By the time I got to Bani Walid’s hospital, it had already been liberated.
Graffiti covered the walls outside and rebel soldiers were stepping onto a hanging carpet of Moammar Qaddafi, placed on the floor, so anyone entering the hospital would have to step on the dictator’s face.
I was alone at first, walking through the corridors, looking for things to photograph. This was my third trip to Libya during the war and nothing struck me as unique or different about this place. I’d seen hundreds of scenes like this. I rarely lifted my camera.
As far as I know, I was the only western journalist seen on the ground in Bani Walid that day. People I met were surprised. Not because I was there. But because nobody else was.
Bani Walid, two hours south of Tripoli, was not expected to fall so quickly. It has good natural defenses, fortified high on a hill overlooking a valley below. Loyalist snipers had no problem holding rebels back. They could hit them from up to a kilometer away. Rumor also had it that Qaddafi’s son and heir apparent, Seif al-Islam, was leading the defense of the city, boosting the morale of loyalist brigades.
Much of the attention–military and media–was concentrated on Sirte, Qaddafi’s hometown and the place where he would make his final stand. The National Transitional Council had announced that Sirte’s fall would mark the end of the war, regardless of what happened in Bani Walid or the whereabouts of Qaddafi and his family.
I had reached Bani Walid through the owner of my hotel. He was also a rebel, and had been driving ammunition back and forth to his friends on the front. He had asked me why there were no other media there that day. I did not have the heart to tell him–his friends were bleeding there–but the truth was Bani Walid was not a priority for the media.
First of all, it was dangerous. On top of the loyalists’ advantage, the city was spread out, big streets, with buildings far apart, which didn’t provide much cover. Which meant, for example, if you were a western security adviser and your job was to evaluate the risk of sending a crew there, why would you? Sirte was more important and far safer. More importantly, to a photographer, Sirte was far more photogenic. Up close, street by street, urban bang-bang makes better pictures. I shot the fighting there myself a week before. The only reason I went to Bani Walid that day was that it was close to Tripoli and my man at the hotel could take me there in a few hours.
So I lied. I just told the hotel owner I didn’t know why there were no other western media in Bani Walid.
Inside the hospital, there were health posters on the wall. They reminded me of those I’d seen in the hospital in Yifren, an Amazigh rebel town in the Nafusa mountains. They advised women to breast feed and there was an illustration showing how. Some conservative-minded rebel had gone around with a black marker pen and censored the nipple and the breast. This time, though, the building was still fresh. It had only been in the hands of rebels a few hours at most and, other than the carpet, I couldn’t see any details worth shooting. Until I reached the mortuary.
At first I didn’t really understand, but a stranger handed me a face mask and I took it before crossing the courtyard into the morgue. I realized why when the smell hit me. There were maybe ten bodies inside and they had been there for days, flies were everywhere, some of them didn’t look human, just lumps of dark stench.
It doesn’t matter how hard you think you are, how professional, when the smell of death hits your nostrils like that, you have to retch.
It took me three trips of going in, going out, retching, going in again, before I managed to make a photograph of a body. Young guy, rebel, flies around, but not too gory for newspaper picture editors. I went outside to retch. There was a group of young rebel soldiers in the courtyard. They walked into mortuary, came out and fell to pieces. They just broke down. Crying. Men, soldiers, revolutionaries, weeping, screaming, punching walls.
I spoke to a young man. The young dead rebel body inside was their friend. One of their brigade. He’d been missing for days, they didn’t know where he was, or what condition he was in. Now, they knew.
A bearded man tried to boost morale, standing in the middle of the courtyard he shouted “Martyr, martyr,” and fired his Kalashnikov in the air. Other, older, men joined him. The young men just stayed put, crying.
The older men went back into the morgue wrapped up the body in a sheet and took him outside. The body was placed on the tarmac and the older men gave him a gun salute, flashed the V for victory sign and shouted the takbir: “Allah akhbar, Allah akhbar.”
After a few minutes, the men placed him on the back of a Toyota. He was taken away to be buried. In 48 hours, Qaddafi would be dead and there would be other things for these young men to talk about.
In the wake of the euphoric end to the fighting, it’s easy to overlook the cost of what these soldiers have seen. This was a revolution, sure. But also a civil war, with winners and losers. Their sacrifice has inspired their fellow Libyans–the heroic fodder from which a new national narrative can be constructed. But the next chapter–the one in which the country will either move forward, balancing justice and reconciliation, or slide into chaos–will surely be the most important.
I got a lift back to Tripoli that afternoon with some young rebels. They were quiet, somber. They played Feiruz, a Lebanese singer whose mellow sound is customarily played in the morning in the Arab world. I asked, why Fairuz in the afternoon?
After Bani Walid, they said, they wanted to listen to something calm and mellow. We stopped in a field so they could fire off some rounds with their rifles. I had never really understood that practice before, but did now. Unlike me, these guys had no cold beer or girlfriend waiting for them back home. Firing the gun was their release. It made them feel powerful again, reminded them that they were once boys and now were men.
I asked what they were going to do now. One had worked in a factory before the revolution said he would start again soon, maybe even tomorrow.
I asked if that would be weird. He said he wanted to. Besides, he told me, he had his gun.
“I can always come out again if my country needs me.”