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. LarryKegel (USA ARMY)

    The only time Israel has killed the Muslin is to protect Themselves!!! Idiots like You that has never been a War wouldn't know that... So until You earn the right to say anything about what Israel did keep Your mouth shut!!! They have the right to Protect Their People as the United States does... Innocent People die in war!!! It is not like what Hitler did to 6 Million Jews and 2 Million Gypsies... That is killing Innocent People!!!

    March 12, 2011 at 11:00 am | Report abuse |
    • ken

      good point. however the way you worded that was wrong.You make it sound like like the jews were not innocent as well. Just saying....

      March 12, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Report abuse |
    • PLO

      Kegel, you have no clue. Israelis don't have the right to even exist in that part of the world.
      For example, why would an American Jew suddenly become an Israeli? Because he's jewish?
      Jews should remain citizens of the countries they belong to and not migrate to Palestine. Palestinian Jews have always lived side by side with Christian and Muslim Palestinians. No reason to stupidly change that!

      March 13, 2011 at 4:56 pm | Report abuse |
  2. greg

    When you put yourself in situations like this then you must prepare yourself for the worst. However if Gadaffi's men harm them then that may be all that is necessary for the US to attack. Several hundred sorties would end his reign of terror. Crush 80% of his military capabilities. My guess is the EU is putting a lot of pressure on the UN and US to wait as the EU is the one that will suffer if the oil and gas flow is stopped not the US.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  3. S.W.

    My neighbor is Libyan, he says that Ghadaffi is killing thousands every day... people in his own tribe. He is traveling back with his sons to fight. I think he would risk his own life a thousand times over again to see Ghadaffi taken down.
    I don't understand why the US decides they need to get involved with these matters. I always remember the quote "The only way for evil to triumph is for good men/women to do nothing." There are truly good people everywhere, why not let them fight for themselves and earn the honor they deserve.
    Then I think that good/evil... rich/poor... honor/dishonor... are all a matter of perspective and classical conditioning. A ghadaffi supporter has been brainwashed, and/or paid, enough to believe and say all kinds of lies beyond reality and even the wildest imagination... especially for the purpose of stirring up hatred West. Lies, deceit, wickedness are all in a days work for a ghadaffian.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:04 am | Report abuse |
  4. Name*valentin ramirez HOUSTON TX.

    What is the UN and the US waiting for to help overthrow Ghadafi? We cant just sit back and watch how they kill civilians !!

    March 12, 2011 at 11:07 am | Report abuse |
  5. Name*valentin ramirez HOUSTON TX.

    Whats the US AND UN waiting for to help overthrow Ghadafi? We cant just sit back and watch how they are killing civilians!!!

    March 12, 2011 at 11:11 am | Report abuse |
  6. greg


    I am so disappointed with our government specially with our president. I know that starting some sort of military aid to the people of Libia is politically risky and unwise but is the right thing to do. He can not preach for freedom and democracy in the world and stay away from the struggle from all this Arab countries. Now that is very popular to justify wars elsewhere in the name of national security I deeply believe that dictators like Gadafi are a threath to it. They are the ones that oppress their people in the name of Western interests. More freedom and Democracy in Lybia would evolve in a world safer for Lybians , Americans and the whole world.

    So in your UNION EDUCATED MIND the Middle East and Northern Africa we're once thriving free societies?

    March 12, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  7. HelenHull102951

    One has to ask why are you there besides giving Obama and our allies another reason to send troops to yet another middle-east country that we have no bussiness interfereing with their problems?? Shame on you for being spies for this government, if they had killed you or made political prisoners of you this gov would just blow you off like they did the POW's in Veit Nam. You ought to be ashamed expecting the American people to feel sorry for you. "I DON'T" YOU F'N DUMB-ASSES

    March 12, 2011 at 11:18 am | Report abuse |
  8. Hesham

    Dear Nic Robertson

    Please please please do not leave the taxi driver issue go like this; Saif brought you to Tripoli so you are in charge to call him thousand time if required and ask him to release him, he's just a poor man gave you a ride for 5 L.D to make living with his family..... you know how monsters Gaddafii's mafia are, and you can't image what they can do for him ... please please insist and fight to get him released ...

    March 12, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  9. Rich

    LOL! This entire article is such a propagandist whack job. This guy went in with a personal vendetta against Ghadafi and is trying to concoct a story to make it seem as though he should be untouchable in Libya's civil war and the fact that he got manhandled now warrants a US invasion. That's what happens when you go into warzones FOOL. It would have served him right if he got SHOT IN THE HEAD. He got away with his life and is still complaining.

    First of all how come I don't see this guy so emphatically denouncing what the Israelis do when they're mowing down Americans and Palestinian homes.

    Secondly why should Ghadafi's loyalists show you any love since your purpose there is to take him down in the guise of a reporter. I've been watching the CNN reports and it's gone beyond reporting to actual propaganda. One doesn't have to have love for Ghadafi to see that THE OPPOSITION IS NOT UNARMED CIVILIANS.

    If Ghadafi was doing what occurred in Srebrenicia or Bosnia and just slaughtering unarmed civilian like sheep then one could justify a course of action that kills the perpetrators, but these are Libyans fighting amongst themselves and not against the US.

    The minute a foreigner who is NOT Libyan chooses to kill one of two opposing sides he incurs the greivance of the side he efffed with and now starts an UNNECESSARY chain of events like we're now going through with Iran for efffing with it in 1953.
    There is no LAW that says in a war both sides must be evenly equipped and that we're obligated to make that happen. If that were the case we would have carpet bombed Israel decades ago. Just because you support one side doesn't give you the right as an outsider to kill people on the side you don't support. How would you feel if during the US Civil War a foreign country with the same ideology as the south sided with the confederacy and attacked the Union troops.


    March 12, 2011 at 11:23 am | Report abuse |
  10. DL

    Grace, amazingly accurate synopsis. THANK YOU! Nic, thank you. It takes courage to do what you do. I am so sorry for the lesson learned in such a tragic way. My heart goes out to you, your crew and the cabbie and his family. Safe journeys to you all.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:27 am | Report abuse |
  11. Lee Oates

    The dumbing down of America becomes clearer everyday. The absolute absurdity and ignorance of many of the comments here (pro-Gadhafi) show the lack of compassion and general ignorance of the general population. Real people are dying in Libya in an attempt to gain some sense of Freedom, and these mindless, undeducated, wastes of human space, make cruel jokes about their deaths and racist comments. Sad country the states have become.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  12. norcalmojo

    I'm no fan of Gadhafi, but this is straight up propaganda.

    I think they were treated pretty fairly.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:36 am | Report abuse |
  13. GBUSH3

    We need the Gadhafi gang to start kidnapping CNN journalists,especially American citizens. That is the best way to push Obama's government to start getting more "robust" with Gadhafi.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:37 am | Report abuse |
    • acutemind

      It's always funny when someone come up here posting like they've found the "ticket", the "formula" the way to magically make things happen they way they want. How are those U.S. hikers in Iran doing by the way?

      March 13, 2011 at 4:43 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Kim

    Also, I feel for the journalists who were captured. I can't imagine how terrifying that must have been. I'm glad they're safe now. My heart goes out to the taxi driver and his family 🙁 I hope he will also be released, know...I doubt he will..

    March 12, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  15. michael vergara

    Its time for the world powers to stop bs'ing and take out this tyrant. We need to send in a single sniper and put gadhafi down.the time for action is now! This is only one account we have heard about, imagine the rest of the horror stories that we may never hear.
    Mike V.

    March 12, 2011 at 11:46 am | Report abuse |
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