Photographers' Blog

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.

Nurse of the Mediterranean

Ever since the Libyan uprising began last February, the small Mediterranean island of Malta which I call home has been a vital cog in the vast humanitarian machine in operation. It started as an evacuation hub for thousands of people and then became a critical transit point for humanitarian aid. Several months later, Malta continues to play its part.

I got the call to head to Malta’s international airport VIP lounge around lunchtime, to photograph Shwejga Mullah arriving on the island for medical treatment. Shwejga Mullah is the Ethiopian nanny who was recently discovered weak and alone in the home abandoned by deposed Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s son Hannibal. It’s been reported that Hannibal’s wife Aline threw boiling water over her, causing horrific scald burns and scars, when she did not stop his daughter from crying and refused to beat the child.

As she was being brought over in a private plane chartered by the Maltese government, there wasn’t going to be any need to shoot on a long lens from outside the airport perimeter fence. The government officials wanted to show the world that Malta was still playing a crucial humanitarian role in the Libya crisis. We would be allowed right up to the foot of the stairs of the aircraft, so just 2 camera bodies, one with a 70-200mm lens and the other with a wide angle would be necessary. This was what all the other photographers were doing.

The rebel march to Tripoli

By Bob Strong

The Libyan rebel march to Tripoli – from the mountains to the coast

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In late July we pulled up to a Libyan rebel checkpoint outside the mountain town of Nalut and I got my first look at the fighting force. One rebel had his helmet on backwards, a few of them were armed with only knives, and random gunfire filled the air as men test fired their new weapons. It felt like the rebels couldn’t defeat a boy scout troop, much less Gaddafi’s well equipped army. As usual, I was dead wrong.

The rebels advance from the west began in the small towns at the base of the Nafusa Mountains in late July. The day we arrived, July 28, rebels had pushed Gaddafi forces out of a series of villages and set their sights on Tiji, a strategic garrison town on a main road leading to Tripoli.

With no electricity in the nearby towns, the Reuters team of reporter Michael Georgy, myself and a driver based ourselves in a hotel across the border in Tunisia. This meant getting up at 6am every day, crossing the Libyan border, and driving 3 hours to the front lines. We would usually get back to the hotel around 9 or 10 at night, eat and sleep.

Waiting for Gaddafi

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (L) meets Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi at the Egyptian border city of Mersa Matrouh October 16, 1989.  REUTERS/Frederic Neema

It was 22 years ago and I was covering a meeting of the Libyan Leader Muammar Gaddafi and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt at the border town of Marsa Matrouh.

Gaddafi was late. Really late. We were all waiting for him, including Mubarak. As a Reuters photographer based in Cairo at the time, I had covered a lot of official visits but this was the first time that I saw Mubarak waiting for someone. As usual, nobody bothered to tell us the reason for the delay, but it was so long that Mubarak started talking to us. The atmosphere was jovial. So jovial in fact, that my Egyptian colleague, Aladin Abdel Nabi, dared to ask Mubarak if he would have his picture taken with me. “Why?” was the cold answer and we left it at that. The mood returned to “official mode.”

A few moments later, we heard a convoy of cars arriving amidst a lot of dust, noise and the usual chaos. Gaddafi had finally crossed the border. Mubarak greeted him stiffly, visibly annoyed by the delay. They both walked towards the spot where both national anthems were to be played. It was at that moment that I took this picture. Gaddafi adjusted his robe in his usual royal fashion while starting to walk. I remember thinking how both men looked so powerful and untouchable at that time.

Libya’s Gaddafi takes center frame

The first day of the UN General Assembly is one of those days every year that you both look forward to and dread. With so many world leaders coming to New York to give a speech you know there will be always be news associated with the GA. The problem is very little changes at the UN from year to year and the pictures, of which thousands are shot every day, all tend to look very much the same.

This year we were all looking forward to the first address to the GA by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and as expected he delivered a photo-rich speech for the photographers in attendance. It was one of those speeches that was hard not to get a good photo from no matter where in the hall you were shooting.

We placed three photographers in the assembly hall in our normal left-center-right positions. Everyone had photos of him waving his arms around, gesturing, holding up a book, throwing a book and waving his speech in the air.

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