24 Apr 2011

The State of Play in Libya – Gaddafi style

“Getting past the phalanx of armed guards at the gates of the Rixos sans government minder is hard, but we’d obtained a contact who claimed to be a rebel fighter in the heart of the capital and we were determined to meet him. If he was prepared to take the risk, so were we…”

To break the monotony of our enforced confinement in Tripoli’s Rixos al-Nasr Hotel, the Channel 4 News crew decided it was important to indulge, once a day, in some proper escapism.  For six nights, we watched episodes of the old BBC series “State of Play” – a pacey conspiracy thriller about journalists.

It was a cruel choice.  We all got hooked on a story about investigative reporters. We, on the other hand, were being herded around like goats all day by our government minders and force fed Libyan government propaganda all night in the confines of our hotel.  We decided we had to do some proper digging of our own.

So that night, we hatched an escape plan.

Getting past the phalanx of armed guards at the gates of the Rixos sans government minder is hard, but we’d obtained a contact who claimed to be a rebel fighter in the heart of the capital and we were determined to meet him.  If he was prepared to take the risk, so were we.

We entered a paranoid world, every bit as covert and edgy as the thriller we settled down to watch each night. 

It’s best that I don’t reveal how we made it out, but after several false starts, our first proper crack at what we codenamed (wistfully) Project Chablis got off to a good start.  We ran through every spy movie cliché to check we weren’t being followed; the old bending-down-to-do-up-your-shoelaces trick; the reflections-in-shop-windows ruse.  We gave ourselves the all clear and legged it down a back alley to where we could catch a cab. 

We had agreed with our source to be in a particular location in downtown Tripoli at 3pm. He would check to see if the coast was clear, then he’d whisk us away to a rebel safe house for an interview.

Philippa, my camerawoman, and I, were on location right on cue. We were travelling light, armed only with a tiny camera, the size of a mobile phone, in my jeans pocket. We found a small cafe and sat in the April sun, trying to look like tourists might look – had there been any. We chatted and chilled and consulted our guidebooks and took photographs of each other smoking a shisha pipe.

An hour went by.  No contact.  We’d been in the cafe too long.  We walked.  Then we sat down on a bench.  No contact. I called our man.

“Don’t look round, I am behind you,” he said.  “You’re being watched though.  I think they’ve seen me too.”

The “they” referred to Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s ubiquitous network of spies and informers.  I glanced across to my right.  A man sat on another bench, ten yards away. Every so often, he’d look over our way and glower.  He was definitely suspicious.  As was the chap who walked towards us, then snapped his fingers as though he’d forgotten something, changed direction and then did the same thing again. He was worse at doing this than we were. 

Philippa was nonchalantly chatting away, waving her hands as if explaining some involved story. Another man walked straight past us, very close. He wore a dark tracksuit. It looked as though he was out for a vigorous stroll.  

“Have you seen him yet?”

“Not sure.  That might be him, in the track suit.”

Track suit had stopped and was looking around and he cast a glance our way.  We walked back the way we had come, hoping it would give our contact the chance to better observe who was watching us.  We stopped, and as Philippa pretended to argue over the a map in our guidebook, I saw track suit man again, over her shoulder.  Very subtly, he beckoned us towards him.

As we passed, he said, in English: “Not safe. They are everywhere.” 

My heart sank. “So – forget it?” I asked.

“Yes.”  He walked away, down the road. “We try tomorrow.”

Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya is a Big Brother police state, swarming with spies. There are billboards and signs in Tripoli neighbourhoods reading:  “The People’s Committees are Everywhere.” To ordinary people that means ‘we’re watching you.’  It’s an Orwellian world where no one knows who to trust and sensible people just keep their heads down.

But these are heady revolutionary days and brave Libyans are prepared to take risks – particularly if taking them hastens the demise of a widely-loathed regime that has dominated lives here for 42 years.

The following day we switched locations.  Again, we made good our escape from the Rixos Hotel, and headed for an outdoor cafe we’d noticed in the city.  There are no foreigners on the streets so we felt exposed.  People, while polite, were clearly cautious or suspicious; they gave us a wide berth.  At no point, on either day, did anyone try to talk to us.

Again, we sat waiting, for more than an hour. My phone rang.

“I can see you but can’t collect you here.  There are police.  Walk down the big road in front of you.”

We paid up and walked. Nothing. We couldn’t see him. We began to feel very uncomfortable.  We crossed the road, into a side street and were about to call him when a nondescript car swept in front of us and stopped. 

“Get in.” It was him.

“If we’re stopped, tell them you asked me to help you get to the medina, the old city.  I just gave you a lift.”

We drove through the back streets of Tripoli for 20 minutes before being smuggled into a house, through a backyard.  Our contact fired up a cigarette, smiled and said: “Merhaba.”  Welcome.  He was shaking.

The next problem was how to film him without revealing anything of his identity, even his voice. He said he couldn’t take any chances as members of the rebel underground were being lifted in large numbers.  He claimed that 5,000 people had disappeared in Tripoli alone in recent weeks.

He put on a coat and a hat and gloves.  We anonymised the room, covering pictures with blankets. We couldn’t have his voice on camera, in case we were caught with it. I talked to him for 40 minutes. He claimed the majority of the population was desperate to get Gaddafi out and that the Libyan spring was far from over.

He dropped us near the Catholic San Francisco church and we hailed a cab. Two hundred yards up the road though, on a roundabout, we ran straight into a checkpoint.  We noticed it at the moment we hit it.  Soldiers on either side plus intelligence.  We were pulled over by a grim-faced man in plain clothes.

It was a bad moment. I heard Philippa sigh in the back. Various expletives formed in my head,.  We just sat there, smiling as a soldier, cradling an AK47, leaned in. 

The driver was questioned.  This would not be good for him, I thought.  I felt guilty.  They asked him for his ID card, which they inspected.  They looked into the car again.  Philippa smiled.  “Salam aleikum.” I smiled reassuringly too.  We’d be OK, I thought.  Worst that would happen, a short while in detention, then a drive to the border. No more Channel 4 News in Libya.

The soldier at the driver’s window stood up, called something over the roof of the car. 

He waved his hand at our driver. Who put the car in to first and pulled away.

Disbelief.  We still have no idea why two foreign journalists, out on their own in downtown Tripoli, weren’t detained, as many others have been over the past few weeks. From the back seat, Philippa struck up a chirrupy conversation again, about the lovely Italian colonial architecture.

Ten minutes later, walking into the Rixos, my phone went. 


I recognised the voice.

“Yes, all OK. Thank you.” 

That night we watched the last episode of State of Play.  Nothing like a heart-stopping thriller to wind down with.