Robertson: Gadhafi thugs grabbed me and my crew
CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson has been covering the situation in Libya.
March 11th, 2011
08:44 PM ET

Robertson: Gadhafi thugs grabbed me and my crew

CNN Senior International Correspondent Nic Robertson and his crew were detained Friday in Tajura, Libya, east of Tripoli by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi. This is his account.

For a few moments today, for us personally, Libya’s lies and deceit were swept aside and the real deal was brutally exposed.

“Itla, itla” - "Get in the car, get in the car!" - he was screaming. My cameraman, Khalil Abdallah, and I hesitated for a split-second. But that's all it was.

We were staring down the barrel of an AK-47, the weapon was jumping in his hands. He was cocking it, wrenching the handle back, a bullet being slammed into the firing chamber.

It was only a split-second.

We are free to go anywhere, any time, talk to who we want, when we want. That's what Moammar Gadhafi’s son told me, that's what Libya told the U.N. We already knew it was all lies - look at any number of our colleagues, arrested, detained, in some cases, beaten - but today it came home to us personally.

The hyper-aggressive jerk with the gun had just hit the jackpot.

There was him and three others. They were grabbing us, bundling us towards their pickup truck. He had a pistol in his belt, one of the others kept his AK trained on us too, and an older guy with the grey beard was speed-dialing his phone.

These are Gadhafi’s enforcers. They were looking for us.`

As Khalil and I were pushed through the car doors, clambering over the body armor these thugs had strewn over the seats, I could see the rest of our team try to drive away.

We got to Tajura in a random taxi that had picked us up as we walked down a street. Now it was the best hope producer Tommy Evans had to get away and report our detention.

But it was too late. They'd been spotted, blocked, and stopped, and as I watched, Tommy was forced out of the car, kicked by another thug who already had his AK pointed at Tommy’s face.

Another member of this plainclothes security force pulled open our car door, started rifling through my pockets. Patting me down about as aggressively as he could. There was nothing we could do.

They were demanding our phones, asking where was our camera.

They'd only just got hold of us. This was no accidental arrest, no fortunate stumbling across a news team. They had planned this all along.

We were trying to cover Friday prayers on the same streets where last week police attacked protesters firing tear gas and live rounds. Now it was clear they were out in force.

The questions began. "Where are you from? Where are you from?" It seemed they didn’t quite know what to do with us.

"We are going to cuff you and we are going to throw you out of the country," the angry thug with the AK and pistol was shouting at us. Then the guy on the phone got orders. The press office would pick us up.

They'd known all along who to call - the government officials who'd invited us to the country. We parked by the roadside. No chance to call CNN head office; they had our phones now.

But much worse, they were bringing the innocent taxi driver with us. He'd done nothing more than give us a ride. He had no idea he might get in to trouble. The poor fellow looked increasingly nervous.

Not much younger than me, he probably has a family waiting for him. We felt terrible for him. But there was nothing we could do to protect him. Our camera was on the floor of his car, our kit in his trunk.

In the eyes of these government heavies, our taxi driver was guilty by association. But guilty of what, what had we done? Nothing - we'd not even shot a single picture. No interviews, nothing, just driven in to a neighborhood with an anti-government reputation.

The gunmen were smoking, bored now that the thrill of the chase was over. They called again: "Where was the ride to take us back to the hotel?" The answer: "We're busy, bring them in yourself."

Amid screeching tires and the stench of burning rubber needlessly ground into the tarmac, we took off. A final indignity for these hard men, they'd got the mundane job of delivering us back to government officials.

The violent invective started again. "You should go to Palestine and film what the Israelis are doing. You should leave Libya, go to Afghanistan, report what’s happening there," "Libya mia mia," repeating a chant we’ve heard many times, meaning Libya 100%.

We were screaming down the highway close to 100 mph, the radio blasting out a Gadhafi anthem, the driver pumping out the beat with his fist in the air. One-handed driving at its most worrying.

At the hotel gates, the realization we weren't alone, the realization of why the Libyan government press office had no spare vehicles to pick us up.

Dozens of other journalists like us were being brought in under armed guard, signed over to our minders. One was OK about our detention, claiming, "You know if you are there they will protest; if you don't go nothing will happen."

