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NPR Reporter: ‘Ragtag’ Libyan Rebels Seek New Weapons, Money

May 24, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
NPR foreign correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro recently spent several weeks on the ground in Libya, covering the conflict and learning more about the rebels' hopes and resourcefulness despite their limited military capability. She shares her experiences and perspective on the dangers of war coverage with Ray Suarez.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Late today, Libyan state television reported the death toll from the NATO airstrikes has risen to 19.

And now the view from a veteran correspondent who has spent the last several weeks on the ground.

Ray Suarez has that.

RAY SUAREZ: And our reporter’s look at Libya comes from Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, who has been covering the conflict for NPR.

Lourdes, you were on the ground in Libya as people from all kinds of everyday walks of life chose themselves, became the resistance. Tell us about the rebels you met and how they keep going.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, National Public Radio: It’s an extraordinary story.

When I first went into Libya, I was one of the first reporters to cross the border. And, all of a sudden, you find yourself facing civilians with guns. And my experience in Iraq told me that that was probably not a very good thing.

But they were extremely welcoming. They were so excited to have foreign reporters there that would be able to tell their story. And, as the days went by, what became so compelling was the story of people who had never shot a weapon before, people who were architects, people who were students, and, all of a sudden, they were fighting for their very lives.

And they weren’t doing it very well. You know, their incompetence, unfortunately, showed very, very quickly, and they were outmanned and outgunned. But the story of the Libyan rebels is really one of hope. They feel that they have something that they want to say to the world. They feel that they have something that they want to achieve.

Unfortunately, it’s turned into a bloody, dreadful civil war, and the future is very unclear. We don’t know what will happen. But, certainly, at that very early moments, those early days, you really did feel that they wanted to overthrow Gadhafi and that they felt they could achieve something very important in Libya.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, now that it’s worn on for all these months, are they becoming more organized, more competent?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes and no. Certainly, the international community has stepped in. There’s advisers there.

If you go to Benghazi, this is no longer the sleepy seaside town that I knew early on. It’s a place now that is bustling with all sorts of different characters, be they sort of mercenary types trying to cash in on the war that’s going on or advisers for various different governments, diplomats.

So, certainly, there is a lot of pressure on them to organize themselves to be a credible voice for the Libyan opposition. There’s a lot of money that is going into them now. But, by the same token, they are not really prepared yet. They’re still facing a divided country. There are still battles going on in the western mountains, in places like Misrata.

Even though there’s a stalemate in the east, they still have to defend it. So, it’s a very complicated picture. And it’s still not clear if they’re representative. And there are still many internal divisions among the ruling body.

RAY SUAREZ: NATO is very much in evidence in the air. But can you tell that the Western alliance is giving the Libyans help in any way on the ground?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, you can certainly see that they are giving them help, I mean, again, just by the very people that are there.

But that — but, you know, the rebels, on the one hand, will tell you, we’re not getting enough help. I mean, the weapons that they’re using, it’s incredible. I went to one of their chop shops. And it really is a chop shop, where they unearth old equipment, and they basically paste it all together and put it on the back of a truck and drive it to the front.

And some of it is from World War II. I mean, some of it is just incredible. So, they’re not getting the weapons that they feel that they need. And they’re not yet getting the financial support that they feel that they need. They’re running out of money.

And it’s a very confused picture, because you still have the western part of the country. You still have the Libyan government in control of that. And so how you get their funds to be unfrozen is a very complicated legal question, and whether or not they should be given to this rebel government, which is, frankly, untried, untested, unproven. Do we really know who they are and what they mean, what they want? You know, those are a lot of questions that people are asking themselves now.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, how did this army get shells, bullets? How does it restock and resupply?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is not an army in the sense that you might have imagined.

If you have been to Iraq or Afghanistan and ever worked with the U.S. military, you imagine tanks and weaponry. This is the furthest thing from that kind of conflict you could get to. This is not a professional force on either side. I have been over on the other side, to Tripoli, and seen Gadhafi’s forces. And they are not either a professional force of — that has been trained and is well-equipped — better-equipped, certainly, but not well-trained.

And, so, these are basically a very ragtag group. And, so, they get their weapons any way that they can, essentially. When the east was liberated, there were huge weapon stores that had been sort of liberated along with that. And, so, they basically are still using those, but a lot of the equipment is very old. It’s from the ’70s, ’80s, again, some, like I said, from World War II.

And — and it’s not really up to standard. I have seen so many of these young guys holding rocket-propelled grenades, and some of them don’t have the pieces that are supposed to be there. They — some of the guys don’t even know how to use them. I mean, it’s very, very slapdash.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, you have been in a country where the front has constantly been shifting, where captured towns get to be uncaptured and then recaptured.

And you talk to people who, by the very act of talking to you, might be risking their lives. Are you aware of that when you’re doing it? And how does it change the reporting?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s one of the most difficult things that we do. And I certainly felt that more when I was in Tripoli.

Tripoli, we operated — we operate under very tight restrictions. We’re constantly surrounded by minders. It’s a very surreal thing. We get put on buses, like these bus tours that we get taken to. And everything is very heavily orchestrated.

And, so, if you manage to speak to someone, if you manage to sneak out — I managed to speak to Eman al-Obeidy, who had said that she had been raped by pro-Gadhafi forces. And going to see her was a cloak-and-dagger mission. I had to take several taxis. I had to make sure I wasn’t being followed. She risked her life, I risked my life, in order to get out the story.

And you have to be very aware of that. And you have to protect, first of all, people’s identity. I mean, she was famous. So, therefore, her identity didn’t need to be protected. But, certainly, other people that I spoke to, we were very careful to either disguise their voices, to make sure that they couldn’t be traced in any way.

But, unfortunately, certainly, in the early days of the uprising in Tripoli, many of the taxi drivers that the reporters would go in, in the cars with ended up being picked up and sort of disappeared. And it’s one of the very real risks that we take when we report on stories like this.

RAY SUAREZ: What about the risk for you? Reporters have been arrested, kidnapped, and now killed in Libya. How do you gauge acceptable risk?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: It’s one of the most difficult things that we do. One of my very close, good friends, Chris Hondros, was killed in Misrata. Many good friends of mine were there when he was killed. Obviously, Tim Hetherington was there along with him.

I feel very strongly, though, that the legacy of these deaths shouldn’t be that we cannot cover the story, that we shouldn’t. What is acceptable risk? That’s a question for my managers, I think, to decide. But, as me, as a reporter on the ground, I feel that it’s absolutely imperative that we bear witness, that we’re there to tell exactly what’s happening.

At times, that is at great personal cost and at great personal risk. But I know that the people who have died, who have been injured feel the same way. They — they very — they felt very strongly that it was important to tell other people’s story. That is what we’re there to do. We are not the story. They are. And, so, if we are in harm’s way, it’s because they’re in harm’s way. We’re there to tell their story.

RAY SUAREZ: NPR’s Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, thanks for talking to us.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: You’re welcome.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow night, Ray speaks with James Foley of the international news website GlobalPost, one of four journalists kidnapped and held by Gadhafi’s forces for six weeks.