed so much heroism and courage that I would tear up while talking to them. One rebel I spoke with had left the hospital earlier that night—despite having lost a leg—so that he could get back to the front lines. He was offered a flight to Germany and a new prosthetic limb by an NGO, but instead snuck out of the hospital to rejoin his comrades.
Later, I met another group that had just returned from the front between Tripoli and Misrata. Most of them were teenagers from Benghazi. There were 68 who had arrived together; by the time I caught up with them, only 35 remained. Despite the high number of casualties, they were still optimistic.
But the big question looming over everything was “Why are they fighting?”