Inside the Gaddafi regime

(First published in Pen & Sword Club “Scratchings” newsletter June 2011)

As ‘guests’, we were in turn hosted and suffocated, welcomed and intimidated, engaged and spied upon, embraced and punched, accommodated and imprisoned. The same people were warm, good-mannered and kind one day; contemptuous, rude and violent the next. The pendulum swung in seconds and with little or no warning. And these were the people in whose hands we had effectively put our lives for the duration of our stay. Our hosts: the ‘Brother Leader’ Colonel Gaddafi and his Libyan regime. I’ve been a peacekeeper stuck in the middle of warring factions in Bosnia and Kosovo, mobilised as part of the coalition force in Iraq and later returned as an embedded Sky News journalist. More recently my country of choice has been Afghanistan as a – sometimes-embedded, sometimes free-moving – reporter.

These deployments have undoubtedly been challenging, exhausting, in parts traumatic, and all without exception hugely rewarding. With hindsight though they have been in many ways relatively straightforward and predictable. The Arab Spring brought an altogether new experience for me. The uprisings spread across the Middle East and eventually opponents to the Gaddafi regime in Libya launched their offensive in earnest with their so-called ‘Day of Rage’ on 17th February. Colonel Gaddafi and his entourage were initially predictably tight-lipped and refused entry Visas to all Western journalists. Eventually hours spent getting to know the embassy staff in London paid off and our 3-man Sky News team had clearance to go to Tripoli – as ‘guests’ of the regime. Gatwick airport was thronging with families carrying backpacks and skis. One check-in desk at the far end of the terminal stood clear of queues. Afriqiyah Airways had one flight departing – to Tripoli.

Under the perplexed gaze of holidaymakers, Lisa Holland – the Sky Foreign Affairs correspondent, Nathan Hale – our cameraman, and I checked in for our unconventional mini-break. We started our (‘it’ll be about three or four days’) mini break in February. We next set foot on British soil in April. We were in Tripoli as the stalemate with Gaddafi escalated, watched on Libyan State television as the votes were cast at the United Nations and the No-Fly zone was agreed. We were inside Colonel Gaddafi’s compound as the first bombing missions were launched, and were woken by nightly firefights, anti-aircraft fire and the sound of NATO planes overhead. And when we weren’t taking cover from our RAF compatriots’ raids overhead, we were talking down increasingly desperate regime goons brandishing guns at us. At least in Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq, I had within reason been able to identify potential enemy and threats and distinguish them from friendly forces who might provide help, safe haven and evacuation.  Here on the ground in Tripoli – apart from a last resort and very risky emergency escape plan – our ‘enemy’ and ‘friendly forces’ were effectively one and the same, just swapping at the drop of a hat from host to hangman.

We and about forty other journalists were cossetted in the 5-star Rixos hotel. Our 5-star prison – effectively under ‘hotel-arrest’. All of us at some point tried to leave without a minder, to get the ‘real’ story. All of us were escorted back with a slapped wrist, like naughty school children. Some got further afield, some were detained for hours, some were even tortured. But all were eventually rounded up by militia or soldiers at checkpoints, by men in leather jackets emerging at speed from unmarked minibuses, or by informant taxi drivers on the regime’s payroll.

Back at the hotel, the anti-virus software on our laptops fought a constant battle against ‘hackers’ over the hotel wifi. Every phone call was accompanied at the very least by a loud click; and at its most ridiculous, by the sound of someone else picking up a handset and voices chatting in Arabic in the background. The circus continued when parts of conversations we’d had over the phone were casually related to us by government representatives – a not-so-subtle reminder that they had all the power and were monitoring our every move. One such moment came from the official government spokesman himself. With a tone of concern and a beatific smile, he asked me about my family and how worried they must be about me. I had returned from a Tripoli hospital in plaster after breaking my wrist earlier in the day and had just called home to let them know. The spokesman recounted the words of my family to me almost verbatim.

But in a spurt of over-confidence he then went on to ask about the wellbeing of a daughter I do not have; having clearly mistaken in his hasty eavesdropping, the name of my cat for one of offspring. I smiled, thanked him for his concern and went on my way with a wry chuckle. He was the least of my worries. I had an admirer, a senior government minder, and a pretty persistent one at that. I could not brush him off politely; and to do so more forcefully would have put me and my team in a very precarious and potentially dangerous position. If I was going to have to put up with that I thought; it may as well be useful to us. So I drank numerous cups of mint tea, smiled as he tried to order me around like his chattel, allowed him to carry my tripod, edged gently away from his wandering hands, chatted during cosy coach rides and didn’t flinch at his whispered ‘sweet nothings’ during his translations of speeches. After one long press conference during which he draped himself over my chair and ‘translated’ for me, a Channel Four colleague commented that I ‘oozed rejection’ and ‘couldn’t the slimeball see that?’. It was a game of cat and mouse for all of us; and one that was only bearable to play thanks to a press-pack that put aside all competing interests and united in banter, support and camaraderie in the face of a common foe. And let’s face it; I had it easy. Three of our BBC colleagues were detained for two days, hooded, cuffed and subjected to mock executions. Enough to mobilise even the most cynical and selfish of hacks. This had the making of a BBC exclusive; but as soon as the three had been released and were safely out of the country; the BBC chose to release the interviews and pictures of their story to other broadcasters and we all ran it extensively.

