One year after the UN approval of a no-fly zone over Libya, Award-winning photojournalist and war correspondent Medyan Dairieh discusses life on the frontline.
On August 20th of last year, Medyan Dairieh travelled overnight with Libyan rebels as they advanced from Nalut into the capital, filming the Battle of Tripoli from the outset. The rebels’ entrance into the capital was processional—moving in ordnance-laden pickups, they punched their rifles into the air in celebration, cheered on by lines of Tripolitans. This, however, was the calm before several storms. Pockets of loyalist resistance remained in Bab al-Aziziya and the Gaddafi stronghold of Abu Salim. Here, under a barrage of machine gun fire, Dairieh sustained serious injuries to his eyes and legs, but he continued to film, remaining with the rebel forces to document the Battle of Tripoli’s final plangent skirmishes.
Roughly six months earlier, the Arab Spring had reached Libya, a nation for forty-two years in cultural lockdown under the totalitarian rule of Muammar Gaddafi. Demonstrators took to the streets of Benghazi in mid-January, fuelled by anger over generations of censorship, human rights abuses, and government corruption. The protests traversed the country, from Benghazi, Derna and Bayda in the northeast, to Tripoli and Zintan in the northwest, culminating in the “Day of Rage” on February 17th. Gaddafi’s army responded with brutality.
Dairieh arrived in Libya within days of the uprising’s beginning to cover the story for Al Jazeera. In the arid Nafusa Mountains, his nights ripped open by mortar fire, Dairieh captured the violence of the ensuing civil war. As one of the few journalists to report from the frontline, his was a privileged insight into the rebel forces’ operations. He spent months living with the February 17 Martyrs rebel group, often accompanying them in battles. He witnessed the rebels defeat Gaddafi’s men in key battlegrounds near the Tunisian border, despite their lack of resources and training, and often being outnumbered three to one.
Dairieh amassed a large archive of photographs and footage from the year of conflict. His work has since been exhibited in Germany, Luxembourg, New York, London, and across the UK, with an exhibition planned in Libya later this year. One of his photographs—taken seconds after a missile had landed metres from rebel soldiers, smoke billowing behind them—won the Gold Award at the prestigious Hamburg International Festival of Photography. The judging panel praised the image for capturing the confusion of battle. A short film, Journalists Under Fire, which Dairieh made for Al Jazeera, will form part of a longer documentary about the Libyan Revolution. Scheduled for release on Al Jazeera Net and DVD, the documentary covers the revolution from February through to August and is intended to give an insight into how reporters work in war zones.
Now based in the UK, Dairieh is a Palestinian who has worked on the frontline in Turkey, Iraq, Congo, Afghanistan and Palestine. Thin, with jet-black hair and an easy smile, Dairieh’s speech is everything the conflicts he covers are not.
Dairieh talked with me at an exhibition of his photography in Brighton, UK, and on subsequent days via email.
—Michael Owen Fisher for Guernica
Guernica: You spent several months of the civil war living in rebel camps in the northwest of Libya, travelling with them into battles. What were the conditions like?
Medyan Dairieh: It was difficult in many ways. The internet I was using connected via satellite and it was very slow. It was difficult to communicate even through the satellite from certain locations, especially in the mountains. Sometimes I would talk to the news desk and they were unable to hear me properly. Another problem was the lack of electricity in Zintan and other mountainous areas. Whenever I needed to use the internet, the rebels used their generators to power it up, but often they lacked the petrol required to get the generators working. Sometimes generators would stop working altogether and it was really difficult to repair them.
As for food, rebels cooked basic meals on an improvised fire. In the morning I would have two spoons of honey, and during the day I would eat pasta. This, for two months! I slept with my shoes on in certain areas at the frontline. I could not really sleep at night; we could expect strikes at any time. The rebels were not trained and did not build trenches or protection in which to sleep, so I felt very exposed. Therefore, like the rebels, I had very little sleep. In my opinion, the most dangerous reporting work I have ever done has been in Libya. This is because most of the rebels were not organized, were untrained and lacked military experience. Working with them was therefore extremely dangerous.
Guernica: When you say “not organized,” what do you mean specifically? A lack of planning?
Medyan Dairieh: I think it stemmed from lack of resources. For example, in the rebels’ operation room, they were using Google Earth. They did not have a military map. Even when entering Tripoli, they lacked suitable weapons. Most of their weapons were seized from Gaddafi’s forces over the course of the war. If you watch footage of the rebels entering Tripoli, the missiles on their vehicles had been removed from planes at a military base captured in the East of Libya. Libyans living in Europe were buying binoculars and walkie-talkies and sending them to Libya. The rebels were in great need of these resources. Gaddafi’s forces were comparatively well-equipped, and even had night-vision binoculars.
