When I gave my jacket to the drycleaners in Cairo today, it still smelt of cordite. It had been three days and over 1,000-km of road travel since the fall of Ras Lanuf, but my jacket still smelt of rocket smoke. I reported on the fall of the town for Headlines Today
, but I haven't had the time to write about it. I need to. It'll be much of what you've already seen in my report. But I need to write about this to get it out of my system. Anyone who's seen death smile will probably know what I mean. Anyway, here's what happened on March 10.
It was afternoon on March 9 and our car was doing 140-km/h on the highway between Aj Dabiyah and Ras Lanuf, an oil town roughly halfway between rebel stronghold Benghazi and Libya's capital, Tripoli. As we drove -- Headlines Today's Gaurav Sawant and I and British photojournalist James Wardell -- Libyan air force jets bombed an oil containment vessel on the outskirts of Ras Lanuf, sending two huge plumes of smoke skyward. When we pulled into the town, there was chaos in the main square. Guns were being fired everywhere. Hopped up rebels emptied their Kalashnikov magazines uselessly into the air, while air-defence positions fired blankly into a purply firmament. I'd gotten used to seeing this sort of thing.
Agreeing that it was probably a bad idea to hang around gun positions at twilight, we headed to the Ras Lanuf hospital. The names of the dead were scrawled on pieces of paper and taped to a side-window at the main foyer. Doctors and nurses in their greens mixed with rebels holding their weapons -- assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, 9mm pistols tucked into belts. A lot of the rebels were smoking inside the hospital, but nobody told them not to. A back of fresh dates sat at the reception ("Reception" was written, slightly disturbingly, in a children's party font). Doctors were running around attending to the wounded. We were asked to wait, and the ushered into the intensive care room, where a soldier was being resuscitated. Half of his head was blown away, now bandaged with blood-soaked cloth. His body shuddered with siezures, a piece of cloth jammed in his mouth to keep him from biting his tongue. His head had been shattered by shrapnel. It didn't look like he would make it. But as soon as his vitals were set, he was gurneyed off into an ambulance and zipped away to Aj Dabiyah, where a more equipped hospital would do everything it could to keep him alive. We don't know what happened to him, but he probably didn't make it. You should have seen his head.
Dr Suheil Altarash, the director of the hospital, asked us to stay the night at the hospital, since any other part of Ras Lanuf was liable to either be bombed or ambushed. We decided to drive through the main square before turning in. Outside, we were approached by a rebel soldier Rawad, who gave us fizzy apple juice and got his friends to show us their weapons. One of them was stoned and kept dropping his 9mm in front of us. When we told Rawad that we were sleeping at the hospital, he would hear none of it. He said the rebel army had captured Ras Lanuf's only luxury hotel, the Fadeel, and that he would arrange for us to stay there. Without a good excuse not to, we took Rawad and headed to the hotel, a seriously fancy place bang on the Mediterranean.
Inside the Fadeel, there were rebel soldiers everywhere, all of them with guns. One had a machete. The hotel's staff had long been packed off. The rebels had the whole hotel to themselves. Rawad set about finding us a room. As we walked the corridors of this weird, smashed up deluxe hotel, we noticed that every
room had been slept in, sheets ripped up, furniture tossed around, trash everywhere, cigarette butts stubbed into walls and carpets and curtains. Every room had become a dump. A soldier with a light machine gun took us to a room, and before entering, he ordered another (he had two 9mms in his belt) to spray the room with air freshener. We entered. It was a good room. More rebel soldiers entered the room to find out what was going on. Every single television had been removed from the hotel. Gaurav, James and I decided this was probably the most dangerous place to spend the night at. We decided to leave, but needed to do so without offending Rawad and at least a dozen stoned, boisterous, volatile rebel soldiers, who'd just spent the last few days being bombed senseless by Gaddafi's air force. We told them we'd go to the hospital and come back later in the night. Luckily, they didn't seem to care. A vat of pene pasta rotted in one corner of the lobby. The reception was stripped of everything. Every single room key was gone. Everything in the hotel that was worth anything had been removed and probably sent off to be sold. Our driver, Imraja, helped himself to a package of A4 paper and a Swedish thriller lying on the counter.
On the way back, our driver stopped at the make-shift rebel canteen to get us food. He came back with a large bag full of assorted things. Flat bread, tins of tuna, date bars, biscuits and grape juice. We parked outside the hospital and ate gratefully.
It was bitterly cold that night. While rebel ack-acks continued to fire sporadically through the night, the whipping Mediterranean wind would make it one of our more uncomfortable nights. We drove back to the hospital, and asked Dr Altarash if he was sure he could accommodate us, since we didn't want to stay at the hotel. "Don't even think of staying at the hotel. That's the most dangerous place around here. Stay the night here with us. You can eat what we eat, sleep where we sleep. If we have to die, we die together. We are family," he said. And he really meant it. In Dr Altarash's tone, there was exhaustion, fear, anger, pride and despair all at once. His assistants gave us a room with two matresses and two stretchers, and offered us packs of juice. The only other food available was that bag of dates at the reception. None of us had any idea what would happen the next day.
