Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens spent several hours at an outdoor cafe in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, on July 3. He was being interviewed for Libyan television, but local people kept coming up in the broiling summer heat wanting to meet him.
“We spent almost three hours just standing there, with people taking pictures with him,” said Heba Alshibani, the interviewer. “People loved him. He would never say no. Even if he was in a hurry, if someone said, ‘Can I take a picture?’ ‘Can I talk to you?’ he would stand there and talk.”
Stevens, who was killed Tuesday in an armed assault by extremists on the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi, was a beloved figure in the country, said Alshibani, who is in the United States on a three-week exchange program for media professionals sponsored by the State Department.
“Libya lost a great man, an amazing ally,” Alshibani, 25, said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles. “He was the one who believed in us when others didn’t.”
Alshibani said Stevens promoted U.S.-Libyan relations by making himself accessible to ordinary Libyans. She said that he traveled with very light security and that he liked to walk around Tripoli with just a couple of armed guards who stayed far in the background.
People were well aware, Alshibani said, that Stevens had arrived in Benghazi on a Greek cargo ship last year, at great personal risk during a raging civil war, to show support for rebel forces who eventually overthrew longtime dictator Moammar Gaddafi.
She blamed the attack that killed Stevens on “a small group of extremists” who don’t represent the majority of Libyans. She said that most people want good relations with the United States and that Stevens was an extremely popular face of America.
On the day he was killed, she said, several Libyans entered the burning consulate and carried a gravely injured Stevens to a hospital. “They risked their lives,” she said. “This should give you an indication of how much he was loved in Libya.”
Alshibani and her colleagues had been scheduled to meet with Stevens next week in Tripoli to recap their trip. “He was a genuine man,” she said. “The first thing you got from him was this bright, big smile — not like so many of the other diplomats, who have this fake smile. His was so warm and real.”
Alshibani was in Reno, Nev., when she heard that Stevens had been killed. She said that she was initially worried Americans would react badly to her and her six colleagues because they were Libyans. But she quickly realized that just as most Libyans were upset about the attack on Stevens, most Americans were disgusted at the anti-Muslim film made by a few extremists in California that sparked anti-American riots across the Muslim world.
She said some Americans told her they were surprised about the attack in Benghazi, which had been a rebel stronghold during the anti-Gaddafi uprisings. She said the Americans said: “It’s a city we helped against a tyrant. It’s a people we helped against annihilation, and this happened to us.”
But she said that she and her colleagues have received calls and e-mails from Americans they met in Washington, New York, Reno and Los Angeles, saying that “they don’t think any less of us.”
“That was so warming, you have no idea,” she said.
Alshibani and her six colleagues — who work in television, radio, newspapers and public relations — are among those trying to build a more open and independent media environment in Libya after more than 40 years of strict state control under Gaddafi.
She said that she has already started working on a television documentary about how Americans reacted to Stevens’s death.
“I would love the people of Libya to see what just normal, everyday Americans thought of what happened,” she said. “That relations between America and Libya could not be destroyed.”
She said that her group has a “new perspective” on Americans after the trip, part of the State Department’s International Visitors Leadership Program. The Libyans fly home Saturday.
“I learned that American people are not exactly the way people usually portray them in movies,” she said. “I learned that Americans are big-hearted people. They open their heart and big smiles to strangers, even those from faraway lands. They have no problems accepting new culture, which struck me.”
Alshibani has posted a memorial photo of Stevens on her Facebook page, along with photos of Libyans marching in the streets carrying signs decrying his killing. Photos from her July 3 interview and audio of her last interview with Stevens, on Aug. 17, are posted on her Tumblr page.