Of course, the protests began long before the government allowed in reporters, but that kind of logic carries no weight here.

Another official waiting for us, one I'd not seen before, was more aggressive, telling cameraman Khalil: "If you’ve shot anything, I'm going to take you to the airport and deport you."

It took a long time to convince him Khalil hadn't shot any footage. Some journalists we talked to were inside the mosque when they were arrested. How they got out of that threat, I don’t know.

But right now we had only one concern: our taxi driver. We pleaded for his release –by now he could barely speak - but we were ignored.

He was stuttering and trembling as they stuffed him in his car and drove him away.

I still don’t know what’s happened to him. Our ordeal is over, but I fear his may only just be beginning.

That’s the reality of life here under Gadhafi’s rule.

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Filed under: Libya
soundoff (616 Responses)
  1. Kirk Harrington

    Gadhafi is really showing his true colors by brutalizing his own people. I think its sad that the Arab League and international community are 'dragging their heels' in helping these poor people out with military intervention (particularly a no fly zone). Inaction seems to be only giving courage to Gadhafi to continue the violence. This man's days must end and the people of Libya must be allowed to rule their own country. Hats off to the brave reporters (like Nic Robertson and his crew) that are braving this and risking their lives to deliver us this news. Thanks so much...we love you!

    March 12, 2011 at 6:16 am | Report abuse |
    • CrystalAng3121

      Ghadafi is crazy. Literally, he had psychological issues. It's like he lives in a state of delusion. Even my friends who are from Middle-Eastern and northern African countries know he's crazy. He doesn't care about his people. At least Mubarak cared enough and had enough sense to eventually step down.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:30 am | Report abuse |
  2. Jeff

    Just because you are from CNN, doesn't give you a free pass and NOT part of the game when in their country. It would be nice to see some journalists killed when they go into regions like this and actually observe and experience the realities of the world. Just because here in America we have "Freedom of the press" Doesn't mean other countries need to observe that rule.

    March 12, 2011 at 6:21 am | Report abuse |

      You said, "it would be nice......". I can't believe you would glorify a statement like that.

      March 12, 2011 at 7:05 am | Report abuse |
    • bamafan

      Seriously, you would someone to die for their job? What kind of person says something like that? Are you willing to die for your job? I think you need to take a step back and realize that a life is a valueable thing, it should not be wasted, for something so meaningless as a job.

      March 12, 2011 at 8:17 am | Report abuse |
    • Observer

      Some are willing to die for their job... and many do. Semper Fi

      March 12, 2011 at 8:52 am | Report abuse |
  3. ls

    guess you don't get it Nick, but nobody is going to get involved in this should'nt heve either!

    March 12, 2011 at 6:28 am | Report abuse |
  4. Chris

    How is this news? Does the reporter want to be glorified? I laugh at the sensationalism of this article.
    Come into my 'hood' here in NYC looking different and I guarantee you that you will be grabbed and
    wanting to speed out of our 'warzone'. LOL

    March 12, 2011 at 6:45 am | Report abuse |
  5. GnatB

    The U.S. of A. has a possible revolution every 4 years, and a mandatory one every 8. They're called elections and term limits.

    That being said, I have been rather... amused.. not quite the right word, as it implies some amount of levity, which is totally inappropriate for the situation, but it'll work... myself how the narrative has gone from "peaceful protesters" to "armed opposition" to "outright civil war". I rather suspect the transition to "armed opposition" happened far earlier on in the timeline of events than the media has reported, with probably a lot less actual "shooting of innocent protesters" than has been reported. Seems... unlikely... that after the first reports of attacking protesters the protesters would still be meekly standing around waiting to get shot again without planning some means of defending themselves.

    March 12, 2011 at 6:49 am | Report abuse |
  6. shane

    as long as its only muslims dying who cares the more the merrier

    March 12, 2011 at 7:00 am | Report abuse |
    • Andy

      Shane, That's not right!
      Muslims are people like you and me!
      Please leave your hate out of this... It only gives Americans a bad name!

