On the ground in Libya, a first-time war correspondent

A supporter of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi chants anti-U.S slogans during a protest in Tripoli on March 18.
A supporter of Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi chants anti-U.S slogans during a protest in Tripoli on March 18. (Reuters)
By Steve Hendrix
Monday, March 21, 2011; 11:22 AM

This is a normal day reporting on the ground in eastern Libya:

The cellphone went off at 4 a.m. A photographer and three Libyan interpreters and I were in a spartan worker's apartment in the town of Ras Lanuf. We were desperate for sleep after a full day of nonstop fighting near this oil port.

But the army of Moammar Gaddafi had other ideas.

"Get out of there now," said the Libyan contact on the line. "They are coming."

We were on the road in minutes, unable to confirm the risk but unwilling to take a chance. Other reporters piled into cars in the pre-dawn gloom as the warning spread. Any foreign journalist in that part of Libya had crossed the abandoned border from Egypt illegally. We were all keenly aware that any encounter with Gaddafi forces would mean instant arrest, press card or no.

For me it was remarkable, my first evacuation from my first war zone. It followed a day when I'd interviewed my first wounded soldiers, pondered my first dead ones, squatted behind a sand dune with mortar shells shaking the air.

But for the seasoned pros around me, it was just a day at the desert office. Close calls are routine, and several journalists in Libya have been caught and released, or caught and smacked around. On Tuesday, four New York Times journalists disappeared near the front line. Among them was Anthony Shadid, a veteran foreign correspondent and a former colleague at The Washington Post. I saw him briefly in the lobby of the Uzu Hotel in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi, which was crowded with war reporters from dozens of countries. Anthony looked perfectly at ease.

They all usually look perfectly at ease, even in the most unsettling conditions. They never stop scribbling notes, even as they duck instinctively against the bursts of antiaircraft fire just yards away. I saw them toggle between the physical and the cerebral: adrenaline-filled mornings of battle, political interviews in the afternoon, 30 inches of clean copy to pull it all together, written after a bad dinner and filed by East Coast deadlines. The Times said its last contact with the quartet was on Tuesday morning; Shadid's byline was on the front page of its Wednesday edition. The four were in government custody but would be released , ABC News reported.

The collective of war reporters slept through the hand grenade that a Gaddafi loyalist tossed onto the front steps of the Uzu Hotel one night, shattering windows. I, the guy on his first war-zone assignment, the guy who came with an electric toothbrush and P.G. Wodehouse novels, was the only one who came down to investigate. The explosion barely registered as lobby chatter the next day, far below complaints about the hotel's awful food and the city's squirrelly cellphone service.

A Washington-based feature writer, I found myself in rebel territory thanks to the sheer magnitude of the rolling upheavals in the Middle East. The reporters based in the region have been in story-of-the-decade mode for months, day after day, riot after riot. For their health and safety, editors are digging for reinforcements.

When I got to Benghazi late on March 5 to relieve Post reporter Leila Fadel, she had not had a day off since the Lebanese government collapsed Jan. 12. During that time she had written dozens of stories, been briefly detained by police in Cairo and reported on battles and munitions dump explosions in Libya. She talked about her 14-hour drive back through Egypt with relish; she would sleep the whole way.

"You'll probably want to go west tomorrow, to the front," she said, still excited through her exhaustion. "That's where the story is now."

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