Watching Libya from Malta
By Darrin Zammit Lupi
When the Arab Spring got underway late in 2010, few of us imagined it would spread to Libya with any tangible effect. To those of us of my generation here in Malta, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was the bogeyman – he’d always been there lurking not too far from our shores – Libya is less than 350 km to the south of the island, and Gaddafi was a frequent visitor and close friend of the Maltese government in the 70s, my childhood years.
A year later, when I look back on the events that kicked off on February 17, 2011, I’m amazed it all happened so fast. Who would have dreamed that Gaddafi would be overthrown within six months, and dead within eight?
The start of the uprising turned Malta, normally a rather quiet news backwater spot in Europe into the center of world attention, as countries from all over the world struggled to evacuate their nationals from Libya. As soon as we got the first indications that there may be evacuations, I immediately started looking into ways of how I could get as comprehensive a coverage as possible.
My plan was to try to fly into Tripoli on an evacuation flight and fly straight out again – the shots I was looking for were of Europeans boarding the aircraft. Evacuations seemed to be starting off slowly – my first point of contact was the Austrian Embassy in Malta, as they were the first to send a military plane to the island to be on standby to fly into Tripoli. The Reuters Vienna bureau got in touch with authorities there, but no luck. There was no way they would take a journalist with them, occupying a very precious seat on the plane on the return flight.
We next tried the Maltese national airline Air Malta, who were laying on extra flights to try get as many Maltese and other nationalities out of the country as it descended into chaos. Though I made it clear to the airline that I wouldn’t even need to walk away from the bottom of the aircraft stairs, they refused to take the risk of flying me in without a visa. And no visas were being issued by the Libyan embassy in Malta.
Wanting something to start covering the story, I headed to the embassy where members of the Libyan community, normally a very discreet docile one, were protesting against Gaddafi. Such a sight seemed unthinkable until then – no Libyans, not even in Malta, ever dared speak out against Gaddafi. There was a lot of loud shouting but little more, though that would change in subsequent days.
I next headed to the airport to cover the arrival of some evacuees on an Air Malta flight, but didn’t get anything too exciting out of that. Things got interesting as I was driving away from the airport.
Without any warning, two fighter jets flew right over my car at an altitude of around 500 feet. Malta has no military air force. It was immediately obvious that something major was happening. I made the quickest driving U-turn of my life and saw that the aircraft were beginning to circle the airport. I suspected they were planning on landing, so I headed to a vantage point where I’d be able to shoot that from. I got there just moments after they touched down and shot off a few frames as the Libyan Mirages F1 jets taxied along the runway. I dashed back to my car, and sped down to where I thought was the most likely airport park they were heading for. My hunch was correct.
Once again I shot a few frames, whipped out my laptop and immediately filed a couple of pictures to the Reuters picture desk in Singapore, as well as to the local newspaper I shoot for.
The first pictures were on the wire being picked up by clients worldwide before the pilots had even disembarked from their planes. This was big news – The two defecting colonels would soon offer the first conclusive evidence that Gaddafi was bombing his own people.
Canada’s CTV called me up later that evening and did a live phone interview during their lunchtime news broadcast. Thankfully no coughing fits or major gaffs on my part, but I think I’d rather stick to shooting pictures, thank you very much.
The next morning, members of the international media started flooding in. By the evening, every major TV news network and agency had their people on the ground in Malta.
The embassy became a focal point. Protests there became noisier and angrier. Flags were burnt, Gaddafi posters ripped to shreds, and people were quickly becoming hysterical. The police guarding the embassy were evidently very nervous. Embassy staff erected razor wire along the outer walls of the building. Clashes broke out when both the protestors and pro-Gaddafi supporters tried to demonstrate there at the same time.
Working days became longer. I needed to be at the airport whenever an evacuation flight came in. We needed pictures of aircraft of all the different air forces taking part in the operation, to keep clients in those countries happy. Possibly more importantly, I needed to speak to evacuees to see if they had pictures Reuters could buy off them. I got lucky the first time I tried that, and though the pictures were rather poor quality-wise, they were the first we were seeing of the chaos at Tripoli airport.
The pressure to get good shots out on the wire as quickly as possible never let up, most especially so when a catamaran arrived in Malta carrying a large number of American evacuees. Their late evening arrival was being shown live on several TV news networks. All the media were gathered on a rooftop overlooking the arrival quay. I got my laptop set up and connected to the 3G network, though not without problems – possibly caused by all the satellite transmitters all around. I prepared my captions beforehand, and once things got going, I was able to switch cards back and forth from the cameras to the laptop and get my pictures transmitted extremely quickly.
The pressure didn’t let up much for the next five weeks or so. Several passenger ferries and naval vessels repeatedly brought evacuees to the island – once again it was important to get pictures of evacuees of as many different nationalities as possible to serve as wide a range of clients as possible. They came at all times of the day and night in very often wet, cold and windy weather. I certainly became very deprived of sleep, but I wasn’t complaining. Few things in one’s professional career can beat the satisfaction of working on such a major story.
Though the tempo did ease off eventually, Malta’s involvement never stopped. It remained a humanitarian and logistical hub throughout the conflict, for a long time also providing the only viable sea-link to the besieged city of Misrata.
Recently, the two Mirage jets, their roundels of the all-green Gaddafi-era Libyan flag replaced with roundels depicting the Kingdom of Libya flag, were returned to Libya. I felt honoured to briefly meet the two pilots who had defected and to shake their hands. It’s not everyday that you get to be in the same room as two real-life heroes like Libyan air force pilots Colonel Abdullah al-Salheen and Colonel Ali Al-Rabti.