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Roughing it with the Libyan rebels

Sue Turton reports from the front-line of the battle in Libya, giving a rare look into the life and times of a war correspondent.
Last modified: 9 Sep 2011 00:31
The ragtag group of untrained and poorly-equipped fighters are hospitable hosts [AFP]

Covering the Bani Walid debacle has been a challenge. And I’m not talking about the shifting frontline, the one-off negotiations nor the scorching desert heat.

Let’s start with sleeping arrangements. Our first lodgings were in Tarhuna, a city that was only just cleared of Gaddafi soldiers and said to still be pro-Gaddafi in some parts. Our Libyan fixer had friends there who kindly offered us a large carpeted room with mattresses and an outside toilet for the night. Only the snoring and the next day's very early start stopped us getting a good night’s sleep.

The next couple of nights were spent on the floor of the local radio station – a bit of a hang out for the fighters so we felt quite safe from any possible hostility. And the room had air-conditioning. What joy to sleep under a blanket instead of sweltering in the humid night air. The mattresses were a bit fusty but it didn't matter. We were knackered.

And what Libyan hospitality! Hot sweet tea, juice, a bowl of communal pasta and five spoons. And always a great big toothy grin from the colonel who was manning the station. Shame the bathroom hadn't seen a bottle of bleach for a year or so and the shower didn't work. At least my teeth were clean.

The following day we had been told that an attack could happen at any time so we decided to try to stay as close to the front as possible. The rebels promised us mattresses so we could bed down in a school where many fighters were sleeping. But the bedding didn't arrive so we had to make alternative arrangements. 

The guys found some space in the mosque where the NTC had held negotiations that day and a number of rebels had decided to snooze. I chose one of our cars. A security advisors opted to sleep in our other car just to make sure I was safe. Apart from the local dogs getting excited about a bag of food we’d left outside it was a relatively peaceful night. But comfortable it wasn't. Every bone ached when we emerged out of our motors into the dawn light to the sound of NATO jets flying overhead.

Which brings me to our catering arrangements. The only things keeping us sane and cheerful every morning were our big aluminium coffeepot, and the little shop next to the mosque. The boys became adept at getting a fire started with scavenged wood and building a little rock stove. Other TV crews looked on enviously as our pot percolated enough espresso for the five of us. Not to mention the boiled eggs for breakfast and the tuna pasta they rustled up for lunch one day.

The shop was a small oasis on an otherwise hostile desert road. For days I’d been dreaming of chocolate. We had been travelling all across the west from the newly opened border to the oil refinery in Zawaiya to the Western Mountains and eventually to Tarhuna. Not a bar of chocolate in sight.

So when we stumbled across a small hamlet with a mosque, school, houses and the shop we did not expect the equivalent of a school tuck shop. But inside this simple stone building was a sweetie fridge Willy Wonka of Chocolate Factory fame would have been proud of - Bounty, Mars, Snickers, Maltesers - all your favourites and just a few kilometres from the frontline. Heaven.

We managed to dash back to Tripoli one night for much needed petrol and the promise of our first shower in six days and a bed. I walked into the bathroom undressing with speed excited at the prospect of feeling clean only to find there was no shower head attached to the pipe. I know this hotel had been through a revolution but who would steal a shower head.