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New York Times Journalists Recall ‘Medieval’ Captivity in Libya

April 1, 2011 at 6:37 PM EST
Margaret Warner talks to New York Times journalists Anthony Shadid and Lynsey Addario about their recent captivity in Libya while they were covering heavy fighting in the country.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the Libyan government rejected the conditions for a cease-fire, saying they would not withdraw from the cities they hold. Both the politics and the battle lines shift in Libya by the day and by the hour.

Margaret Warner has the story of what that can mean in the most extreme circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: As fighting between pro and anti-Gadhafi forces raged in the eastern city of Ajdabiya in mid-March, four New York Times journalists and their driver were seized at a government military checkpoint.

The four, reporter Anthony Shadid, reporter and videographer Stephen Farrell, and photographers Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, were held captive for six days, often beaten and abused. After multination negotiations, they were released on March 21 into the custody of Turkish diplomats. Their driver, Mohamed Shaglouf, is still missing.

Joining us to talk about their experiences and the wider Libyan battlefront are Anthony Shadid and Lynsey Addario.

And welcome to you both.

Tony Shadid, beginning with you, you went through an incredible ordeal. Tell us — give us a flavor of it, and what it told you really about the nature of this conflict right now.

ANTHONY SHADID, The New York Times: Well, I think, you know, we were taken by surprise somewhat that Libyan forces had encircled the town.

And when we were leaving, after a day of reporting on a battle that I think we thought might be seminal in this town called Ajdabiya, we ran into a checkpoint that I think Lynsey identified first as a government checkpoint. We were captured. We were bound, blindfolded later, and then, you know, set off on a very long odyssey across the country until we arrived in Tripoli.

I think what we saw as we went across that country and this trek from Ajdabiya to Tripoli, basically, was the wreckage of a state, was a state that was struggling to kind of maintain its legitimacy, maintain its control over the country, but that was having a very difficult time doing so.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Lynsey, I don’t want to make you revisit all the horrors, but tell us — just give a flavor of the kind of abuse. I mean, you were all physically assaulted, attacked. And, for you, it did have some sexual overtones.

LYNSEY ADDARIO, The New York Times: Yes.

From the minute we were taken and put on the ground, they started searching our pockets. And they sort of turned me over immediately and started grabbing my breasts and groping me. And, for me, you know, in that — in this part of the world and in most of the Muslim world, there’s a real separation between men and women. And, generally, men don’t touch women.

And so, for me, it set the tone for the rest of the time that we were taken. And I was repeatedly touched over those six days — or over the first three days.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tony, back to you, you men were also attacked, were you not?

ANTHONY SHADID: Yes, we were. You know, we were beaten several times over those first three days. As Lynsey pointed out, those first three days were the most harrowing.

Once we were in Tripoli, we were treated quite well. And even — I have to say, even at moments over those first three days — and Lynsey went through an unbelievable ordeal. Tyler, Stephen and I, you know, we were headbutted sometimes with the butt of a pistol. But, you know, at times, we also, you know, were met with, you know, a certain hospitality — I don’t want to say hospitality, but maybe a generosity would be the better word.

As soon as we humanized ourselves, as soon as we became people in their eyes, we were treated at times better. But I don’t want to dismiss what — what was visited upon us over those first 72 hours.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Tony, you are deeply experienced in conflict zones. What was your observations about the nature of Gadhafi’s forces? I mean, it sounds as if they were undisciplined and — and cruel.

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, anarchic, chaotic, thuggish. It really wasn’t the semblance of an army, I would have to say. It was a militia. And it was young guys with guns.

And I think Lynsey and I have both seen this time and again in different countries. And, you know, young guys with guns don’t really feel like they have to live by any rules. And that was definitely the — I think the — it was our interface with the state that we encountered.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Lynsey, in fact, in the piece you all wrote jointly for The Times, I think there is a line that says: We realized there wasn’t much of a separation between rebels and these army guys. They were all just kind of young men with guns.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: Yes. I would say the only difference is that Gadhafi’s troops had uniforms; they had flak jackets; they had helmets; they had trucks; they had more equipment, probably more, with — including the airstrikes, they just had more ammunition, everything, whereas the rebels were just — they were sort of the same soldiers but unorganized.

And we saw — we spent quite a lot of time with the rebels. The one thing that — I have covered quite a few conflicts, and the one thing that was really difficult about covering this is that every time fighting was going on, and we would go to the front with the opposition, and when Gadhafi’s troops would start pounding with tank fire, artillery, airstrikes, the rebels would just turn around and flee and leave immediately.

I mean, they — they — there was a column of people fleeing and fighters fleeing. And, as journalists, we were all sort of — we were almost sometimes standing there in shock that everyone would just take off and leave the front line. I mean, it was pretty amazing.

MARGARET WARNER: And then, Tony, when you were with these Gadhafi forces — you speak and understand Arabic well, I know — what were they saying about what’s motivating them, what they think they are fighting for? And how motivated did they seem?

ANTHONY SHADID: You know, what really struck me is, you know, when we heard Gadhafi’s speeches over those days and weeks, we were — the speeches were often, I guess, in opposition eyes, a source of ridicule, this idea that rebels were taking hallucinogenic drugs, or they were all al-Qaida fanatics, or militant Islamists.

What struck me, talking to — or hearing the rebels, hearing what they were saying to us, was that they actually believed this. They believed this idea that they were fighting militant Islamists, they were fighting al-Qaida. And they also had a really difficult time imagining Libya without Gadhafi.

I mean, we have to remember all these young guys, these young men with guns were basically raised under Gadhafi. They had never lived in a Libya without him. And I think there was a difficult — there was a — it was a difficult prospect for them to envision a country where he wasn’t there.

MARGARET WARNER: And, Lynsey, go back to this — this long trek you took, really, from Ajdabiya all the way to Tripoli. And Tony has just said that you had seen kind of the wreckage of a state. You have this photographer’s eye.

Give us just a little flavor of that.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: I mean, I — unfortunately, I was bound most of the trip and blindfolded.

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, and blindfolded.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: So, I couldn’t see very much.

But we were blindfolded. We took a six-hour journey in the back of a pickup truck where they blindfolded us and tied our hands behind our back and threw us in the back of a pickup truck. And we were taken from probably the outskirts of Ajdabiya all the way to Sirte, where we spent a night in prison.

And, in that drive, Tyler was able to see out from under his blindfold, and he was sort of narrating the scenes along the side of the road. And I was hiding. I was sort of in fetal position in the back of the truck, just to sort of get myself out of view of the people we were passing on the street, because every 45 minutes or so, every checkpoint we went through, people would come over and sort of smack us around.

And, in fact, they would punch one of us or scream things at us like, “You dogs.” And — and it was really medieval. I mean, it was as if we were taken through one of those medieval scenes and we were these prisoners in the back of a pickup truck. And people were really angry as they were — as we drove past.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, quite an ordeal that you have been through. And I’m glad are you home safely.

Anthony Shadid and Lynsey Addario, thank you.

LYNSEY ADDARIO: Thank you.

ANTHONY SHADID: My pleasure.