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Reporting a Revolution: Lindsey Hilsum on Libya, its War and its Future

June 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
Veteran reporter Lindsey Hilsum's new book chronicles the revolution in Libya. She speaks with Jeffrey Brown about the war, its aftermath and the future of Libya.
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TRANSCRIPT

RAY SUAREZ: Next, a look back at last year’s revolution in Libya.

Campaigning there in the first national elections in a generation kicked off this week, even as the nation struggles to move forward after the uprising and the ouster of Moammar Gadhafi.

I talked recently with a journalist who’s written an account of the war and its aftermath.

WOMAN: Cannot get out of the house. If you go outside, you’re going get shot at. Mercenaries, they shoot to kill.

RAY SUAREZ: It was a time of chaos in Libya. The people rose up to defy 40 years of dictatorship under Moammar Gadhafi.

Lindsey Hilsum was there, covering the conflict for Britain’s Independent Television News, delivering reports that also appeared here on the NewsHour.

Hilsum entered surreptitiously, before foreign reporters were allowed in. That is why her face is blurred in these shots as she rode with the rebels just days after they helped liberate the eastern city of Benghazi from government control. The revolution spread. And Hilsum followed, reporting from the front lines as the rebels advanced.

LINDSEY HILSUM, Independent Television News: This is the last rebel checkpoint before no-man’s land.

RAY SUAREZ: And retreated.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Hundreds of families and fighters are fleeing Ajdabiya, heading down the road towards Benghazi. And we’re going too.

RAY SUAREZ: Often at great personal risk.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The people say that firing was snipers. They’re still hiding in the buildings. They don’t know exactly where.

RAY SUAREZ: Hilsum covered the entire war, from Benghazi in the east, to the Nafusa Mountains in the west.

After the fall of Tripoli, she penned her reflections on both the revolution and Libya’s uniquely influential role in world events from the end of colonialism to the war on terror.

Hilsum was in Washington recently on book tour. And we sat down to talk about her book and her reporting.

Lindsey Hilsum, welcome to the broadcast. It’s nice to have you in our studio facilities, instead of in some really bad place in the world. It’s great to you have here.

Just now during this stretch of days when we’re speaking, Hosni Mubarak has been sentenced to life in prison and Egypt is still sizzling and not settled in the post-Mubarak era. Syria is sliding into civil war. But Libya, after the overthrow of Gadhafi, we just haven’t heard very much about what is going on there. Has it settled down?

LINDSEY HILSUM: No, I don’t think you can say Libya has settled down yet. I don’t think that it would be possible to glide seamlessly from 42 years of dictatorship to democracy overnight.

The future of Libya really does hang in the balance at the moment, because, after the revolution, Libyans have got such different views on what they want. Some people want a secular state. Some people want an Islamist state. And those young men who we saw during the revolution firing their weapons into the air and — they don’t want to give those weapons up.

And the central government, such as it is, really is very weak. It has little legitimacy.

RAY SUAREZ: And your book reminds us just how thinly populated and how vast an area this country really is. Is it harder to make common cause, harder to make one country out of a place with the peculiar demographic and geographic challenges of Libya?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, you know, I really think the Libyans have got a lot going for them, as you say, a small population, six million people. They’re rich. They have got oil and gas.

And many of them are very well-educated. One of the things that I found when I was over there reporting and later researching the book was how many Libyans had been educated in Britain or in America and so on. So they should be able to make a go of it. They have all of those advantages.

But what happened in the years of dictatorship was Gadhafi managed to convince the Libyans really to be more loyal to their own family or tribe or town than to the country. For example, people of Misrata — Misrata was under siege for several months. They fought incredibly bravely there.

But they really feel — they really feel that they got rid of Gadhafi alone and all the other Libyans were just sitting around drinking tea. They really don’t give credit, the people of Misrata, to anybody else.

And you will find that all over, that there are all these forces which try and split people apart, as well as historical forces.

RAY SUAREZ: You were back and forth across this country, this archipelago of cities near the Mediterranean coast. But there must — it sounds from your reporting like there were some times when it was impossible to know what was really going on.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, I think that that is always true, isn’t it, when you are reporting a revolution or a war, because a lot of the time you can just see what’s happening where you are.

So I was — for example, I spent a lot of time in the east of the country. I spent a lot of time hurtling up and down that desert road reporting on the rebels who — I have to say, they were probably the worst guerrilla army I have ever come across. They were really no good at all.

And they wouldn’t have prevailed if it hadn’t been for the NATO intervention. But I would see what they were doing on one particular day and not what was happening in Tripoli, for example.

And one of the joys of going back to Libya to write the book was to be able to put all those different pieces of the jigsaw puzzle together, as well as to meet again some of the people who I had interviewed when I was doing television reporting, and find their full stories, to go back and find out what had happened to them in the years of dictatorship, as well as that — intense moment when I had met them.

RAY SUAREZ: In the annals of war reporting, I think it’s the only time I have ever heard a reporter ask:

LINDSEY HILSUM: Does your mother know are you here? What does she say?

To which he replied, “Yes, and she’s very proud of me.”

RAY SUAREZ: One thing that comes through loud and clear is that Libya was a bizarre state in many ways during the Gadhafi years, but one that wasn’t without aiders and abetters in the rest of the world.

If you have a lot of oil and gas, you have to sell it to somebody. And they have to be willing to do business with you. Can the world repent at leisure now that Gadhafi’s gone?

LINDSEY HILSUM: Well, I don’t know if repent at leisure is the right phrase.

I mean, I think that what’s interesting is that zigzag trajectory of Gadhafi, that, you know, at one point, he’s that mad dog of the Middle East. That is what Ronald Reagan called him. And he is seen as the biggest terrorist in the world. And he certainly did sponsor terrorism in all sorts of different places all over the world.

But then, after 9/11, when he — his enemies were Islamists, were jihadis, were fundamentalist Muslims. And so you got to a situation of, our enemy’s enemy is our friend. And I think it’s completely understandable, given what was going on in the world at that point, that that happened.

But what Western countries did was that they chose to forget some of the appalling things that this man had done. They chose to forget the human rights abuse. They chose to forget that, in Abu Salim prison in 1996, 1,270 men were gunned down in cold blood, herded into a courtyard, soldiers put on the roof around, and they were gunned down.

And eyewitnesses I spoke to saw the walls of that courtroom turn red with blood. Now, our leaders decided it was expedient to make friends with Gadhafi for other reasons at that time. And they forgot all about that massacre.

And I have to say one of the things that I criticize us, as journalists, for was, I didn’t know about that massacre. And I think that, because Gadhafi was such a bizarre character, in some ways, we turned him into a joke. And I think that that blinded us from the truly terrible things that he did when he was in power.

RAY SUAREZ: The book is “Sandstorm: Libya in the Time of Revolution.”

Lindsey Hilsum, good to see you.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Thank you very much. Lovely to be here.