This time last year, Libya was in the grip of a bloody civil war.
Muammar Gaddafi was fighting to preserve his regime after 42 years in power.
The rebels trying to topple him were struggling to fight past his defenses on their way to the capital Tripoli.
The city eventually fell last August. Gaddafi fought on till captured and killed in October.
The BBC’s Rana Jawad was the only Western reporter to remain in Tripoli throughout the civil war.
She also knew Gaddafi’s Libya well, having lived several years in Libya.
Her new book is called “Tripoli Witness: The Remarkable First Hand Account of Life Through the Insurgency”.
“I remember very clearly and vividly,” Jawad tells anchor Marco Werman, “broadcasting off the rooftop when bullets were flying around, and people were being shot at as they took to the streets.”
And that was just the beginning.
Then came the allied bombing from the air, and military stalemate.
“A lot of people started giving up (hope) almost, in Tripoli, saying it looks like nothing will happen here.”
Repression continued, and Jawad had to go off the air.
But she continued reporting, writing for BBC online under the name, “Tripoli Witness”.
Many of those reports are in the book.
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Marco Werman: This time last year Libya was in the grip of a bloody civil war. Muammar Gaddafi was fighting to preserve his regime after 42 years in power. The rebels trying to topple him were struggling to fight past his defenses on their way to the capital, Tripoli. The city eventually fell last August. The BBC’s Rana Jawad was the only Western reporter to remain in Tripoli throughout the civil war. She also knew Gaddafi’s Libya very well, having lived several years in the Libyan capital. Her new book is called “Tripoli Witness: The Remarkable First Hand Account of Life Through the Insurgency”. She joins us from Tripoli. Rana, you’re British-Lebanese, married a Libyan. When you first arrived in Tripoli some eight years ago, what were your impressions of Gaddafi’s Libya?
Rana Jawad: Well, it was quite intimidating. I think that’s an understatement. I was twenty-two at the time, a fresh graduate from university, and just trying to make my way through the world of journalism. It was my first posting. So it was uncharted territory not just for me, but for a lot of Western journalists at the time. It was a very difficult country to get into as a reporter, and to report from as well. It was incredibly repressive. It was very difficult to get people, normal Libyans, to talk to you. So you almost felt, on a daily basis, that you were trying to find your way through a minefield constantly, especially when you were working a story.
Werman: Then last year the Arab Spring came and the revolt in Benghazi. You didn’t leave Libya. Tell us what you did do, Rana, and how life changed in Libya for you.
Jawad: Well, I did stay in the country, specifically in Tripoli. I couldn’t leave at the time simply because we didn’t know how things were going to develop, and I was one of two foreign correspondents based here. So a large part of me felt I had a duty to remain, not least of which also because I’ve been here for eight years and other things complicated matters for me on a personal level because I had recently gotten married to a Libyan who was also from Benghazi, which is where the uprising started. In the first ten days, in the first weeks, I was reporting openly to a certain extent, but then I basically had to stop. I went off broadcasts and eventually I moved on to writing for BBC Online under an alias name of “Tripoli Witness”.
Werman: Why did you stop broadcasting?
Jawad: Well, the night I went off the air was on the night of the protests here in Tripoli and I remember very clearly and vividly, you know, broadcasting off the rooftop when bullets were flying around and people were being shot at as they took to the streets here in the capital. At the time, these were normal civilians protesting against what was happening in Benghazi. And Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, Colonel Gaddafi’s son, who is now in prison at the moment in the country, awaiting trial, he came on air on state television and made a very damning and, I think, for many, a memorable speech because not many people are likely to forget that anytime soon, but the undertone of that speech was very threatening not just to the people, but also to the foreign media and I remember he named a couple of foreign media in that process. That was the time when editors basically made the decision back in London that I need to get off the air and that’s when I stopped.
Werman: So how was that moment last August when Gaddafi was driven out of Tripoli? It was the most complex military operation of the war and it was a total surprise. What was it like to be in the middle of it?
Jawad: As the weeks went by, a lot of people started giving up almost in Tripoli saying, “It doesn’t seem like anything’s going to happen in the capital.” Of course, when the weeks turned into months, hopes all but disappeared as far as Libyans were concerned, and we did know when the rebels had entered Zawiya, which is just about thirty-five kilometers away from the capital. We knew, you know, it’s about to hit home, which was Tripoli, and we heard about it two days in the past, but then again there had been false alarms in the past and at the time we weren’t sure, but then there was aura all around and this incredibly, I don’t know how to describe it. It was a very surreal moment. It was like Armageddon about to happen somehow and we were all awaiting a comet to hit the earth, and people, you know, they just silently waited, I remember, for forty-eight hours before the rebels entered. People were just waiting and they knew, and then when the mosques started calling out, “God is great, God is great,” which was everyone’s cue, the Libyan cue for people to take to the streets because the rebels had arrived. It was explosive. I mean I, you know, a lot of people, not to my knowledge at the time, I didn’t know, but a lot of people in the area had all armed themselves by then as the months went by. In Tripoli that’s what people were doing.
Jawad: There were collecting arms, whether is was Kalashnikovs or RPGs or anti-aircraft artillery, and suddenly all these weapons came out and people were firing into the air in celebration mostly, even though they came out to protect their areas, to prevent any of Gaddafi’s forces from coming in because there was a very real fear up until Tripoli fell that it would be a bloodbath in the capital. So people were very fearful of what would happen, but then they were surprised that, you know, it fell within three days. Though there were some isolated battles around the capital, it was a relatively easy process for them.
Werman: And later, as we now know, Gaddafi was captured and killed in his hometown of Sirte. A new Libya is being built now. How is it going?
Jawad: I think it’s a difficult time for a lot of people here, although the optimism is still there. I think it’s best to quote an official I had met with just a couple of days ago who said, you know, “Between any revolution and state, there’s a period of chaos and that’s where we’re at right now.” And there is that recognition, whether it’s on the official side or by people, the Libya is still in a state of some form of turmoil. There’s still some sporadic clashes. You know, they’re trying to move ahead. There are a lot of changes here. I had been away for the last four months in London. I partly needed a break from Libya after eights years and the war. I had just recently come back, and coming back, I see the difference. You know, I left a few months after the fall of Tripoli and four months on a lot of new things have developed. I remember getting into the car just ten days ago when I got back and turning on the radio and listening to English programs. That never existed because under Gaddafi’s rule, English was not allowed in the country. You know, they weren’t allowed to put up signs in English in shops and they weren’t allowed allowed to broadcast anything in English on the radio. So it was, for me, for someone who has, you know, been based here for such a long time, you know, you cannot help but sit back and kind of smile and say, you know, “Good for them. They’re trying to move on despite all the difficulties that still exist.” So although the country is facing difficulties, it’s not on the brink of collapse.
Werman: Rana Jawad, BBC reporter in Libya and author of “Tripoli Witness: The Remarkable First Hand Account of Life Through the Insurgency”. Thank you very much indeed.
Jawad: Thank you.
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