      March 12, 2011 at 11:12 am | Report abuse |
    • CrystalAng3121


      What you said is dehumanizing and in reasoning like that you become no better than the people you're fighting against. Why should anyone care if you or anyone with your religious affiliation are slaughtered? The more the merrier, right.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:40 am | Report abuse |
    • norcalmojo

      Crude way to put it, but I have to agree, it's a bit like watching a knife fight between the KKK and the Aryan Nation.

      March 12, 2011 at 12:19 pm | Report abuse |

    This maybe an unpopular opinion but I believe the news crew entered a combat zone and did so at their own risk. I will not announce blame on the crew that 'they caused their own mischief' but my point is, 'they placed themselves in harm's way'. Moreover, I believe we have no business in this civil war. I have fresh reminders of Bush's deceit to justify the wars in Afgan and Iraq.

    March 12, 2011 at 7:02 am | Report abuse |
    • Andy


      March 12, 2011 at 11:15 am | Report abuse |
    • lorne

      Ridiculous post.
      The job of reporters is to go into a war zone, often putting themselves in harms way, and REPORT what is happening on the ground. Usually the only way the truth gets out is by the reporters from various countries telling it like it is, and not like the Govt. in power spins it.
      I'll put you down as a Libyan from Gaddafis tribe.

      March 12, 2011 at 11:22 am | Report abuse |
  8. Sherpa

    Kiran, Betty and Alina are HOT goddesses..!!!

    March 12, 2011 at 7:06 am | Report abuse |
  9. Ethan

    They knew what they were getting into when they went to Libya, still sad though.

    March 12, 2011 at 7:07 am | Report abuse |
  10. JBYJ

    2012 is shaping up, there will be no place spared on this planet. Welcome to the world's next mass extinction!

    March 12, 2011 at 7:22 am | Report abuse |
    • Annie

      Oh, Good grief!

      March 12, 2011 at 10:24 am | Report abuse |
  11. Patricia

    Thank you, brave journalists. Please keep your wits and mind clear and leave if you must: your stories have reached millions. Bless you from back here in Atlanta, home of CNN and brave souls like you.

    March 12, 2011 at 7:22 am | Report abuse |
  12. Andy G

    I bet a large amount of money you are one of those muppets that sits behind a desk preaching extremism at all and sundry with a click of a button. If that was your family being tortured, abused and threatened would you have the balls to do something about itt? Doesnt sound like it to me. I wonder what country you are actually in? Let me guess US of A where you can reap the rewards of a democracy. Your english is very good too...hmmm...who spent the money looking after your education? Something that Libyans do not have the luxury of. Let me guess also i bet you believe Sharia Law is the way of the future? Being from the UK it is fascinating how people like you preach from a country that gave you safe haven. How about you start sorting out your own countries instead of running away and leaving the big boys to do the job for you. If I had bumped into....well..lets just say you would rather that didnt you might find yourself being driven straight back to the airport and returned from whence you came.

    March 12, 2011 at 7:42 am | Report abuse |
    • @andy G

      Libyan have the highest quality of life in all of Africa...of course there is poverty everywhere though. Get your facts straight.

      March 12, 2011 at 9:32 am | Report abuse |
    • Andy G

      @ anonymous person who cannot read....

      who on earth said anything about quality of life? but since you mentioned it i can see quite clearly that libyans have a fantastic quality of life – so clearly they are kicking off because they are bored! What an imbecile!

      March 12, 2011 at 12:32 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Joe

    pics or it didnt happen....

    March 12, 2011 at 7:57 am | Report abuse |
  14. dore

    notice how cowardly the Obama administration is.. and with all the talk.. the USA sits doing nothing.. but talk, talk and more talk. Look back to WWII when jews were being herded into death camps- the then democratic president knew what was happening- but.. again.. no decisive action.. We know what is happening in Libya right now.. but.. still talk, talk, talk and more talk.. isnt this the same guy that wrote a book about hope? Sad.. we've become a nation of cowards.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:08 am | Report abuse |
  15. Karol grant

    Tisk Tisk Nic Robertson,you and the rest of your altruistic crew should know better than going all the way over to Libya to wink wink cover "Morning Prayers" No wonder you were detained.

    March 12, 2011 at 8:12 am | Report abuse |
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