Captives freed; lessons learned

New York Times reporter Tyler Hicks speaking to Columbia Journalism School students. Photo by Benjamin Preston.

By Benjamin Preston

Just 10 days after they were released from captivity in Libya, four New York Times correspondents shared behind-the-scenes stories and lessons learned with students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism Thursday evening. Although their tales of being roughed up by thuggish Libyan soldiers wowed the audience, they had a somber message: their driver is likely dead because they went too far.

The four correspondents, who were held for six days by Col. Muammar Qaddafi’s Libyan forces, are two photojournalists, Lynsey Addario and Tyler Hicks, and two reporters, Stephen Farrell and Anthony Shadid. They were released to a Turkish diplomat by Libyan authorities on March 21.

“The last time I saw Mohammed was when he was sitting in the driver’s seat next to me,” said Hicks of their 21-year-old driver, adding that Mohammed’s family has endured much anguish since his disappearance.

Although his death has not been confirmed, the young driver is believed to have been killed in the firefight that occurred when the four journalists were captured. They said they had entered eastern Libya without visas, through Egypt, in order to gain access to the fighting that journalists stationed in the Libyan capital of Tripoli were not able to see. The government there has kept tight control over media.

Reflecting, the four — all experienced war correspondents — pointed out to Columbia’s journalism students that states with an intact bureaucratic infrastructure take visas and restrictions very seriously. What saved them, said Shadid, was the Qaddafi regime’s pretensions of still-existent state control in Tripoli. “A state does not execute journalists,” he said.

All four described their treatment by Qaddafi henchmen as brutal. Hit in the heads and torsos with rifles and fists, they were blindfolded and thrown into the back of a pickup truck. Taken on a six hour ride to an airport, they received arbitrary beatings at checkpoints along the way.

“I saw Lynsey get punched in the face,” said Hicks, who could see through a small gap in his blindfold. Hicks also received blows.

After a long drive and a short flight, Farrell — who was kidnapped by the Taliban and rescued during a daring raid by British commandos in 2009 — recalled ending up in a stately building decorated with portraits of Arab Stallions. Leaving the rough company they’d been subjected to on the way to Tripoli, he said that in town, he met Libyan diplomats who quoted Yeats…correctly.

Despite the fact that she was repeatedly groped by captors, Addario said she intends to return to
work, adding that with the U.S. government committing arms, intelligence officers and possibly
troops to the rebellion, the American public has the need to know what is happening on the ground. Hicks and Shadid also plan to return, but Farrell indicated that he needs to sleep on it.

“I’m not going to make any decisions too quickly,” he said. “I’ve danced with the devil too many
times.”

While agreeing with the notion that there is no story worth dying for, the quartet of journos also pointed out that “mission creep,” or a tendency to be driven to overrun safety boundaries once out in the field, is a big risk of working in a conflict environment.

“Covering these places is serious,” said Hicks. “We all have friends who were killed in the field.”

With respect to missing driver Mohammed, they said that although it’s difficult to find drivers willing to work under such dangerous circumstances, the ones who end up volunteering really want to do it. Addario said that drivers and translators who step forward to work with journalists do so because of a genuine belief that the story should be told.

“We have to live with the burden that the decisions we made may have gotten someone killed,” said Shadid.

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