Guernica: On the subject of organization, the press has made much of the use of social media such as Facebook in organizing the opposition during the revolution. Did you see much evidence of this?
Medyan Dairieh: Yes, Libyans used social media like Facebook and YouTube to upload videos and photos of the uprising and revolution. Libyans gave me some of their footage while I was in the country. When I was back in the UK, after the internet was shut down, a Libyan pilot and airline official were bringing me information and videos from Tripoli. They were taking the information to Malta, and from there the info was taken to the UK. Obviously, I could not reveal this before. And Libyans abroad were communicating through Facebook. After the rebels began to control several different areas, they communicated through satellite internet until the very end of the conflict.
Guernica: You travelled into battle with the rebels on many occasions. Did the difference in resources you mentioned translate to the battlefield?
Medyan Dairieh: Yes, in many cases. For example, Gaddafi’s men had missiles with a twenty to forty kilometer range. The rebels’ missiles had only a five kilometer range. The rebels were usually outnumbered as well.
I can confirm there were many mercenaries in Gaddafi’s military, especially from Chad and Niger.
Guernica: Taking all this into account, it is surprising the rebels prevailed in so many clashes during the civil war. Can you explain this? Did they have any tactical advantages?
Medyan Dairieh: Well, I can give you one example. The rebel group I was with gained control of the Al Murabieh Mountain, which is on the Tunisian border. Gaddafi’s men, led by a soldier from Chad and including many mercenaries, had been trying to defend the mountain in order to control the border crossing. There were almost one thousand of them, and this greatly outnumbered the rebels. However, in this battle the rebels were high on the mountain. Gaddafi’s forces were lower down in the valley, and the rebels were able to ambush them.
Guernica: It’s interesting that you mention the high proportion of foreign mercenaries in Gaddafi’s army. Do you know what has become of these foreign mercenaries, post-revolution?
Medyan Dairieh: I took many photos and videos of mercenaries fighting on mountains far from towns, wearing Gaddafi’s military uniform. And later I saw and interviewed some of them in the prison in Benghazi. I felt they were treated with respect by the rebels. Some of them were released, while others, suspected of having raped Libyan women or committing other crimes, were kept there. I can confirm there were many mercenaries in Gaddafi’s military, especially from Chad and Niger.
Guernica: Thinking further about the rebels’ shortcomings in terms of numbers and equipment, I would be interested to hear your opinion on the role of NATO in the conflict, and the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. To what extent did NATO help in the rebel victory? I have heard mixed reports regarding this. What were the opinions among Libyans, in your experience, on the foreign military intervention?
Medyan Dairieh: At first Libyans needed help in their revolution. As I said, most of the rebels had not been trained, and many had very basic, simple weapons. Many of them were killed as a result. I remember the night the UN imposed the no-fly zone this time last year; I was awoken by the cheers in the street. This was universally popular, of course. But in general, both ordinary Libyans and the rebels did not want boots on the ground. And in the end, I think there was a feeling that the foreign military intervention could have helped the Libyans to a greater extent in their revolution.
There certainly were Libyans supporting Gaddafi. However, whenever I entered towns with the rebels, people were clapping and cheering.
Guernica: In what sense? Of course, there were many reports of civilian casualties following NATO bombings. Were the airstrikes unpopular?
Medyan Dairieh: Actually, the opposite was true. The NATO airstrikes helped the rebels considerably against Gaddafi’s forces. Libyans did not want boots on the ground because for them that would have counted as an occupation, but the rebels and civilians were fine with the airstrikes. In all military operations, no matter how precise they are, it is unavoidable that there are some civilian casualties. Therefore the rebels accepted them. In fact, they felt there were not enough airstrikes in the end.
There is a second point as well. I also think that the airstrikes helped Gaddafi politically at first and he tried to use the NATO intervention to win Libyan support and maintain control in Libya.
Guernica: Yes, and Gaddafi was a renowned propagandist. What were your impressions of his true level of support and loyalty towards him in Libya?
Medyan Dairieh: There certainly were Libyans supporting Gaddafi. However, whenever I entered towns with the rebels, people were clapping and cheering. Moreover, when I entered Tripoli, Libyans there were crying with joy at the sight of the rebels.
Guernica: Indeed, you travelled into Tripoli with the first wave of rebels on the 20th of August. Watching your footage of the advance into the capital, it appears triumphant and processional. What were your impressions?