At 9.30am on March 10, Gaurav, James and I drove down to the main square. We had arrived right in the middle of an air-raid. It was no drill. Looking up, I quickly scoped a swing-wing fighter -- probably a MiG-23 -- with its wings in mid-position, banking sharply right over where we were. Two separate anti-aircraft gun positions opened fire, slamming shells into the sky with their little puffs of black smoke. The jet pulled up and disappeared into a wisp of cloud, levelled out and shot off in the direction of the sun. I cannot adequately describe the noise levels at the square. Three gun positions, located in a triangle, continued to fire after the jet was well out of range, while a rebel soldier perched on a compound wall screamed "Allahu Akbar" continuously through a megaphone, a phrase that the rebels would chant in rising screams during air attacks. As the chants subsided, the Libyan fighter jet returned, this time at higher altitude, its wings still in mid-position. There was a sudden scramble for cover. We dove behind a concrete wall, waiting for an explosion that didn't come. The rebels continued to fire, while others prepared more chains of ammunition. Then, in the distance, we heard what sounded like the rapid dull detonation report of a cluster bomb, and sure enough saw the plumes. As we stood in the middle of that square, recording the event and reporting what we saw, we heard more thuds, this time much nearer. The bombing had begun.
Rebels at the square told us that the fighters were now circuiting over Ben Jawwad, a town not far from Ras Lanuf, and that was where the real fighting was happening. Eager to see the actual frontline, the real border between the rebels and Gaddafi's advancing forces, we decided to follow a rebel convoy. Rawad, the young rebel soldier we had met the previous evening, was with us in our vehicle. One soldier told us a couple of journalists had been passed through an hour before, and therefore we could go through. We drove, and all along the way in the distance, we could see the bombing. Big blasts of smoke popped intermittently from behind dunes, trees and rocks. On the way, we picked up a French journalist who had been pulled out of a rebel vehicle and sent back walking. The four of us and our driver stopped about a kilometer from the frontline, where a congregation of air-defence positions continued to fire into the sky. There was a light breeze blowing, and we were in the middle of a shrubby desert area, with the Mediterranean sea off to our right. On our left was a large clump of trees. We got out of the car and waited. We were told we couldn't go any further. The journalists who had been passed through until that point were there too, an Italian journalist, Lucia, and her cameraman.
We got out of our vehicle and stood by the side of the road, squinting into the distance at the fighting that was on a kilometer down the road. Three rebel soldiers stood near our vehicle, one of them with a machine gun and the other two with AKs. Our driver took the machine gun and posed for photographs. Rawad was with us. He had gone silent, because like us, he had noticed that the convoy we had followed to the frontline, had turned around and zoomed back to Ras Lanuf in a cloud of brown dust. And we didn't know why. Five minutes later, it began.
From the side of the road, we felt an impact and a large plume of smoke rise from behind the clump of trees off to our left. The impact was near, and our vehicle shook. The next salvo of rockets landed perhaps 70-feet from our vehicle. The big thud of the rockets threw us, as we ducked for cover. James ran to our right, over the desert sand towards the sea, reaching about 40 feet from where we were, he continued to scream to us to move away. On my knees, I peeped behind our vehicle to see three more rockets slam onto a patch of grass on the side of the road. I felt my hair fly, and the vehicle rocked. As I took cover quickly, I heard pieces of shrapnel whack the side of our vehicle and another parked a few meters behind us. A third salvo was fired, this one slightly behind and to the left of our vehicle, closer still. The Italian crew, not knowing where their vehicle was rushed to ours, as we all spread out flat on the ground, hoping that the slight depression in the side of the road would save us from what we knew by then would be a rocket that landed closer still. Our vehicle absorbed the thudding vibrations of the next rocket that landed. And since the rockets were impacting behind us -- flying over our heads, effectively -- we were perfectly situated both, within range, and within the kill-zones of the weapons that were being launched in our direction. I was flat on the ground, Gaurav and Lucia in front of me, everyone yelling. Off to our right, I saw James in the distance, and for a moment thought I would move off to the left to put more distance between us and the rocket salvos. In a few seconds, we decided to clamber into the car, and James sprinted towards us to pile in last. We U-turned through a haze of smoke and zoomed back towards Ras Lanuf. All the while, we hoped that there wasn't a fifth rocket, corrected perfectly to smash into our mini-van. There wasn't. But as we breathed in the rocket smoke, and emerged into clearer desert air, our van fish-tailed back to Ras Lanuf, where rebel positions were still emptying their magazines into the sky. The air raid wasn't over. We quickly found our bearings, caught our breaths, and left.
Three hours later, Ras Lanuf fell to Gaddafi's advancing forces. And the hospital was overrun.