We were of course in the country by choice, and had passports that protected us, that got us out when we needed to. Iman Al-Obeidi did not. She was the Libyan law student who made world headlines after she burst into our hotel breakfast room one morning screaming in Arabic. After realising she was no suicide bomber (our instinctive assumption), slowly journalists gathered to sit her down and try to speak to her. Banging the table and pointing out bruises and scratches, she accused the Gaddafi regime of detaining her, then beating and gang-raping her. Within minutes we had mobilised our cameramen and were capturing her story. Instantly mobilised too though was the army of hotel staff who joined the official minders to attempt to shut her up. She was literally muzzled by one. A waitress then threatened Iman with a knife shortly before her young colleague expertly threw a jacket over the treacherous woman’s head and dragged her to the door. The minders smashed cameras, punched journalists and tried to wrestle equipment and footage off us. One minder who had been full of concern at my broken wrist just twelve hours before, and had been offering the services of a doctor-cousin of his, pulled a gun on us. Somehow we got the footage out to London over our satellite dish. We then agreed with other broadcasters who had been there that we would share the story and give it the widest possible airing.

We’d been in Tripoli for five weeks, welcomed initially like long-awaited friends. We’d been taken on tightly controlled trips to alleged NATO air strikes on civilians, pro-Gaddafi demonstrations, and visits to alleged Al Qaeda prisoners plotting against Gaddafi. We had been fed daily press conferences by a state claiming to be unfairly victimised by the West and accused of atrocities against its people it had not and would never commit. As we had got increasingly frustrated by our smiling gaolers and gilded cage, they had got increasingly angry with our desire to escape their clutches and their propaganda. The smiling masks had begun to slip and the earlier superficial warmth was replaced by orders announced over Tannoy and the occasional uncontrolled venomous outburst. Despite the glaring evidence we had managed to gather; the daily arrests of errant journalists, the threats, the intimidation and guards physically barring us from leaving the hotel, the regime still blindly reiterated its message; insisting this was all a figment of our biased imaginations. But weeks of pressure had taken their toll. They were holding on so tight they momentarily lost control.

One woman had somehow made her way unobserved into one of the regime’s fortresses and she had lit the fuse. And that day, the world was shown just what the Gaddafi regime is really capable of. And yet, more than two months on, journalists are still sequestered at the Rixos hotel in Tripoli, the minders watch them more closely, the Tannoy still bellows out and the phones click. The nights (and now the days) are filled with the noise of NATO air strikes. The café still serves gallons of mint tea, and no doubt my admirer is circling around his next prey. Iman has since popped up in Jordan and Romania and if reports are to be believed, is heading back to her native Benghazi. The regime spokesman still holds a daily press conference. Libya is still the victim of the colonialist oil-hungry West and Colonel Gaddafi is still in power.

A FLEETING CITY-HOP TO KAMPALA

It’s just a flying visit.  I arrived at Entebbe airport yesterday evening from Mogadishu via Nairobi.  I’ve turned my hand to a spot of recruiting for the vacancies that have come up over the last few weeks at AMISOM’s Information Support Team in Mogadishu.  Intent on spreading the net across the region a bit; I’ve done Skype interviews with candidates from Mogadishu, Nairobi and Kampala.  Now I’m on a manic city-hopping extravaganza to meet the front-runners in person.

We landed to glaring dry and hot sunshine – my kind of weather – and I shared my ride from the old capital Entebbe (and location of the country’s only airport) to today’s capital Kampala with a couple of gentlemen from Djibouti, also on their first visit to Uganda and firing questions at our driver about the sites, the politics and the history.  I had been told by one of my team in Mogadishu who lived here for a few years that it was a beautiful country.  What I saw as we drove through the countryside confirmed it.  The lush green rolling hills, the vast Lake Victoria with its beaches and resort hotels dotted around it, the banana plantations all made me wish I was here as a tourist rather than a would-be recruitment consultant.