Medyan Dairieh: The strangest thing was that, as we entered, the first residents to come out were carrying Kalashnikovs. People in Tripoli struggled to believe the rebels had actually entered the city. They were worried Gaddafi’s forces had returned. We paused, and I had interviews with some of the civilians. As I said, many of them were weeping with joy and told me they were proud of being Libyans, finally.
Guernica: What was the mood among the rebels during the journey into Tripoli?
Medyan Dairieh: I had just got back to the UK when I received a call from the rebels’ leader informing me that something extremely important was about to take place. At 4:00 A.M. on the 20th of August I arrived back in Libya at a rebel camp in the town of Nalut, which is near the Tunisian border. We travelled with a military convoy to the town of Rujban and joined many other rebels who had been waiting for us. As soon as I saw them, in such huge numbers, gathering weapons, I felt something was about to happen. In Rujban, the rebels’ leaders told me they would attack Tripoli in the night, on the 20th of August. I did not believe them at first, but I noticed how confident they were. When I saw the road sign with “Tripoli” written on it, it became clear they were telling the truth.
Guernica: But despite the celebratory entrance into Tripoli, Gaddafi’s military fought back in the Bab al-Aziziya and Abu Salim areas of the city.
Medyan Dairieh: Yes, the rebels faced opposition in Bab Al-Azizya, Gaddafi’s headquarters and the area where he lived. But the last strong opposition was in Abu Salim, which was where I was, with the 17 February Martyr group. By the evening of the 21st, however, the rebels had taken control of most of Tripoli.
Guernica: And this is where you were injured, in Abu Salim. How did you sustain the injuries?
Medyan Dairieh: Actually, I was injured twice in Libya. First I was injured in confrontations during the initial period of the uprising, at the Al Murabieh Mountain, which we discussed earlier. Gaddafi’s forces spotted us on the mountain and began heavy shelling. I injured my right arm and leg.
The rebels were not wearing protective clothes and even lacked a radio transistor.
Guernica: Yes, I saw you being bandaged up in some of your Al Jazeera footage. But the injury in Tripoli was more serious, wasn’t it?
Medyan Dairieh: Yes, the second injury was in Abu Salim. I was staying with the rebels in a makeshift camp in Tripoli airport. Tripoli had been cleared of Gaddafi’s forces, with the exception of the Abu Salim quarter. I was with the 17 February Martyrs. Another rebel group had entered the district already and we were behind them. Snipers were shooting at us from a building ahead, and once we got to Humdorman, at the heart of Abu Salim, we encountered heavy resistance from the remains of Gaddafi’s forces. The rebels, divided into groups, occupied the whole area. There was smoke, fire, dead bodies on the ground. We were being shot at from two directions. One of the rebels was hit by an RPG as he was coming out of our van. He died immediately and fell onto me without one of his legs. The shrapnel got into him and some fell onto me. At that instant, I saw a small explosion from the corner of my left eye, and I could no longer see with it. The blood of the dead rebel was everywhere.
Guernica: So where on your body were you injured? Were you hit directly?
Medyan Dairieh: It didn’t take me long to realise that my left leg had been injured. I was bleeding excessively. Some shrapnel had hit my leg and one of my eyes.
Guernica: What happened next?
Medyan Dairieh: The rebels were not wearing protective clothes and even lacked a radio transistor. Luckily I had one with me, attached to my bulletproof jacket. The rebels were calling for help, making gestures with their arms. I wanted to use my radio to communicate with the other rebel groups to call for assistance, but I noticed the radio had been damaged, together with my camera. I realised then that both radio and camera had prevented me being hit. The radio had been by my heart, and the camera by my thigh. I could see the bulletproof jacket and my helmet had also protected me because they had also been hit. Despite being badly injured I continued filming.
Guernica: I can only guess at how many hours of film you have. You’re planning to turn some of the footage into a documentary. Will this focus on one aspect of the revolution?
Medyan Dairieh: The documentary will cover the war from the beginning, until I was injured in Tripoli. It will show the rebels fighting, getting trained, praying, resting and sleeping, and finally entering Tripoli. But, moreover, I want to concentrate on how the reporter works in a war-zone. We are trying to keep the footage the way it is, without cutting. Also, the film gives strong evidence about the presence of mercenaries within Gaddafi’s forces and shows how his army was fighting in remote areas.
Guernica: How long will it be?
Medyan Dairieh: Between forty-five minutes and one hour long probably.
Guernica: But the photograph for which you won the Hamburg Festival’s Gold Award for Photojournalism wasn’t one you took in Tripoli, was it?
