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What I Saw in Benghazi

Consulate on FireAn attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012 killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori/Files

As told to P.J. Tobia

Freelance Libyan journalist Osama Alfitory covered the attack in Benghazi on Sept. 11.

My family is from Benghazi, but I live in Tripoli.

On Sept. 11, 2012, I was visiting Benghazi for my youngest brother’s wedding.
That night, another of my brothers was at the café Venecia, across the street from the front entrance of the U.S. consulate, hanging out and having coffee with some friends. He called me at 9:30 p.m..

“There’s an attack happening,” he said. “Come see, bring your camera.”
A friend gave me a ride in his Mitsubishi Lancer. We were there in 30 minutes.
There are three gates to the consulate. One of them is on the main road, and that’s where the Café Venecia is.

At first, I did not know this was the consulate, but I know the area. It is mostly large houses and villas on big plots of land. They are almost like farms.
It was getting dark. I jumped out of the car.

I could hear shooting, lots of shooting. It was a real front line, with people shooting at each other. Somebody threw a bomb or fired an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade) because there was an explosion. Men were shooting with AK-47s but it was not all normal AK fire. I could hear 12.5 mm and 14.5 mm rounds also. These are very big guns.

It was very crowded, with many, many people — a couple hundred, at least. There were civilians who just wanted to see what was going on, but I also saw groups of teenagers, bearded and armed. The Ansar al-Sharia militia was there, mixed in with the regular people.

I saw a bunch of these young guys, militia members from Ansar al-Sharia, with their AK-47s and they were shooting at the consulate, getting some kind of resistance from the other side. They seemed to be between the ages of 18 and 23, standing about five-hundred meters from the building. They were wearing soldier’s uniforms, the kind that they sell in markets all over the Libya, that anyone can buy.

The teenagers were using a wall from a neighboring property for cover. I think they were the last of the attackers, the tail of the attack group, covering those who were leading the attack. I think their job was to stop people from getting any closer to the compound.
I ran to the wall as well, to protect myself, to take cover. They saw me with my camera.

The first one said, “Don’t use your camera, don’t turn it on.”

I said “No, I am a journalist. I am a Libyan, this is my country. I’m doing my job. Or do you feel that you are doing something wrong? Something that shouldn’t be known about?”

The second guy said, “If you turn it on, I will break it.”

A third attacker looked at the second guy and said, “Don’t break the camera. If he turns it on I will shoot him in the head.”

Then he told me to leave.

As I turned to go, one of the attackers mentioned the Muhammad film, the one from YouTube. He said that was part of the reason they were angry. But I hadn’t heard of the film yet, I didn’t know about it at the time so I just left.

I went to the other side of the compound, about two or three kilometers away. There was a group of national army soldiers guarding the road and they told me what was happening. I spent maybe thirty minutes with them there. They told me that there was an attack on the consulate and everything was out of control. There was a wedding hall near the compound and the national army soldiers were trying to evacuate it because there were families inside there.

“There are people dying and injured inside the consulate,” they told me. “We are trying to evacuate them also.”

Another policeman offered to take me to the main entrance of the consulate in his police car and I jumped in the back seat. We pulled up to the gate and parked. He asked me not to use my camera.

“If they see you using your camera, they will kill both of us.”

We watched a group of bearded men in jalabiya (local dress). They were armed and arguing with each other. They were stealing cars from the embassy compound. They attached a cable to the diplomatic cars and dragged them out, using their own militia’s cars. They were arguing with each other over the cars. Some said, “We should take these cars,” and others were saying, “No, we should leave them.”

What could the policeman do? He couldn’t do anything. We sat in his car and watched. There were people everywhere. There were the people fleeing the wedding hall, the men in jalibiyas and us.

Eventually we left. The policeman drove me back to my house. This was around 1 a.m. Thirty minutes later they found out that Ambassador Stevens had been killed.

When everybody learned what happened at the consulate, people in Benghazi were furious. After the revolution, everybody wanted to attract businesses, investment and diplomats to the city. People there wanted it to be a true second city, the business capital of Libya. Stevens’ killing put all that in danger.

The people in Benghazi took to the street in protest, to show that they do not agree with this killing, that they want to be on good terms with the U.S. and the world. This is not how they want their city to be known.

Osama Alfitory is a freelance Libyan journalist. His reporting has appeared in the Associated Press, The New York Times and other international news venues. On Sept. 11, 2012, he was outside the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, where Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed. In a series of conversations and emails with PBS NewsHour reporter/producer P.J. Tobia, he told the story of what he saw on that evening.

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