Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Ordeal ends for 4 Captive Hacks; Firefights and Shelling continue in Libya

UPDATE: A cautionary tale of Libya. The brutal captivity of the New York Times Four, as told by themselves. A must-read.

The dangers of the pursuit of journalism are underlined in an op-ed piece in today's New York Times. After the paper's four captive journalists in Libya were released to a Turkish envoy and then drove out through Tunisia, some details of their ordeal are trickling out. It was a hellish five days for these pros, who were caught behind enemy lines at a pro-Gaddafi checkpoint, nearly executed, and detained incommunicado for several days. Their driver is still unaccounted for. Photographer Lynsey Addario, small in stature but tough in outlook, recounted some of the harrowing events: she was subjected to sexual mauling and whispered threats. Taylor Hicks also spoke about their travails. More details surely will be forthcoming as the writers, Anthony Shadid and Stephen Farrell, pen their narratives. They are relatively lucky: the Committee to Protect Journalists reminds us that at least 852 journalists have been killed on the job since 1992. Exceprts from the Times:

As they were being pulled from the car, rebels fired on the checkpoint, sending the four running for their lives.

“You could see the bullets hitting the dirt,” Mr. Shadid said.

All four made it safely behind a small, one-room building, where they tried to take cover. But the soldiers had other plans. They told all four to empty their pockets and ordered them on the ground. And that is when they thought they were seconds from death.

“I heard in Arabic, ‘Shoot them,’ ” Mr. Shadid said. “And we all thought it was over.”

Then another soldier spoke up. “One of the others said: ‘No, they’re American. We can’t shoot them,’ ” Mr. Hicks said.

The soldiers grabbed whatever they could get their hands on to tie up their prisoners: wire, an electrical cord from a home appliance, a scarf. One removed Ms. Addario’s shoes, pulled out the laces and used them to bind her ankles. Then one punched her in the face and laughed.

“Then I started crying,” she recalled. “And he was laughing more.” One man grabbed her breasts, the beginning of a pattern of disturbing behavior she would experience from her captors over the next 48 hours.

“There was a lot of groping,” she said. “Every man who came in contact with us basically felt every inch of my body short of what was under my clothes.”

Their captors held them in Ajdabiya until the fighting with the rebels died down. Soldiers put the four in a vehicle and drove them out of the city around 2 a.m. One threatened to decapitate Mr. Hicks. Another stroked Ms. Addario’s head and told her repeatedly she was going to die.

“He was caressing my head in this sick way, this tender way, saying: ‘You’re going to die tonight. You’re going to die tonight,’ ” she said.

On the third day they were on the move again, this time to an airfield. Mr. Shadid, who speaks Arabic, had overheard one of the soldiers saying something about a plane, and the four assumed they would be flown somewhere. As they were loaded on the plane they were blindfolded and their hands were bound tightly with plastic handcuffs.

“I could hear Anthony at this point yelling ‘Help me!’ ” Mr. Hicks said, “which I learned later was because he had no feeling in his hands.” In a rare show of mercy, a soldier loosened the cuffs.

They landed on Thursday in Tripoli, where they were handed over to Libyan defense officials. They were transferred to a safe house, where they said they were treated well. They were each allowed a brief phone call.
That was the first time since their capture two and a half days earlier that their whereabouts became known to their families and colleagues at The Times.

Their disappearance had kicked off an intensive search effort. The Times canvassed hospitals and morgues, beginning a grim process-of-elimination search. The paper also turned to a variety of people on the ground who might have heard or seen something — local residents, security contractors for Western businesses, workers for nongovernmental organizations. It also notified American diplomats.

Three days of diplomatic wrangling ensued, followed by allied airstrikes. The ugly incident shows some of the difficulties of the 24/7 news cycle, when rolling deadlines make it difficult to determine how long to stay in order to cover unfolding news. This unfortunate quartet survived.

Flash: Getty photographer Joe Raedle, and two wire journalists from Agence France Presse, Dave Clark and Roberto Schmidt, had been missing for three days. They were captured by Libyan loyalist troops and were also released in Tripoli tonight.

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