Medyan Dairieh: No, that was in the mountains again. I was waiting for a rebel to pick me up in Nalut, where I was staying with a bodyguard provided by the rebels. Throughout the morning I could hear explosions and rockets. Suddenly a rebel arrived in a van and told me of heavy fighting taking place at the Murabiah Mountain. As we approached the site we saw young people running with Kalashnikovs and more rocket attacks. As soon as I arrived at the backline, the rebels told me they had captured one man from Gaddafi’s forces and killed two, while one of the rebels had also died. The rebels were fighting against attacks coming from two sides.
Guernica: At what moment did you take the photograph?
Medyan Dairieh: I was kneeling, taking photos, and filming. One rebel was struck with RPG artillery. The rebels with me were trying to fire at Gaddafi’s forces when a rocket fell behind them. I shot the photo at this particular moment. In the photo, the rebel hit by the RPG has fallen down, while the other rebels are running backwards, confused, and you can see the smoke from the rocket rising behind them.
Guernica: What happened after the rocket attack?
Medyan Dairieh: There was one of Gaddafi’s soldiers below us, injured in both legs. He had been left behind by the receding army. He looked very young and was calling to us for help. It was in an attempt to rescue him that I went down the mountain with some of the rebels. Unfortunately by the time we reached him he was full of blood and died immediately. When the rebels unbuttoned his uniform jacket to retrieve his ID, they found a photograph of his two children. Although I am proud of my award, the photograph always brings back the sorrow of having been unable to rescue this young father. I have covered fighting in many different countries, but I will never forget the day I shot this photo.
Guernica: I’m interested to know, what drew you to frontline journalism? The deaths of Marie Colvin, Rémi Ochlik and Gilles Jacquier in Homs are recent reminders of the profession’s inherent danger.
Medyan Dairieh: I found myself in this profession without planning. My original plan was to become a studio photographer and photograph nature. I started working in Turkey as a journalist while studying photojournalism. I worked on the streets in Turkey, covering protests, demos, and the war between the Turkish army and the Kurds. I also covered the war between the Kurdish parties in the north of Iraq; after that I continued to document the subsequent war in Iraq.
Guernica: And do you have a particular approach to war journalism and photography on the frontline?
Medyan Dairieh: There are three types of war reporters. Some go to countries with wars and cover the conflict from safe places. Others stay in the backline. This is already quite risky because the reporter is exposed to rockets, missile attacks and fighter jet attacks.
Guernica: And this was the case with the Homs journalists. Marie Colvin was in her safe house when a rocket struck and killed her.
Medyan Dairieh: Yes. But a few reporters work from the frontline, next to the fighters, and many of them risk dying in the battle. Frontline correspondence is extremely different from other, more ordinary types of journalism. When you are in the frontline you must be prepared and trained. Basically, you are exposed to the same risks as the soldiers. In my view, a frontline reporter is a fighter except that once the war is over the fighter goes back to civilian life, whereas the reporter will move on instead to cover another conflict.
The problem is the press cannot work freely in Syria. Most of the information we get from Syria is given to us by ordinary Syrians through the internet.
Guernica: Perhaps we can finish by thinking about the future. Ostensibly, Libya has fewer ethnic divisions within its borders when compared to many North African and Middle Eastern states. Perhaps this is a bellwether for future stability, but the National Transitional Council has struggled to quell militia groups, particularly in the south, since the end of the war. How do you picture Libya in the years ahead?
Medyan Dairieh: Ethnically, in Libya there are Arabs and Berbers, but the Berbers are very few. Both groups were opposed to Gaddafi. In my view, the future of Libya will be good because all the people joined together against Gaddafi.
Guernica: And what are your impressions of the situations in Syria and Bahrain, especially since the media coverage has waned, particularly in Bahrain?
Medyan Dairieh: In the media it is quite normal to reduce coverage once the conflict becomes prolonged. Nevertheless, I feel that the coverage of the Syrian uprising is still intense. The problem is the press cannot work freely in Syria. Most of the information we get from Syria is given to us by ordinary Syrians through the internet. The escalating violence in Homs suggests that the Syrian revolution has entered a dangerous stage. I fear it may lead to a civil war across the country with a great loss of lives. I hope I am mistaken.
Guernica: What’s next for you?
Medyan Dairieh: I hope to cover other successes in the Arab world, but I don’t look forward to covering other massacres, other deaths. In the immediate future, I will be travelling to Afghanistan this month.
Guernica: You are from Palestine. Will you go back eventually to work or live?
Medyan Dairieh: In the past I have often worked there. I am planning to move back to Palestine eventually and open a studio and training centre for war journalism.