The traffic and its behaviour reminded me of the roads around Sri Lanka where moped drivers take their lives into their hands (and yours) competing for tarmac with the seemingly never-ending supply of Toyota minibus taxis.  Weaving around the road and barrelling into oncoming traffic, on a couple of occasions, they forced our driver to swerve into the gravel, narrowly missing them and lulling me out of my sight-seeing reverie.  By the time we rolled into Kampala just under an hour later, the clouds had gathered and droplets were hitting the windscreen.  Seconds later, the road was a river of orange mud-laden water, with the regular speed bumps creating mini waterfalls at pedestrian crossings.  Clearly a regular occurrence during the rains season though as suits, dresses and school uniforms alike navigated deftly through torrents without so much as a brolly in hand.  It did serve to slow down the moped maniacs though, who were suddenly nowhere to be seen amongst the criss-crossing rush-hour traffic.  I realised as we went past a couple of service stations that these kamikazes on two wheels were not quite as hardy as their pedestrian counterparts.  I found them all cowering under the forecourt awnings waiting for a break in the clouds; swarms of bikers patiently chatting and eyeing up the more glossy, more powerful and desirable mount parked up alongside them.

For my twenty-four hour flying visit, I’m staying at the Grand Imperial Hotel.  One of the smarter hotels in town but of an older era than the luxurious modern chains; with wide ornate corridors, leather sofas and writing bureaux made of dark polished wood lining the lobby area.  I’m just sorry that with meetings and interviews, I’m spending far too much time in it working, than exploring well beyond its ornate pillars and welcoming staff.  Barely a taste of Uganda, but enough to say I’ll definitely be back.

Off For A Somali Adventure

There I was thinking after a 5-month tour in Afghanistan as advisor to the top British General, I would take it easy for a bit and avoid the war zones I seem to be drawn to on an almost continuous basis, both in uniform as an army officer and as a field producer and reporter at Sky.

I had decided to give up my staff job at Sky News on my return – I’ve been deputy foreign news editor for the last few years.  I wanted more of a challenge, and the flexibility to do more reporting, writing and the option to grab the opportunities I was increasingly being offered to do more as a consultant in strategic communications.

So much for some quieter time in leafy Hampshire with my husband and cat, occasionally squeezing in a bit of work between selecting cuts of meat from our local farm shop and training for marathons across the fields.

They were creating a job based on my skills, around my experience.

They were not talking to anyone else.

They would offer whatever I would be willing to accept.

They wanted me to go to Mogadishu.

 

Somalia.  Well, that’s one so-called failed state I’d not been to.

Tempted.

I would be running the African Union/United Nations mission’s news operation.  I would have crews across Somalia, a documentary team, editors and a base in Mogadishu.

Hooked.

I would advise the African Union commanders and Somali authorities on a communications plan; how to promote their work, their successes and build support from the local population and international community.  My experience of doing a very similar job with the NATO mission in Afghanistan and within the UK Ministry of Defence would come in very handy.

Sold.

 

So the job was tailor-made for me.  And the contract was based on a rotation that meant down-time at home.  My husband and the cat were quite content that this was an opportunity I couldn’t turn down.  And anyway for my husband it would just mean a prime opportunity to launch forth into yet another of his ‘projects’ during my time away (a previous Iraq tour had resulted in a new pet, my recent Afghan tour a new motorbike and hand-made boat…)

 

I’ll be flying out as ‘Deputy Director of Communications for the African Union/United Nations mission in Somalia’ at the end of May.  Sunglasses and headscarf at the ready.  Body armour and helmet in-hand.  Accommodation will be basic but reassuringly familiar from previous adventures – portacabin for sleeping, another portacabin of showers and loos, and a bigger portacabin for eating.  Home Sweet Home.

And what a country to explore, a story to discover and a challenge to get my teeth into.  I’ll always have time for a spot of writing and farm shopping in leafy Hampshire during my weeks back in the UK.  And I can enjoy the fevered anticipation (trepidation) waiting to find out just what entrepreneurial ‘project’ my husband comes up with this time.  And whether we’ll have space for it in the garage.

 

 

 

Poacher-turned-gamekeeper

Article published in Pen And Sword Club magazine March 2013.

‘Poacher-turned-gamekeeper’, ‘spy’, ‘Colonel meeja’…the nicknames were endless.

It may not have been the most conventional role for a journalist but the contradictions between my recent operational post and my day job are what made it challenging, rewarding, fascinating and occasionally infuriating all on a daily basis.

I was mobilised from my job as Deputy Foreign News editor at Sky News and deployed to Kabul for five months to create the role of Media Advisor to the ISAF Deputy Commander (and commander of British forces in Afghanistan), Lt Gen Adrian Bradshaw then Lt Gen Nick Carter.  Privy at the highest level to the most sensitive information and thinking, input to some of the most important decisions on the campaign and a close working relationship with the most influential military figures in the British Army today.  The kind of access and headline-rich environment a journalist could only dream of.  But a privilege and situation which with my military hat on meant careful management of those potential stories, anticipating how my alter-ego might interpret the campaign’s every move and decision and turn them into news.

People always think the hardest part of sitting in the no-man’s land between the media and the military must be to adhere to the Official Secrets Act and resist the temptation to ‘make’ my hack’s career on a scandal or sensitive information that I’ve acquired during military service.  The reality is that’s relatively easy – a decision when I first joined the TA that the line would never be crossed and classified information and behaviour shared on trust stayed just that.  And, contrary to popular belief, integrity is a quality valued in journalists and service personnel alike.

What is far harder is reconciling what are two very different, independent, antiquated and stubborn professions and institutions and attempting to get them to work in a more collaborative and less combative way;  a task which is all the more difficult when under operational pressure and tempo.

The military is all about discipline, protocols and the chain of command.  There are drills for everything.  God help you if you put a comma or tab in the wrong place in a Fragmentary Order, Warning Order, Operational Order or any other kind of ‘service writing’.  Every type of briefing has a format and powerpoint is a must, with a gold star if you can include flow charts.  Officer cadets spend half their first term at Sandhurst marching back and forth across a drill square at 140 paces a minute in painstakingly bulled boots.  But it is exactly that regimented way of life that makes the British Army one of the best in the world.

Journalism on the other hand is about thinking laterally, finding the point of view others have not considered.  It means questioning authority, exposing imperfections and mistakes, and where the military is concerned, making sure nothing uttered by senior commanders is taken at face value or left unchallenged.  Your writing and style are your signature.  And the idea that any briefing or report should require anything other than your magnetic storytelling or charisma – let alone follow a dictated structure – is abhorrent.  Mention powerpoint to a journalist and you’ll have them running for the hills.

So when the two come together it can be fairly interesting.

The sceptical glances I got initially as a journalist ‘in advisor’s clothing’ disappeared early on.  I would like to think that it was because people realised I was a professional and started to believe that it is possible to be a journalist and still have a modicum of integrity.  I think it’s more likely though that they thought that if I was put there somebody somewhere must have trusted me and at the end of the day I might actually be useful if I could shed some light on this ‘meeja’ lark.

One of my closest allies was a colleague working on the very opposite end of the information spectrum.  That caused a few eyebrows to be raised until people understood that in order to be prepared for the worst possible leaks and stories in the press, and mitigate against the damage they might cause, I had to be conversant with everything that was going on in the campaign, including and most especially the most sensitive reports, intelligence and decisions – material most likely to cause the most controversy and therefore the most damaging headline if it ever hit the press.

There was a steady stream of stories and incidents to respond to as well as media engagements and embeds to plan and manage for the General.  They were busy months of Insider Attacks, Prince Harry on the front line, the Camp Bastion attack, troop drawdown announcements, not to mention the ISAF commander coming under investigation.  But for me what took the job beyond its media advisor tag and what made it all the more fascinating was that it was all about diplomacy, building and nurturing key relationships and enabling the passage of information to the right people at the right time.  Those relationships outside the military machine – with both the Afghan and international press – were key but ironically more straightforward than those within it.  It was a time-consuming and painstaking process of making sure the various headquarters across Afghanistan were talking to each other and to the Pentagon and to Whitehall, and to the various military institutions in the UK.  And that they were all following the same ‘narrative’, and saying the same thing or would in the event of x, y or z.  And if they weren’t, then finding a compromise they could all agree upon.  And that meant tiptoeing through the different personalities, different agendas as well as coalition and national politics on the one hand, and making sure the UK position was represented in the ISAF decision-making process on the other.

A minefield to negotiate, an exhausting pace and level of pressure and constant demands and questions from three timezones to keep up with.  There were occasions where I breathed a quiet sigh of relief when what I had predicted happened on cue; when advice I had pushed hard was borne out; when risks I had taken to achieve an aim under time pressure paid off.  I hadn’t expected it to be easy; after all I’d agreed to deploy at 24-hours’ notice, to a job that didn’t exist, in the media management of the UK’s most unpopular military campaign in the last century.  But to be privy to decision-making at that level, working with military minds at the top of their game, and battling to bring media and communication considerations to the forefront of military campaign planning was exciting, challenging and rewarding.  I enjoyed it so much I would have stayed on well beyond the end of my tour.  I was given the freedom of manoeuvre to have real impact and use my specialist knowledge and experience to best effect.  I handed over a job which is now firmly on the map and made it one which I think justifies the continued investment in specialists and their deployment to the right jobs, where they can contribute unique skills which the military lacks and add real value.